I didn’t intend to stay at home with my children. I knew that I had student loans to pay off. But what I didn’t know was that the birth of my first child would nearly kill me. After 72 hours of labor, emergency surgery, a blood transfusion, and a bill approaching $100,000, I emerged from the hospital as a traumatized shell of my former self. I became hell-bent on providing my sweet little miracle with everything he could possibly need. When my 12-week maternity leave drew to a close, I turned to a parenting book to ease my transition back into work.
The book scared me: “Don’t go back to work unless you hate your child and want him to get arrested before his 13th birthday.” This warning may have grown a bit more dramatic with memory, but the inestimable Dr. Sears adamantly advised parents to avoid out-of-home child care at all costs.
So I did avoid it. I worked nightly at Trader Joes, stocking shelves, to supplement my husband’s university income. We are not wealthy people. But after a year, my decision to stay home became less of a choice. The financial crisis of 2007 made jobs and raises difficult to come by. By the time we had our second child, the country had settled into a deep depression. My husband and I didn’t have the earning power to afford $24,000 in annual childcare costs on top of our mortgage and other living expenses.
The number of stay-at-home moms is increasing for the first time in years— and not because every woman has become a wealthy, healthy “yummy mummy.” The Shriver Report is observing the increase in stay-at-home moms with alarm, noting that it’s a failure of wages keeping up with inflation that has led my time out of the workforce. “In spite of educational gains, the share of stay-at-home mothers living in poverty has more than doubled since 1970,” explains the report. Although 30% of women who stay at home are doing so as an affluent lifestyle choice, many more are just trying to survive.
A third of the women who stay home with their children live in poverty. Nearly half don’t have High School diplomas.And many more are like me, falling into the gap where paying for childcare exceeds the salary of one working parent. We just can’t win.
Staying at home has long-term implications. Social Security payments decrease in retirement for women with fewer earning years, and women with a shorter work history lack the retirement plans and pensions to support them in old age. One blog calculated the loss in retirement money at more than $700,000 over a woman’s lifetime– and that’s not including lost salary! Seven years into my stay-at-home journey, my husband has tens of thousands of dollars in his state-sponsored retirement plan. I have about $2,200 in a Money Market Account– an amount that will last me two months when I retire. Increasing wages would make a huge difference—not just for me and other stay-at-home-moms, but for all workers.
The parents I hang out with at the playground don’t wear Lululemon. We’ve got Old Navy spandex covering our butts– and our kids eat snacks from generic Ziploc bags. Stay-at-home dads go to my neighborhood playground, too, portioning out Food-Lion-store-brand Cheerios into their toddlers’ grubby fingers. In between pushes on the swings, the parents talk about job opportunities, dream about going back to college, and compare budgets to glean knowledge from whoever has learned to squeeze the most out of a dime.