Staying home versus opting out, and the role of social class

I ran into a lengthy article about the pitfalls of the stay-at-home career.The author stayed home with her 2 kids, trading her journalism career for freelance work. Now divorced with kids nearing college age, she is broke and trying to get her career back on track, with little success. Meanwhile, her ex-husband, who is also a journalist, is experiencing great levels of success at his career. She states that, while she loved staying home with her kids, she is not sure that it was ultimately worth it, and that she would advise new mothers to choose a different route.

I understand and appreciate her argument. However, I would like to offer a different perspective. For today’s post, I will focus on my personal experiences with staying home. In tomorrow’s post, I will turn to my concerns and insights related directly to Katy Read’s article and argument.

Arne Kalleberg distinguishes between good jobs and bad jobs. Good jobs are the type that Ms. Read had post-kids: solid, good paying, with a clear career ladder, benefits, and security. Bad jobs are the type she had as a stay-at-home mom: shaky, with low wages, little security or room for advancement, lacking in benefits. Bad jobs are on the upswing in our country.

My personal tale is one from inside the world of bad jobs. My husband and I got married in 1995, and had our first baby at the end of 1996. My husband was transitioning from the economically tumultuous world of front-of-house restaurant work to (we thought) the steady path of automotive repair. He took out a loan for an expensive but fast private automotive school, and did really well at it. However, the real-life work of the mechanic was different, and he went through a series of jobs before getting out and going back to the restaurant biz. We decided that I would stay home for the first year and then re-evaluate. When my little guy was 9 months old, I went back to work.
Oh, I haven’t told you about my path. I was working in retail management when I got pregnant. I started the job as a part time sales associate before I got married and moved up to assistant manager within the first year or so. And then our store closed, and I went to work at another store, with a 40 mile commute. I think the closure was sometime between the marriage and the pregnancy. I worked up until I was 8 months pregnant. Then I started having blood pressure issues and stopped working. Because I missed some paperwork, I was denied sick pay, and denied maternity pay. I did have really good insurance through my crappy retail job though, so the birth was nearly covered.

So, why did I decide to stay home? A few reasons. First of all, I had read a lot about how much a mom’s (yes,it was the 1990s, and it was assumed if a parent was staying home, it was the mom) income really amounted to, when figuring in child care costs, transportation, and convenience factors. My salary was low, and it would have been hard to justify the 40 mile commute on top of child care. Although we did move closer after the baby was born, it was still 40-50 miles round trip per workday.

I was also a product of my time. I am a Gen Xer, and many of my cohort have chosen to stay home, due to memories and experiences as the latch key kid generation. I was never a latch key kid, but I was the youngest of 9 kids, and never had much of a relationship with my mom. I wanted it to be different for my kids. I wanted to be fully present for them.

(Obviously I wasn’t thinking about all three of these guys when I made my decision, but you get the point).
I knew this wouldn’t be so easy in my current career track.

The job I had during pregnancy had a very easily identified pay scale. A person could be a part time sales associate. There was no such thing as a full time sales associate in this firm. The next step up was to assistant manager, which was an hourly position. The hourly wage was higher than sales, but not to living wage, I don’t think. Remember this was nearly 20 years ago, so I don’t remember exact facts and figures. Assistant managers usually worked 37 hours per week. During busy seasons, we might work more and get a little bit of overtime. Holidays were paid at time and a half. The next step up was manager. It involved a pay bump, but now the worker was salaried and so was encouraged to work 44 hours per week. When overtime was needed, it was encouraged that the manager do it, since she was salaried and would not affect the bottom line. I seem to remember my boss trying to skirt a line as a single mother. She was an assistant manager who got her day care covered by a state grant. When she was promoted to manager, she negotiated her salary with that in mind, because her new position would push her just over the line set by the state, and she would lose her child care benefits. So, she wanted to make enough from her promotion that she didn’t go backwards. I think the salary was in the $30,000 range, for a 44-hour per week job. There may have been small bonuses at the end of the year if the store did well. The next rung of the ladder was district manager, which brought a person into the $50,000-$60,000 range, but also meant 60-70-hour workweeks with extensive travel to all the stores in the manager’s district. This was a good paying job, but not a family-friendly one.

So, my choices were to stick with the low-paying job and try to work up to the higher-paying one, or drop out. I decided to try the stay-at-home mom gig. I would like to speak to privilege for a minute. First, I acknowledge that I was in a place of tremendous privilege. I had a husband who could make some money and a stable relationship, so I knew he was sticking around for a while. I lived in a state that had really good programs for the poor, and had excellent free resources. I was in walking distance to a library, and was able to live in a ridiculously safe neighborhood on one tiny salary. The opportunity costs for me were pretty low, since my job wasn’t great and I knew I could hop back on with little difficulty a few years down the road.

However, there is another side of privilege. You know those former corporate moms who talk about the parties they go to where they have to deal with the “what do you do?” question by enduring the sneers that come with the answer, “I am a stay-at-home-mom”? This is the privilege I am talking about. Believe me, the same reactions can be found when one says, “I work in retail” or “I am in the restaurant business,” unless the respondent is in high management, a chef, owns the business, or is paying his/her way through school. These choices are not considered life goals. So, in this way, staying home with my kids was a step up. Yes, the money sucked. But! I had full autonomy of my day. I could pursue literary pursuits to my hearts’ content. I got to read up on child development literature like a scholar, and further my understanding of my new career. And, instead of my knowledge going to clothe lady executives (I was working in women’s apparel) and line the pockets of those working in corporate headquarters, my knowledge and experiences were going to shape the next generation of my bloodline. My own offspring, created and incubated by me. If the retail job was the essence of Marx’s alienation of labor, my position as a stay-at-home mom was the empowerment of my labor. I was my own boss, creating my own product (in a sense). And it was important work. During this stage of the 90s, there an upsurge of folks who were telling us kids needed parents at home, and so I was validated for my choices. This was also the period in which I delved into Christian evangelicalism (when pregnant with my second baby), and I received all sorts of confirmation that I was doing the right thing within that genre.

So, I stayed home with my first baby, and it was wonderful. We were ridiculously poor, and my husband’s first (and last) year in the automotive business was downright frightening, with him cycling through 7 jobs with periods of unemployment in between. He finally landed a machinist job that seemed great. It was work he enjoyed and was good at, the pay was good, the company seemed stable. I got a part-time retail job to get out of the house and put some more money into our tiny bank account.

When I was 8 months pregnant with baby #2, my husband’s company had to downsize, and last one hired was the first one fired. So, we now had one toddler and one baby coming soon. My husband needed work fast and so got a job in the restaurant business again. He tried to get back into machining, but he couldn’t find any place that would take him. They all wanted 2 years experience, and he had 6 or 7 months. He went back to the erratic hours of the restaurant world, and this made it quite difficult for me to work even part time, since we couldn’t afford child care for 2. What is more, neither of us would be working 9-5 jobs. If I got back into retail management, this would mean at least 3 nights a week of slogging the babies home from child care after I got off my shift at 9:30 or 10 pm. Not the best environment for young people who need solid sleep routines.

At this point, my husband could definitely make more than me, and I was breastfeeding and the pump intimidated me. So, once again I was home with no outside employment. A few years (and another child) later, I decided to get my bachelor’s degree. College and our situation went hand-in-hand. I was able to devote time to the boys, but still excel in my school. My first two years were done online. My next years took place when they had all reached school age. My classes happened when they were in school. At the same time, since we were already broke, there was no financial decision to wrestle. I wasn’t losing any income to go back to school, nor did I have to figure out how to balance work, school, and family. It was just school and family. Since we were so broke, grants took care of all or nearly all of the cost. Once I reached the four-year college, I took out loans to supplement our income. Thanks to schooling (which maybe I got carried away with, since 8 years later, I am still in school!) I have the potential to move into the middle class upon graduation. Yes, there may have been more direct routes to get there, but I sure did get a lot of time with my kids, while building my career skills by doing it my way. Of course, my way has worked for me, but that doesn’t mean that I think it is the right way for every mom. Families are not monolithic, and we each have to make decisions based on our own circumstances.

So, what is my takeaway? Do I regret staying home with my kids? No. I enjoyed staying home with them and I think it was beneficial to them. I don’t thing a stay-at-home parent is automatically better for a child, but looking at what we could have afforded for day care, and the erratic nature that my works hours would have been, I think it was the best decision for our family.

Whenever I read these Opting Out debate pieces, they tend to be from the perspective of the middle class mom. I am writing this to give voice to the working class and poor families that struggle with this decision. Sometimes, low-income parents both have to work in order to make ends meet, and sometimes, low-income families cannot afford for both parents to work. I do regret not waiting until we were more financially stable to begin with, and I wish that I would have had a career that I would have cared about enough to struggle about whether to leave or not.

That is my personal story. Read my more sociological perspective of the article here: Part 2