Four years ago, I sat across from the Director of Graduate Studies for my History PhD program. I told her that I wanted to quit grad school, and I explained the many reasons why. She seemed to only hear one, however: I wanted to have a baby. “You have plenty of time for that,” she told me, and added, “Men can make sacrifices, too, you know.”
A year later, we attended my father-in-law’s church. I was quite pregnant with Bean. After the service, a well-meaning older woman approached us. She asked if I intended to keep working after Bean was born. I explained that I did. She patted my hands and gave me a sympathetic look. “I’ll be praying for [Mr. Steward] to get a promotion, dear, so that you can stay home.”
In my mind, the two women look the same. Both had grey-tinged black hair, concerned eyes, and a smug assurance that they were saying exactly the necessary thing. Neither did, of course. While I hope that their certainty brought themselves comfort, my experiences with criticism during my pregnancy and beyond have only created intense frustration with the fact that any choice one makes as a mother is fraught. In honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to explore the financial and emotional impacts of being a working mom, or at least this working mom.
A Need to Work?: The Financials
Here is the thing: kids aren’t all that expensive. Apart from diapers, which are around $25 per month, most of our expenses for two-year-old Bean are optional, and kept very low by secondhand stores. Except (and this is a very big exception) for daycare.
We pay just shy of $8,000 per year for Bean’s daycare. That was choosing the cheapest place that we thought provided a standard of care appropriate for our child. My salary is $34,000, before tax, which means daycare is just shy of 25% of my pre-tax salary. Doing the math, even if I subtract other work expenses such as transportation and clothing, I’m still definitely coming out ahead by working, despite the huge wallop daycare puts on my pay. My salary comprises most of the “extra” money that we apply towards financial goals each year.
Where the math gets trickier is if a second child enters the picture.* By the way, we hope to have a second child this year. Two kids in daycare effectively means that I will be working for benefits and some change. There are other financial benefits to continue working. Pressing pause on a career almost certainly means stagnation, if not setbacks in climbing the ladder. Daycare is, after all, only for a time.
That said, I could probably find mathematical justification for staying home if I really wanted. So why don’t I?
* I want to note we’re calculating this from my salary and not Mr. Steward’s because I’m the lower earner, not because I’m a woman. We could feasibly live on Mr. Steward’s income alone, but not mine. Women are statistically more likely to earn less, though, so there’s that.
I Want to Work
I am not bringing in so much money that I just can’t pass up the opportunity to work. We are not making so little money that I have to work in order for us to make ends meet. And I am not in a noble profession, like social work or teaching, where my work is considered a “calling.” I am a paper jockey in an entry-level job at a corporation.
I choose to work because I like what my life looks like with 9-5 work in it, at least for now. It is an emotional choice, with (hopefully!) financial benefits. I like that I go to work and focus singularly on work. I have adult conversations, intellectual stimulation, and contribute to something outside of parenting. While I do that, someone else focuses entirely on teaching my kid new skills in a setting designed to do so and that my child loves. Once the workday is over, I pick her up, go home, and play with her with complete focus for a few hours. I believe these hours are all the more precious to me because they are limited.
I think I would be a horrible stay-at-home mom. It’s really hard work. When I have several days on end to spend with the Bean, I start to take that time for granted. I become impatient and unfocused with her. I become absorbed in other projects and try to simply placate her so that I can keep working on something else. My suspicion is that if I were home, I’d keep myself so busy with church or side hustle activities that I might as well be working. Perhaps I’d figure out a way to balance it all if I stayed home. I just don’t feel the need to do so.
Honestly, the greatest guilt I have about being a working mom is that most of the time I don’t feel guilty about it at all. Full confession: I did not cry the first morning I dropped Bean off at daycare. (I cried a lot before then, of course, but that was mostly because how could something be so precious?!) I was ready to return to work. I also like that I model the need to work for my daughter. It is only in moments when others question my decision that I feel guilt.
I Don’t Regret Having My Kid “Younger”
Before we all ride the second-wave feminist train off into the sunset, I also want to put out there that I don’t regret having my child at 26. I come from a family in which every woman besides me had her first child by the age of 21, so 26 was not an abnormal age to have a child in my eyes. The expectation in academia, however, is that you will do your damnedest to wait until you are established in your career before having children. Otherwise, they might slow you down. I have heard of similar expectations in other fields, and it also seems to be a key tenet, in practice if not in writing, of many FIRE bloggers.
I refused to wait that long to have children. Family is of utmost importance to me. I wanted Bean have a relationship not just with her grandparents, but also her great-grandparents. Unfortunately, 5-7 years can make a big difference on that front. Biological clock concerns also played a part. I didn’t want to assume I could put off having children, because I would have been too heartbroken to discover I waited too long. And there is something to be said for youth when it comes to chasing around a two-year-old.
Having children has and probably will slow my career down in some ways, although my change from academia to the corporate world is more so the root cause of my current low wages. The bigger financial hit is the $40,000 or so of daycare costs (per kid) that we cannot invest. The figure, when compounded, becomes an astronomical sum. The obvious counter-argument is that daycare allows me to continue working to make more money.
And, of course, I’d pay that sum several times over to have Bean just as she is.
So What’s the Point?
For myself and most mothers I know, the choice whether to work or stay home is a difficult one with many emotional repercussions and loud opinions on either side. This International Women’s Day, I wish we could all make it a bit easier on ourselves by admitting there are many ways to fund and create a family, including removing this question from “mothers” alone. That’s a shout out to single and stay-at-home dads, and folks who choose not to or cannot have kids at all. In my own case, the answers of what to do have not been obvious or always easy to come to terms with. My optimistic wish is that the choices involved in family and work balance will become less fraught for everyone, both financially and emotionally.