Many decisions define who we are as parents. Breastfeeding or formula. Disposable diapers or cloth. Co-sleep or use a crib. But few decisions make a stronger statement about who we are than the decision to stay home with our children or clock in at the office every day. It’s a decision wrought with complexities.
|I spend my days with these cute little people!|
If your finances allow you to consider staying at home, you are fortunate. For a closer look at the financial considerations that go into being a stay-at-home parent, read my husband Josh's post from yesterday on Mumbling Mommy. For a look at the emotional considerations, read on.
Staying at home is not without its pitfalls. Most of all, at-home parents may struggle with feelings of isolation. My husband, a history teacher, likens it to life in the old days on a frontier settlement where the work was hard and the neighbors – if you had any – lived far away, and where a sizable number of people threw in the shovel and headed back east to civilization. (As high as eighty percent, according to some historians.) I’ve always somewhat romanticized pioneer life, so on some days this comparison is a fun challenge that makes me feel like baking bread and raising chickens, and on other days it’s, well, just a challenge.
The days as a stay-at-home parent can be long and tedious, with little to no adult conversation. Stay-at-home parents are more likely to suffer from depression. It’s important for parents and children to get out, especially to places where other parents and children are. It may be difficult for stay-at-home dads because they are likely to be the sole male among masses of moms at the playground, library story time, or play groups. Building a network of friends, especially other at-home parents, on Facebook or other social media sites helps, too.
Parents may feel weary spending long amounts of time with their children, who draw great amounts of mental and physical energy from their caregivers. To get a break, parents may be quicker to turn on the television. Because they spend almost all their time with their children, at-home parents may not always be as engaged or emotionally available compared to parents in two-income homes who feel they must make their limited time with their children count. At-home parents benefit from a break in the afternoon when children nap or, if they’ve outgrown naps, go to their rooms for some quiet time reading or playing.
More personally, parents who choose to stay at home may feel like they have cast aside their identities along with their careers, and they may feel they aren’t contributing to the family in a valuable way because they aren’t earning an income. The notion that we find our life’s joy and fulfillment primarily through work with strangers and non-family concerns me, and I wonder if our society’s priorities are a tad backwards. Still, I have felt the sting of this one.
I was a newspaper editor and reporter for several years, then moved to a new state and soon began staying home with my daughters. Through my work, I had been well known in the community and enjoyed the ego boost my job provided. It was deflating to leave that behind, and to settle in an unfamiliar city.
I sometimes cringed when people asked what I did for a living. “Oh, you stay at home?” they’d remark, and I suddenly felt like I had less to offer, like I’d left my brain back at my old job. But I could discuss baby sleep philosophies, breastfeeding, and toddler discipline like no one’s business.
We briefly attended a church in an affluent area where the pastor privately asked my husband, “Doesn’t your wife get bored staying at home?” I may have been the only stay-at-home mom among a congregation of doctors and lawyers from two-income homes. If a parent there really wanted to stay home with the kids, he or she could have done so and the family would not have lacked for income. We soon moved on to more middle-class pastures where, surprisingly, we see a lot more stay-at-home parents.
On the subject of jobs, parents at home also might worry about how to get back into the workforce when the time comes. It’s an especially frightening thought in today’s bleak job market. If at all possible, it’s helpful for parents to maintain some ties with professionals in their field, do occasional volunteer work, or take classes to stay current. For writers like myself, the freelance market holds potential and is one of the most stay-at-home-parent friendly fields.
I mention volunteer work, but beware: Parents who stay home may be perceived as having vast amounts of extra time and may get asked to do more volunteer work at church, at an older child’s school, or for various charities. It’s important to set boundaries and keep family first, which is often the primary motivation behind staying home anyway. It’s no good to save the world but lose your family.
Finally, as children get older, it can be challenging for parents to provide them with enough stimulation and socialization at home. Part-time preschool is one solution, though it may strain the budget. It’s easier if families live in larger cities with plenty of free or inexpensive activities.
There are plenty of emotional benefits – for both parent and child – to staying home. The most obvious is time. Stay-at-home parents get plenty of quality time with their children. They witness all the milestones. The first smile. The first steps. The first word. These parents don’t feel guilty about not being there for their children.
Time works to an at-home parent’s advantage in more subtle ways, too. When an outside job isn’t part of the juggling act, there is more time to cook healthy family meals and clean house. There is greater flexibility in scheduling doctor and dental appointments, particularly for the children. Someone is home to let in the repairman. It’s easier to take the car on a brief trip to the local quickie lube station during daytime off-peak hours.
No need to worry about calling off work when a child is sick, either. I read a Parents magazine story a few years ago and still remember the graphic example of a working mom who needed to pick up her sick child from day care, but was faced with the threat of docked pay if she took more time off. She did the only thing she could think of; while sitting in her office, she stuck her finger down her throat and made herself vomit so she would get sent home “sick.”
Working parents in the U.S. face hurdles not commonly found in other developed countries. The Parents article notes that, “A recent study of 190 countries by researchers at Harvard and McGill Universities found that 163 nations guarantee paid sick leave. The Netherlands offers two years. New moms in 177 countries are guaranteed paid leave; 74 countries offer it for new dads. Forty-nine nations guarantee paid time off to parents to care for sick children.” Obviously, this is a major problem American employers need to fix. In the meantime, it’s one thing stay-at-home parents need not worry about.
In addition, with all the irritating, cranky, or mean coworkers and bosses in the world, I consider it a joy to stay home with my children and avoid all the workplace drama. My kids may still be irritating, cranky, or mean sometimes, but at least they’re family, and I have the authority to do something about their behavior.
On that note, another key benefit to staying at home is greater oversight in raising and educating young children. Parents are not paying for other people – who usually earn low wages – to raise their children for half of their waking hours every day. Studies have shown that children who spend large amounts of time in day care are more likely to exhibit behavior problems, often picked up from peers or as a result of stress. Long hours in day care also cause measurable increases in stress hormone levels in children. In addition, children who stay home with a loving caregiver have more consistency in their daily routines, versus children in day care where employee turnover tends to be high because of the aforementioned low wages.
My husband, in his previous post about the financial gains and losses of staying home, advises parents to approach the decision with eyes wide open. This also applies when considering the emotional aspects.
Families with one parent who stays at home are likely to enjoy a more relaxed pace of life. This is especially appealing if the stay-at-home parent falls on the introverted side of the spectrum; staying home is understandably a bigger challenge for extroverts, but it can be accomplished successfully and happily. There is less pressure to “do it all” by simultaneously maintaining career, home, and family. Many families today could benefit from slowing down a little.
Staying home is not always easy, but if a family has the option, it is worth considering. No person has ever said at the end of his or her life, “I wish I had worked more at the office and spent less time with my family.