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Continued: Katy Read: Staying home to raise kids - priceless (but with a cost)

  • Article by: KATY READ
  • Last update: February 12, 2011 - 5:17 PM

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We had wonderful times together, my sons and I. The parks. The beaches.

The swing set moments when I would realize, watching the boys swoop back and forth, that one day these afternoons would seem to have rushed past in nanoseconds.

I would pause, mid-push, to savor the experience while it lasted.

Now I lie awake at 3 a.m., terrified that as a result I am permanently financially screwed.

As of my divorce last year, I'm the single mother of two almost-men whose taste for playgrounds has been replaced by a taste for high-end consumer products and who will be, in a few more nanoseconds, ready for college.

My income -- freelance writing, child support and some spousal maintenance, a couple of menial part-time jobs -- doesn't cover my current expenses, let alone my retirement or the kids' tuition.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of two teenagers must be in want of a steady paycheck and employer-sponsored health insurance.

My attempt to find work could hardly be more ill-timed, with unemployment near 9 percent and the newspaper industry that once employed me fallen on especially hard times.

And though I have tried to scrub age-revealing details from my résumé, let's just say my work history is long enough to be a liability, making me simultaneously overqualified and underqualified.

But my biggest handicap may be my history of spending daylight hours in the company of my own kids.

Just having kids is bad enough. Research shows that mothers earn 4 to 15 percent less than non-mothers with comparable jobs and qualifications, that as job candidates mothers are perceived as less competent and committed than non-mothers (fathers, in contrast, are rated higher and paid more than men without kids).

Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, told me last year that the outlook for an at-home mother returning to work in this economy "kind of makes my stomach drop a little bit." I know the feeling.

When the New York Times' Paul Krugman warns that many of the currently jobless "will never work again," I am petrified -- hello, 3 a.m.! -- that he means me. I long ago lost track of how many jobs I've applied for, but I can count the resulting interviews and have fingers left to twiddle idly.

I have applied for positions I wouldn't have looked at twice in my 20s, been passed over for some paying $20,000 less than I was making when I left full-time work in 1996.

As I wander the ghost-town job boards, e-mailing my résumé into oblivion, I tamp down panic with soothing thoughts: I'm making my house payments, for now; have some money in the bank, for now; drive a nine-year-old Mazda that rattles alarmingly but runs, for now.

Millions are hanging by thinner threads, and I am genuinely grateful for what good fortune I have.

So this is not a plea for sympathy. More like a warning from the front lines.

The recession has already shifted attitudes and may bring lasting cultural changes.

Here's one I predict: The economic crisis will erode women's interest in "opting out" to care for children, heightening awareness that giving up financial independence -- quitting work altogether or even, as I did, going part-time -- leaves one frighteningly vulnerable.

However emotionally rewarding it may be for all involved, choosing to stay home with children may mean making serious, enduring financial sacrifices that largely explain the lingering pay gap between men and women as well as women's higher rate of poverty.

With the recession having raised the stakes, fewer mothers may be willing to take the risk.

Between 2008 and 2010, the number of stay-at-home mothers fell from 5.3 million to 5 million. (Stay-at-home dads held steady at around 150,000.)

 Who knows how many others are frantically sending out résumés?

The image of a mother pushing a stroller down the street at midday may come to seem as quaint as that of a 1950s housewife pushing a vacuum in stockings and pumps.

Stay-at-home mothers obsolete? Those among the 5 million who are alive and well and reading this may have something to say about that.

Go ahead and vent, stay-at-home mothers. I get it.

Fifteen years ago, I struggled with my own decision amid the hormone-saturated, sleep-deprived, advice-swamped bewilderment of new parenthood.

I became a mother during a moment in history when women faced unprecedented career opportunities yet were expected to maintain a level of interaction with their children that would have made my own mother's eyes roll out of their sockets.

I was a busy reporter and naive new mom, two jobs that I was led to believe could not, for all practical purposes, be performed adequately and simultaneously.

According to the parenting manuals I dutifully consulted, children required constant engagement with a loving, omnipresent figure.

The experts never said exactly how kids like mine, overseen by an ever-shifting cast of underpaid near-strangers in a commercial day care center, would be damaged. But I got the impression that I might as well have gone through pregnancy throwing back shots of tequila.

Meanwhile, my work/life balance ... wasn't. My husband and I kept erratic hours, handing off babies like batons.

At work, I lost choice assignments as I dashed out before the stroke of 6, hurrying to the day care center before it began charging a dollar a minute.

And the emotional turbulence! I drove to work with a spit-up-stained shirt and a tear-streaked face, cried at baby-food commercials featuring mothers and infants bonding in what looked like a weekday-afternoon glow. I felt the time flying past.

My second son was born. Two weeks later, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Sitting near my dad's bedside, I showed off the baby to my Aunt Millicent, mentioning my plans to return to my job. She shook her head sadly.

"You won't believe how fast those years go by," my aunt said. "Try not to miss them, if you can help it."

My father died two months later. That fall, my husband found a new job in a different city.

And I -- feminist, ambitious journalist, daughter of a woman with a successful advertising career -- quit a full-time job at a big-city paper and began part-time freelancing work that brought in less, some years, than I'd made as a waitress in college.

I wasn't worried, frankly, about the long-term economic consequences, partly because hardly anybody else was.

Most articles and books about what came to be called "opting out" focused on the budgeting challenges of dropping to one paycheck -- belt-tightening measures shared by both parents -- while barely touching on the longer-term sacrifices borne primarily by the parent who quits: the lost promotions, raises and retirement benefits; the atrophied skills and frayed professional networks.

The difficulty of reentering the workforce after years away was underreported, the ramifications of divorce, widowhood or a partner's layoff hardly considered.

It was as though at-home mothers could count on being financially supported happily ever after, as though a permanent and fully employed spouse were the new Prince Charming.

Besides, technically I was still working. Part-time work seemed ideal.

While my kids spent three afternoons a week in day care, I did what the experts advised: developed my skills, undertook new challenges, expanded my professional contacts. I advanced creatively, if not financially.

The rest of the time, I took my boys sliding, skating, swimming and skateboarding, drove to music lessons and dentist appointments and baseball practices.

Salary experts estimate the market value of a stay-at-home parent's labor (child care, housecleaning, cooking, laundry, driving, etc.) at about $118,000.

This hollowly cheerful calculation has always struck me as patronizing, with the effect of further diminishing our status. Moms -- aren't they the greatest?

They should be pocketing as much as a registered pharmacist, yet they'll happily accept payment in the form of adorable gap-toothed smiles.

An implied, faintly sinister coercion -- a good mom doesn't want money -- fuels a system that relies on our free child care, household labor and volunteer work but offers no safety net.

And given the harsh political climate, reforms such as paid parental leave or Social Security credits for unpaid caregivers seem far-fetched at best.

But employers, would it kill you to stop actively discriminating against us?

I don't regret the time I spent with my sons. Staying home was a rich and profound experience, full of vivid memories --for my kids, I hope, as well as for me.

I just wish our economic system didn't exact such a brutal toll on mothers who make that choice.

So if some young woman with a new baby were to ask me about opting out, I would tell her, as my Aunt Millicent told me 14 years ago, how quickly a child's early years zip past, how challenging but wonderful they are, how grateful I am for every single moment I was privileged to witness.

And then, unlike my aunt, I would warn her not to do it.

Katy Read is a Minneapolis writer who blogs at www.whatishouldbedoinginstead.blogspot.com. A version of this essay appeared earlier on Salon.com. Follow Katy on Twitter @thisiskaty6

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