At-Home Moms, Working Moms, and Financial Security

Yes, I’m going there.

But I want to be clear right up front that I am not interested in a mommy wars debate about whether working out of the home, working inside the home or caring for kids full-time is the superior choice. I have been a full-time-working-outside-the-house mom, a stay-at-home mom, and all manner of hybrids in between from student to part-time employee to, now, working somewhere between part and full time from home. I am proud of and confident in the contributions I’ve made in each of those situations and have no doubt that my kids were happy and thriving in each scenario as well.

But the conversation I want to have has little to do with what’s best for kids, and has everything to do with what’s best for moms (which, by extension, often means what’s best for kids…but not always, at least not always in the short term).

Not that what’s best for kids isn’t important. We all make sacrifices, whether we’re working more-than-full-time in a corporate office or pulling the 24/7 shift at home. We don’t really need to debate that, do we? Most moms are acutely aware of what our kids need, of how much time we’re able (or not able) to spend with them. We may put different levels of value on different things–i.e. those parents who feel duty-bound to pay for four years of university for each child certainly have different financial needs from those who aren’t even sure preschool is worth the bill. Those who value a comfortable, warm home that the kids can return to as adults have different financial needs from those who could chuck it all and happily live in a sailboat. But in the end, our values shape our parenting which shapes our drive to earn, to sock funds away, and to protect our kids’ futures.

But what about us? Are we as protective of ourselves?

If you had asked me ten years ago, the last time I was a stay-at-home mom not earning any income, I’d have said that I had little to lose by not being in the workforce. After all, by the time you factored in child-care costs for two children (one of whom was a newborn), work clothes, a commute, etc; we’d have barely broken even on my income.

That’s easy to say when you’re 22, your kids are still relatively inexpensive to clothe and feed and don’t ask for lessons or sports equipment, and when you have decades ahead of you to establish job experience and build a career. Yet it’s the same sentiment I hear dished out from radio hosts and financial experts to moms in their 30s or 40s who are mulling over their places in the workforce and whether or not to try to wiggle their way back in (or not leave at all). Is it realistic advice?

Personally, even though I’m only 32, I can’t imagine going back there. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t regret the time I spent as an at-home mom. In fact, I relish it, and have intentionally built a career around being available to my children. I’ve bypassed plenty of opportunities because they didn’t fit into my family life.

But I now feel the passage of time more acutely. I feel retirement age breathing down my neck, even though it’s still a good thirty years away. I look at my bank account and think it should be fatter by now. And I see how easy it would be for me to become, well, irrelevant to the working world if I weren’t making an effort to stay ahead of the curve.

And while I wouldn’t relish the idea of working full time out of the home with five young kids, if it came to that I wouldn’t see it as the tragedy I once might have. I guess that’s because I see now that there’s more to working than the paycheck you bring home. Social Security, retirement accounts, on-the-job experience…all those things are also valuable and, I fear, often overlooked when parents make the decision about who will work, and who will care for the children, and for how long.

What does this have to do with happiness?

Well, the way I see it, it’s hard to be really happy when you aren’t secure. It worries me when I see moms who’ve been out of the workforce for five, ten, fifteen years. I admit it. It worries me because I’ve seen so many moms get stuck with the short end of the stick when they divorce – or when they need to get a job due to an economic downturn or their husband’s layoff. Suddenly, all those years of experience they bypassed because the paycheck didn’t add up seem a little more valuable. (Read Katie Allison Granju’s take on the “Opt-Out Revolution” for more about how vulnerable women can become when they rely on their husbands for financial security).

On the other hand…

We also can’t happily live our lives waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t go through each day with “but what if my husband leaves me?” or “But what if we wind up in a financial disaster?” ringing in my head, because even though both of those things could feasibly happen—in fact, neither of those things are statistically all that unlikely to happen—in my version of reality, they are remote possibilities not worth giving much thought to. I just can’t dwell on them much, or I’d be eaten away by anxiety. And what’s more, despite my relative lack of wealth, I live with the sense that, even if something were to happen, my kids and I would eventually be OK. I may not have a huge savings account or retirement investments, but I do have a sense of resolve and strength and can-do-it-ness, as well as strong support from family and friends, that I could lean heavily on—and have in the past. It may not be as immediate a fix as a stash of cash would be, but it lasts longer, and is ultimately just as valuable.

I think it’s possible to over- or under-think this in either direction. Sometimes I think moms who leave the workforce entirely for an extended period of time just don’t realize the extent of what they’re giving up, failing to protect themselves—and by extension, their kids—because they so badly want to be at home with them. That worries me, not because I don’t think being at home can be a wonderful thing, because I do. But I worry about what will happen to those moms if something unexpected should happen.

And sometimes I think moms rush into full-time, high-pressure jobs outside the home, even when they don’t want to, because they think they “should”, or because they think their kids need things (that may in reality not be all that important), or because they are paralyzed by financial worries and see stockpiling cash as some kind of charm against getting screwed over by life. And that worries me. Not because I don’t think working outside the home can be a wonderful thing, because I do. But I worry about those moms living a life that doesn’t make them happy all because of “just in case”.

All that said, I’m still not sure what I think about all this. How much do moms need to worry about their financial futures—not just cold hard cash, but all those intangible qualities: experience, in-the-know-ness, connections and contacts–that put them in a good position to earn down the road? Is it safe or smart to shelve all that for two or ten years while you raise kids, then try to jump back in when you’re behind the curve?

On the other hand, how much financial security is enough? Do we sometimes freak out too far in the other direction? Is it possible to over-think, to over-plan, to over-worry?

I need to mull it over, but wanted to get some discussion going in the meanwhile. Are you an at-home mom who’s taken steps to protect herself (and her kids) against potential crises? Or are you winging it and having faith that things will turn out for the best? If that works for you, why does it work? Do you feel secure and happy with your situation?

Or if you’re a working mom, do you feel like you have something to prove (a certain lifestyle perhaps…)? Do you feel pressure to climb the ladder in the hopes that your efforts will prove “worth it” to those who might otherwise judge you for not being home? Do you and your spouse talk about earnings and make a conscious decision as to whose career will get the lion’s share of the family energy? If your career tends to get the short end of the stick, does that get made up for in some other way? Do you feel secure and happy with your situation?

I’m really looking forward to hearing how real moms navigate this tricky road, which isn’t always easy to discuss with our friends, family or even—sometimes, most of all—our spouses. And a gentle reminder to keep the comments on topic…this isn’t a debate about which of our arrangements are better, but a discussion on how to best look out for ourselves, no matter what arrangement we’re in.

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