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The Major Life Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Consider this a warning to new mothers: Fourteen years ago, I "opted out" to focus on my family. Now I'm broke.
 
 
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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 someday these afternoons would seem to have rushed past in nanoseconds, and 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As of my divorce last year, I’m the single mother of two almost-men whose taste for playgrounds has been replaced by one for high-end consumer products and who will be, in a few more nanoseconds, ready for college. My income — freelance writing, child support, 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 10 percent, with the newspaper industry that once employed me seemingly going the way of blacksmithing. 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 them 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, rate higher 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 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 have applied for, including some I wouldn’t have looked twice at in my 20s, but I can count the resulting interviews and have fingers left to twiddle idly. Before I left full-time work in 1996, my then-husband and I, both reporters at the same newspaper, earned the exact same salary. Now my ex, still a reporter, is making $30,000 a year more than that, while I have been passed over for jobs paying $20,000 less.

As I wander the ghost-town job boards, e-mailing my résumé into oblivion, I tamp down panic with soothing thoughts: I have a comfortable house, for now, some money in the bank, for now, a 9-year-old Mazda that rattles alarmingly but runs, for now. Millions of people are hanging by far 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 habits and attitudes and will likely usher in long-term cultural changes about which economists, sociologists and political strategists are churning out predictions as we speak. Here’s mine: 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, staying home with children exacts a serious, enduring vocational toll that largely explains 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. If it’s not yet the twilight of the stay-at-home mother, it could be her late afternoon. Certainly it is long past nap time.

 
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