Five years ago, after putting our four-month old son to bed, I sat at my dining room table in tears. “I can’t go back to work,” I told my husband. “Is there any way we could afford for me to stay home with him?”
We did the math. The answer was yes — if we rented out the basement, got rid of our cars, canceled cable and cell phones, and stopped eating anything other than beans and rice. Plus, there was my unfinished doctorate to consider. If I stopped working, I would also lose the tuition reimbursement that would allow me to finish. We would have to pay for the additional credits I had to take while finishing my dissertation, and our budget could not stretch to cover it.
The sacrifices were too much, especially losing out on the chance to finish my degree. I went back to work the next day. Five years later, I wouldn’t want it any other way. However, for you there may be different considerations. How can you make this massively emotional decision? Here are some items to consider.
1. Balance the cost of childcare with the true cost of staying home
In my case, the additional benefit of tuition reimbursement made staying home too costly. Even if you consider just salary and benefits, the cost of staying home and losing out on potential raises, benefits, and employer matching to your retirement account can add up quickly. Some studies demonstrate that mothers experience a 7 percent pay decrease with each child. The Center for American Progress has a calculator to help you determine the cost of taking time. Depending on when you take time off and how much time you take, it can have a significant effect on your lifetime earnings. While that may seem insignificant when looking into the face of your cherished new little one, consider that there’s evidence that a working mother can benefit her children in the long run. Daughters of working mothers were shown to earn 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers. Other studies show there are no significant downsides for children who have mothers who work when they’re young. There’s less research on dads who chose to stay home or to work, mostly because culturally mothers have been the ones to stay home.
2. Look at the flexibility of your workplace and your schedule
If the idea of spending so much time away from your child is too much to bear – consider this: When parents have control over when and where they work, they can actually fit an extra 19 hours of work in per week without causing significant work-family stress. Some parents work a “split shift,” clocking in hours during the day and then logging back on at night, giving them a significant chunk of time in the afternoon to take care of children. Others plan work longer two days a week so they can have shorter days the rest of the time. Some parents work a reduced schedule for a few months after a child is born so they can spend time with them during those critical, sleepless first months, and then come back in full force as the child gets a little older. If you need to put in 40 hours at your job, consider that there are many ways to get these hours in besides eight hours a day five days a week.
3. Take a planned career break
If childcare is too expensive, your office offers little-to-no leave, or flexibility is just not an option, consider taking a well-thought-out career break. Putting aside funds before baby is born and thinking about how long you’d like to take off can make this possible. You can think about scheduling your career break to coincide with returning for a degree such as a master’s degree or MBA. You can keep in touch with your colleagues through conferences and networking events. And as you prepare to return to the job market, there’s mounting evidence that discussing your break as a planned event in your career can make transitioning back easier. Don’t be afraid to discuss any skills you learned in managing children and a household explicitly. Although some workplaces view parents who take time off as less ambitious or driven in their careers, as more parents share how the break benefited their careers, the perception is beginning to change.
Companies and governments can do more to support making parenting and careers go hand-in-hand. A number of high-profile organizations, be it Netflix or the U.S. Navy, have started to change the conversation by offering expanded parental leave policies. In Washington, D.C., the city council is considering a paid family leave policy for all District residents. Supporting these efforts in your city or company is another way you can help advance the conversation. Longer parental leaves make it easier for parents to remain in their jobs, and as more moms and dads take these options, we make it easier for future parents to do the same.
Nicole Coomber is a lecturer in management and organization for the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and mother to four boys. She writes about managing parenthood and work at managingmotherhood.net.