When my second hubby and I married, we knew we wanted to be parents. We were both working in the newspaper industry — meaning we weren’t wealthy — but because we both agreed that we wanted someone to be home to raise the kids. Since he was older and more established in his career (and also worked for a paper that was part of the union), we agreed I’d quit my full-time job and do freelance and he’d be the breadwinner. We knew we’d have to live small; thankfully, our home had a rental unit, and we relied on that income.
Freelance writing with a baby? Trying to make calls and write in stolen moments of nap time? Uh, nope. So after trying an at-home business that, when I finally looked at the numbers, made me less than minimum wage — I painted wood high chairs in fanciful designs — I took a part-time job as an on-call copy editor at night. Later, when our second son was born, I worked part time a few days a week, relying on the help of the lovely young woman, a former nanny who lived in our rental until and watched the boys in exchange for reduced rent while she went to school to become a hair stylist, until I got a job that I could do at home, as the editor of a kids’ newspaper.
Granted, none of those jobs made me a lot of money, but it helped keep our family afloat — and was essential income when my former husband’s union went on strike — and, more important, it kept me up-to-date in the career I loved and enabled me to maintain relationships with editors.
I had no idea how important that would be until, 14 years into the marriage, we divorced and I needed to find full-time work again. And I found it, but at wages I made when I was in my 20s — except I was in my 40s! I was making below California’s poverty level. But I didn’t have the luxury of hoping for a job at a nearby union paper to open up and I wasn’t in a position to move to another city or state; I didn’t want to uproot my kids or have them be raised solely by me or their dad (we had 50-50 physical joint custody). So, I grabbed the first job that came along and lived small.
Do I regret my choice? Not at all; as isolating as being the stay-at-home parent can be, I would never trade those years with my boys. But, there are a few things I would have done differently. Unlike a recent blog post by Wealthy Single Mommy, aka Emma Johnson, you can afford to be a stay-at-home parent nowadays; it just takes a new way of thinking.
Like Johnson writes, you must plan for the unthinkable — divorce, disability, job losses, death. These are real things and they happen, a lot. Marriage is not a financial plan — unless you’re entering a safety marriage, in which case the agreement is most likely sealed with a prenup.
Ah, yes, a prenup! While prenups have historically been about money and property, I would have made mine about other things, too, addressing chores, cooking, childcare, etc. — all the things couples fight about. I call that a marital plan.
So, what can parents, or couples who want to become parents, do? How can we solve the stay-at-home-working-parent-work-life-balance-dilemma instead of just waiting for companies to solve it for us (if they even will)?
Get a prenup/postnup
When a couple decides to have children, women — and it’s still women — are the ones who typically stop or curtail work to take care of them. Increasingly, men are doing that, too. Regardless of gender, anyone who is the main caretaker should be compensated, and that must be put in writing. As we wrote in The New I Do, Beyonce’s prenup supposedly stipulates that she’ll get $5 million per child for time lost from her career. Just recently, she and husband Jay Z updated it — aka a postnup — to address custody issues and other things. Because that’s what smart couple do; they keep talking about what their needs are as their life changes. You also want a parenting prenup, one that addresses everything about how you will raise your kids, from schooling to discipline to religion. Don’t assume your spouse will be on the same page once you pop out a baby, and in the event of a split, a parenting plan of action will help you avoid a long, nasty custody battle. Honestly, the state already has a prenup for you and it generally is not a happy one for one or both people; why give the state the power over your life?
Create a work reentry plan
Like my former husband and me — but with a gender switch — my esthetician and her husband decided, since she made more, he’d stay home to raise their daughter until she was in kindergarten. Well, that time has come, but he didn’t wait until now to start thinking about what he was going to do; he’s been actively training, networking and keeping the gears in motion so he’d be ready to jump back into the working world full time. Luckily, she has a flexible job and she can create her own hours, working nights and weekends if need be, so he can be flexible in whatever new job he gets.
We are increasingly moving toward a gig economy. This has its downsides for sure, but it also has its upsides in that you’re not stuck to a 9-to-5 (if you’re lucky to only work those hours nowadays). That said, if one of you has a job that allows you to make your own hours, or if one works mostly nights and the other mostly days, or you have one day together instead of the weekend, or whatever creative way you can come up to share the child-rearing while having two incomes, you’ll each be be able to spend more time with your kids.
Parents were not meant to raise kids on their own. Throughout history, couples — OK, moms — had help raising the kids, whether from grandmas or alloparents or kinfolk or nannies or other kinds of help (wet nurses, anyone?). It’s only relatively recently that couples seem to think that they must do it all by themselves because they’re the only ones who know how to do it (not true) or they’re just afraid that they’ll be judged (very true). Get help. You need it and your kids will benefit. When you think about, we already rely on various people — teachers, coaches, babysitters, family, friends, etc. — but few of them are ongoing, readily available and fully engaged with our kids. It really does take a village to raise a child. Rather than worry about whether we can afford to stay home or not, why not think about different ways to raise our kids while we work, whether from home or not?
Think outside the box
We’re closing in a time that we need to stop talking in terms of “stay-at-home” versus “working” parents, and more about, how do we — individually and as a society — want to raise our kids, the future? I love the creative ways people are finding a way to get back to community child-rearing, from cohousing to communes to intentional intergenerational communities to multigenerational housing. In other words, they are acknowledging that it isn’t just about careers and work-life balance; it’s more about how you want to live, what you value and what you want your society to look like. If you’re creating a space for others to care for your children in an ongoing, engaged and loving way, many of your childcare issues will be non-issues and you won’t have to worry about losing income or career momentum by opting out. And even if you work at home, being a parent won’t be so isolating.
In her brilliant new book, “The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream,” Courtney Martin writes, “When the economy crashed, the air was let out of the overinflated ego of the so-called American Dream.” Rather than keep struggling for that dream, which is increasingly becoming unattainable, she says many young people — she’s in her 30s — are redefining it. Her “new better off” doesn’t mean a big job, big salary or big house — it’s more about living in a supportive, creative community. People around the world raise children with much less than what most Americans have, and they’re often a lot less stressed. Why? According to recent research: “The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers.” We have a new President-elect, and I don’t have much faith that Trump will do much, if anything, to create social policies that support caregiving and child-rearing. Which means it’s really up to us to find ways within our own communities to make things better; I’ll pretty much bet there are other parents who want the same thing.
Want to learn how to create a parenting prenup? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.