02
Feb
11

the modern mom dilemma

Reader J.S. writes:

I’m a highly educated woman who has a great career ahead of her, but I’m also pregnant with my first child. My office will give me three months of maternity leave, and then I could return to full-time work (but they have told me they can’t allow me to do a part-time gig). My husband makes a good amount of money, and I could stay home with the baby without a job if I wanted to. But I’m afraid of the repercussions of taking myself out of the workforce — I’ve heard getting back in is impossible. Still, the idea of staying home is really tempting. What do you think?

Dear J.S.:

Don't do this at work.

Probably not a good idea to bare your pregnant belly at work. Image: Louisa Stokes / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You’ve pretty much asked the quintessential question of the “post-feminist age”: if a woman has the means to stay home and raise her children, should she?

I think the bigger question is: how can a woman decide whether staying at home with her children or having an exciting career will be more fulfilling?

I’ve gotta’ throw a few elbows and point out how unfair it is that this is not a question for your husband. (Which is why I don’t believe we live in a “post-feminist age”.) In our current universe, he doesn’t have to wonder whether having children will interfere with his career. (In fact, having kids can actually make him look better to his employers.) It’s unfair.

I’m not going to hop on the biological debate train and say that it’s also unfair that he doesn’t have to gain 40 lbs and go through morning sickness, or that it’s unfair to him that he doesn’t get that automatic bonding with the child that you do since you carry the child in your womb. Biology is not something we have a choice in; our careers are.

Whether it’s biological for a woman to stay home and take care of the children or not (I mean, c’mon, we’ve only been working out of the home for the past 200 years or so), it’s a tough call. Yes, you are lucky that you have the resources that you can make this choice. Many moms can’t. But I don’t envy you the task of choosing.

I’m going to lay out a series of things for you to think about and let you make the choice, because there’s no way I can absolutely advise you one way or the other.

Getting back into a career is hard after you’ve taken a dozen years off.

You’re right — common wisdom says it is hard to get back on the career track once you’ve pulled yourself out of it. However, some people disagree that this is the case for various reasons. You may not be as tied to mommyhood once you make the choice to stay home as common wisdom says. I’d also like to point out that nobody knows what the world or economy will look like in 10 years or whenever you’re ready to get back into the workplace. You need to make your decision based on how you feel now, not based on what you think some employer is going to want to do with you in a decade’s time.

Maybe another employer would give you more flex time.

Not all employers are incapable of giving their employees part-time gigs. You could find another job, or, since you’re so educated, look into consultancy. You might not have to choose entirely between career and family. In fact, you and your husband might be able to find that ideal employer (that exists only in, like, Sweden) that allows families to split time between each other so that you could both choose who gets to stay home and play with baby and who gets to go in and work. This leads me to…

Your husband probably has more of an option in this than you or he think he does.

I’m guessing he has a right to some paternity leave, too. The family flex time option may be a pipe dream in most of America for a while. But maybe he could work part-time and take care of the kids for a few years himself. Maybe you could both work part-time. There are all kinds of interesting, flexible options in the modern workplace for parents. While it’s unfair that you have to choose between career and baby, it’s also unfair that your husband traditionally doesn’t even have the option presented to him. Why not give him a chance to stay home with the kids sometimes, too? Depending on what you’re willing to do, neither of you has to choose the traditional route that we sometimes feel cornered into, unless that traditional route is what you’re after.

How you feel when the baby happens may dictate what you do.

You haven’t had the kid yet. You don’t really know how you’re going to react to staying at home all day doing kid things. A career is not always just about getting yourself ahead — it’s also about having an outlet to have adult conversations and get out of the house. You may be one of those women who is totally capable of enjoying spit up, Disney lullabies, and not being allowed to cuss all day. Or you could be one of those ladies who needs a place to talk about nuclear weapons or politics or adult stuff. You may find that you fall absolutely in love with your baby’s face when he/she is born and never want to be away from it. Or you may find that you need a break from the screaming and your job is a great place for that. I can’t say.

What most progresses women’s needs around the world?

This may sound like a ridiculous question, but it’s something I think about personally. And what I’m going to tell you is that, in this case, this question should not factor into your decision. Whatever is best for you is best for the women of the world. That’s right: I’m giving you a feminist freebie. Nobody can dictate to any woman what is right or wrong in this case, so don’t worry about the weight of the world of women resting on your shoulders. Choosing to stay home and raise your children will not repeal women’s suffrage, and going back to work after having your child will not force other women into job slavery.

Talk to your friends, find a support blog, and figure out how you feel.

I’m sure you’ve got other women your age who are going through the same quandary. And there are plenty of mommy blogs on the interwebz for you to sift through. Find arguments that resonate with you and see which side of the debate they put you on.

If all else fails, get a pair of dice or draw straws out of a hat. Or have someone else decide for you. Sometimes when we have the decision laid out for us in an absolute manner, we can better see what option we really want.

Good luck. And congrats on the baby.

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3 Responses to “the modern mom dilemma”


  1. 1 Kevin
    February 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Kat, I follow regularly even though I don’t often comment. I think there are other factors worth considering. The writer doesn’t say the industry or geographic location she’s in. We had to make the exact same decision in Northern Virginia, where my lovely wife is an educator. And you’re exactly right – what you plan to do before Baby arrives can be very different than how you feel after that happy day. My daughter was born in late spring, and the lovely wife had every intention of returning to the classroom that fall. But teachers make famously little money, and we realized that after childcare we would net only a few hundred extra dollars a month. In the end, it came down to we would be giving up so many “firsts” (first smile, first steps, first words) for only a little more money each month. That seemed like a bad deal any way you sliced it – financial or emotional.

    So we took the plunge and became a one-income family. We live in a modest house with carpet that should have been replaced years ago; a furnace and a water heater that we know is on borrowed time, a car with a prominent dent in it and scratched paint. We’re not fancy and are certainly the odd ones out in status-obsessed Northern Virginia. But our home is full of love. We realize we are extraordinarly blessed – that I have a good job and we can afford to do this, but also that as little as educators make, the education profession is probably the MOST tolerant of taking time off to raise children.

    Finally, I can only speak for myself, but I’m making more career sacrifices than I anticipated I would be. There’s opportunities I have to pass up because I have to get home and be there for my family too. Men with fewer family obligations are moving faster on the hamster wheel.

    If I’ve learned anything being a first-time parent, it’s that so many things will change after the kid is born. So just hang in there, save your money, and make the decision after the kid is born. Congratulations to your writer on her new baby, and wish all the best of luck.

    Thanks for writing. It’s always a pleasure to read.

    -KB

  2. 2 Mateo Repters
    February 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    I might be living in a post feminist world. Or at least a post-feminist marriage…

    My wife and I are fighting over who GETS to stay home and raise the baby!

    And Kat’s right. Feminism is mainly about you having the right to do whatever YOU want to do. So tell the patriarchy and the feminists to go fight it out in another room and do whatever feels right for you.

  3. 3 Melisa
    February 3, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    I will also say that staying home doesn’t mean that the only person you see all day and every day is your baby. If you do choose to stay home there are a ton of play groups where parents get together while their babies and kids play. You’ll also find a supportive community where people can sympathize with your challenges and offer useful suggestions


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