Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Deciding whether to stay home or to work.

Self-employed with an at-home office since the age of 24, I never really thought about choosing between my career and caring for my children. I always assumed I would and could do both. I envisioned a sweet baby quietly gazing at me from the bassinet tucked next to my desk while I conducted teleconferences. I could see myself editing manuscripts while quietly breastfeeding and coordinating book signings via cell phone while walking the baby around the block.

The problem was, my baby, Holden, did not come quietly into this good world. He was born 12 weeks early amidst much drama, stress and noise. He came home from the hospital seven weeks later with oxygen tanks and equipment whose beeping and shrieking rivaled my local fire station.

I hid in closets to make important calls and even managed to edit a few manuscripts while he not-so-quietly nursed. I was doing it, juggling it all, but often felt like both jobs— full-time motherhood and full-time work— were getting somewhat shortchanged. I felt guilty when I was working and guilty when I wasn’t.

Then Holden hit about 6 months old, and he wasn’t happy in passively and quietly gazing from his bassinet. He wanted action, he wanted to make noise. During that same week, I had the opportunity to work on an exciting and lucrative new project, and my husband’s employment situation got dicey. The literal poop had hit the fan. It was time to make some changes and for the first time seriously address the work or no work situation.

It’s a situation almost all new moms have to confront. Some consider their options for about two seconds and definitively know whether they want to carry a briefcase or a baby bag. For others, the choice is not as easy to make or live with. There are so many factors to consider— income, career track, home situation and the availability of good quality daycare. Many moms who want to stay home but can’t for financial reasons, bear a great deal of guilt and sadness. Moms who want to work but choose to stay home might feel isolated, resentful and unfulfilled. And all this effects how partners relate to each other and step into their new roles as parents.

After all, it’s not just a matter of staying home or going back to work. In all aspects, babies change life as we know it. How will you change with it?

PLAN EARLY: For all new parents, it’s wise to begin financial planning during pregnancy. This can help take the financial stress out of the work decision once the baby comes. Kathi, a Mother of three from Alabama, suggests: “if you both work, you should immediately begin to live off one income and put the other aside. This will help you become acclimated to your new financial situation long before the baby comes so that on top of the stress of a newborn, you aren’t faced with a different household budget.” Kim Danger of mommysaver.com advises expecting parents to “buy one package of diapers and wipes with each paycheck during pregnancy. Buying necessities ahead of time will help save money after baby arrives.” She also advises parents to register for practical things such as baby shampoo, batteries, extra cordless phones, film and parenting books— things you would spend money on once the baby arrives.

BE FLEXIBLE: I know everyone says this, but it really is impossible to know how you will feel about staying home until after the baby comes. Plans made during the high of pregnancy are easily smashed when confronted with the reality of the cute new roommate in the stinky diaper. “Until you actually have the baby, you don’t know who your baby will be,” says Beverly, a Mother of two from New Jersey. “If you’re a first-time mother, you don’t know how you will feel about returning to work. You don’t want to end up feeling trapped by an iron-clad commitment you made before the baby was born.” Make plans but revisit these plans with your partner and continually reassess how the situation is working for you and your family.

PUT OFF MAKING THE DECISION: Moms on the fence might want to extend their maternity leave if possible before making a final decision. Kelly, a former paralegal and Mom of 1-year-old Matthew, confesses: “honestly, the first three months of your baby’s life can be hell— you’re exhausted and often just getting through to get through. Once the baby sleeps a little more and you get [more energy], you’ll have a better idea of what staying home is really like. You might love it or find you truly miss the work environment. Either way you’ll be more equipped to make the decision.”

RE-EVALUATE: Natalie Gahrmann, author of Succeeding as a Super Busy Parent (Infinity Publishing), suggests using this time to evaluate what skills, talents, opportunities and resources are available to you. “What do you value? What do you need? Why do you want to work? What motivates and energizes you at work? You may decide to change careers or may have limited opportunities to pick up where you left off,” she explains. You may discover that your options are not as limited as you think. “You can pursue work in the same field, work related to a hobby, something totally different that you’ve always dreamed of doing. Using a gradual approach to prepare yourself emotionally, physically and mentally will help smooth the transition.”

REMEMBER YOU’RE NOT IN THIS ALONE: People usually assume it’s the Mom who has to make the decision about working or staying home. Often families overlook the father’s role in the daily childcare arena. Don’t. Does your husband hate his job? Is he planning to switch careers in the future? Would it be easier for him to reenter the job force later? Does he have more patience than you? He might be the logical choice for the stay-at-home parenting role. It can be difficult for Dad to break the breadwinner mold— just like it is for some moms— but the rewards can well surpass the initial adjustment.

“After I had Avery, I suddenly felt I had to conform to a ‘traditional’ gender role that felt strange” says Alexa, a physician in private practice and Mom of one from Texas. “When I confessed this to my husband, he acknowledged that he also felt uncomfortable with the shift in our relationship and that he wanted to be more involved in raising our son. We decided that since his job was easier to leave and come back to, he would try being a stay-at-home Dad for a year. Three years later we are still doing it. For us— especially for Avery— it was the best decision we ever made.”

TAKE THE LONG VIEW: This is not going to last forever. Your childcare needs and financial needs may change as your child and family grow and knowing this can help make the decision to stay home or go back to work a bit easier.

“For me, there was no other option than to stay home with my son and twins,” explains Kathy, Mom to three in New Jersey. “Nothing else felt right. Knowing that my husband’s salary was not enough to make me a kept woman, we stopped paying full price for everything, started buying and selling on eBay and other second-hand resources. It helped to know that this situation was not forever; certainly, after a few formative years at home with the babies, we would not be opposed to having others care for them.”

MIX IT UP: Sometimes things are not so cut and dry. Can you work nights while your partner works days? Can you both move to a part-time schedule so that the baby is almost always in the care of one parent? Can you work from home a few days a week? Can you quit your job but stay active in the industry as a volunteer? Can you work only weekends? Can you start a new part-time business? Maybe you’d like to go back to work during the first year or two so you can be home during the baby’s toddler and preschool years. Think about all the possibilities.

CONSIDER THE CARE: If you are considering going back to work, really investigate what childcare situation works best for you. Do research on all the options available. Meredith, a full-time PR consultant and Mom of two, was surprised to find out that a live-in nanny was a less expensive option than full-time daycare for her children. “It’s wonderful. My kids are safe at home; there’s no running around to drop off and pick up in the morning or after work. She’s there all the time from Monday through Friday so I can do errands or food shopping after the kids are asleep. My nanny also cleans and does laundry so that on the weekends we have 100 percent family time.” For many people, in-home care or care from a family member is far more appealing— and surprisingly more affordable— than a daycare center.

GO WITH YOUR GUT: If you truly want to stay home, but you feel conflicted financially, look for ways to make it happen. Take a good look at your spending habits. Kelly, a psychotherapist and Mother of two from California, feels that if you want to stay home and it looks like you can almost afford it, go for it. “There are hidden costs associated with working, like transportation, clothing and lunches, which add up. When I’m not working, I save money in lots of little ways. I plan meals and shop for groceries more carefully and eat leftovers for lunch,” she explains. Even if you save money in just a few ways that work for you, when you put all that together with the money you’re not spending to work, it adds up to a significant amount.”

Likewise, if you know you won’t be happy staying at home— don’t. Remember the saying, “If Momma ain’t happy, then nobody’s happy.” Find quality childcare that you trust and don’t feel guilty about having a career you enjoy. This is a guilt that few men buy into and far too many women do.

In the end, the most important part of this decision is that YOU make it— you and your partner— not your Mom, in-laws, friends or society. These people were most likely not with you when you “planned” this baby and they should have no bearing on your decisions regarding the way you run your family. Resist the desire to ask for opinions or reassurances if you really know what you need. After all, mothers know best.