I have been asked this question a lot lately, mostly at work. For reference, my school is in a very wealthy suburb of Boston, and for the most part, women (although we have a couple of stay at home fathers) stay home when they have children. Not to say there aren't any working moms, but even those women usually stayed home for some extended period of time when they had babies. Additionally, there has been a series of teachers at school who quit after their maternity leave. So, I get it. They are asking a logical question. Often, it is even followed by a heartfelt expression of how disappointing it would be if I did stay home. It is meant to be an earnest question and one that is even a compliment.
But, here's the rub.
It's starting to become a painful topic, and one that brings regret and guilt to the surface. For KG and I, it is just not an option for one of us to stay home. Financially, it would be disastrous. I've discussed here before how we have been on our own (money-wise) since we were 18 and each brought some debt to our relationship. In the 11+ years we have been together, our debt grew. We have spent the last several years chipping away at it with moderate success, both working full-time, medium-ish income jobs. But, there is still a long way to go, and that isn't even touching my education debt, which I'm pretty sure I'll have until I'm 80.
We are not lazy, careless, or extravagant people. We rent, we have taken one major vacation in over a decade, KG drives a '97 Camry, and I'm in an '03 CRV. High rollers over here. But, it seems like no matter how conservative we are, we can only get so far. There is no possibility of family help with things like a house, etc. It's just us, trying to make it work. So, living on one income just isn't an option. Do I regret not being more careful with money in my late teens and early/mid twenties? Yes. Do I wish one of us made a lot more money (i.e. went into a more lucrative career path?) Yes. But, we are where we are.
Even when I fantasize about being able to stay home, I get a crushing blow of reality. For example, I was in the car trying to imagine a scenario where it might work, i.e. "What if I never ate out again? What if we rented for another 5 years?" Then, it hit me. ALL of our benefits (medical, dental, retirement) are through my job. KG works for a small company that offers none of these. So, even if we figured out some hypothetical way to make being a stay at home parent work, it would not be me that got that opportunity. That brought a wave of sadness. This is a done deal.
The kicker is that BOTH of us would kill for the CHOICE to be a stay-at-home parent for any significant length of time. I've mentioned how head-over-heels in love with this baby KG is, and I'm pretty sure he would carry the baby and give birth himself if he could. He would be an incredible stay-at-home dad. And I have no idea how I'll feel during my maternity leave. Maybe I'll be dying to go back to work, or maybe I'll feel crushed at the thought. There is no way to predict that now, with no experience in this area. But given the current economy, and the lack of governmental support for new parents, this is the way it is. There is no choice for us.
Sometimes I think people (those I work with, and even some commenters on this blog) assume everyone has this choice. Some have even insinuated that I am selfish or strange for going back to work and leaving The Nugget in daycare (and with my father-in-law 2 days per week) this spring. I get those questions like, "Are you sure you want to do that? I would never leave my baby with strangers," and my heart sinks. They just don't know how lucky they are to be able to make that decision purely based on preference, and not on survival.
Is their perspective skewed? Don't most people have to work when they have kids?
There's another layer to this. The infertile layer. I had to work for
years to have this baby. We went through so much pain and disappointment
to get this far. And yet, because of our financial situation, I am
sacrificing some really important time with the baby. I suppose I am
luckier than most - I get 8 to 10 weeks off in the summer to be with The
Nugget. But still, it feels like after all we've been through, it feels like a
loss to not get to be with him 100% of the time.
These are the times when I wish I had a rewind button and could make different choices at ages 20, 21, 22... which might have left us with more options. But, instead, I've got to come to terms with the place we are in, which compared to many isn't so bad. Right?