One of the most common questions I’ve been getting in my second trimester is “Are you going to keep working?” And it’s a particularly tricky one. Not because the answer is difficult for me — I am most definitely going back to work — but because I’m guilty of being ignorant and insensitive when I reply.
A few things to keep in mind before I continue:
- If you’ve read my previous blogs or know me at all, you know I’m not really a kid person. They were never part of my life plan until recently, and I can’t say I consider myself particularly nurturing.
- I absolutely love my job. It’s creative and challenging and fills my days with a sense of purpose and personal growth. With a few rare exceptions — let’s face it, no job is great all the time — I genuinely look forward to getting up and coming to work each day.
- I suck when I’m at home. I’m one of those people who need structure and routine in order to function in adult society. When I have days off work, I sometimes don’t put on pants. Dishes pile up while I sit unblinking through 14 episodes of The West Wing. It's not pretty.
The idea of Charlotte as a stay-at-home caregiver of anything more complicated than a cactus is truly horrifying. So, when people ask me, “Are you going to keep working?” I have a nasty habit of blurting out, “Dear God, of course!” or something equally inconsiderate. I forget sometimes — as we humans are prone to doing — that there are people different from me out there. People with different lives and different emotions, who derive pleasure and meaning from completely different things.
For example, many of the women I respect the most in my life made a different choice. Staying home with her children was a tremendous priority for my mother-in-law and always part of her life plan. My boss and mentor, Wendy, stayed home with her children for years and says that although it wasn’t easy—“[My daughter] is the toughest boss I ever had”— it was the best decision she ever made. And my own mother— who has worked outside the home nearly every day of my life — told me recently that she stayed home when my older sister was a baby and would have loved to do the same with me if we could have afforded it.
My husband is a name I could add to that list, come to think of it. He would love nothing more than to be a full-time caregiver. I joke often that I would come home to Cam constructing a 6-foot-tall volcano on the kitchen table while our infant watches from a high chair and our dog munches happily on the bathroom garbage (Cam: “Yep, that’s totally how it would be.”) Don’t tell him I said this, but honestly, I think that sounds awesome. Because Cam is the warmest, most loving person I know and I can’t imagine a better childhood for our kids (furry and otherwise) than to be with their father every day.
Unfortunately, that’s just not a possibility for us right now. It’s not a possibility for most families these days. Here’s a fascinating statistic I heard at a conference this week: only 47 percent of working Baby Boomers (people currently in their 50s or older) had a spouse who also worked full time outside the home. For Millennials (people my age and younger), that statistic is 80 percent. Nearly all my peers work full time and, if they’re in a relationship, their partners work full time too.
There are myriad reasons for this new norm, both financial and cultural, but the presenter’s main point was that topics once deemed “women’s” issues are now everybody issues. Like child care. The average annual cost of infant child care in Idaho, for example, is about $6,500. That’s more than 10 percent of your budget if your family earns Idaho’s median household income: $47,628.
However, many families in our community don’t make anywhere near $47,000 a year. And that’s just the cost of child care for one kid. If you have two kids in full-time care, as many families do, the cost is more like $13,000 a year. For families living below the poverty line, that’s 66 percent or more of their annual pay. I’m a data dork and I’ve read a lot of statistics in my life, but that was by far one of the most sobering.
So, maybe the thing I need to remember when people ask about my post-childbirth career plans is how lucky I am to have a choice at all. To have an employer who will pay me to stay home with our child for the first few months. To be able to afford child care if we need it, and to have friends and family offering to care for our child so we don’t. For those things, and for so much more, I am truly grateful … even if I’m really bad at expressing it sometimes.