Should You Quit Work?

by Betty Holcomb

Should You Quit Work?

Kathy Weymiller was totally unprepared for the wave of longing that swept over her on her first day back at work after maternity leave. “Part of me wanted to stay home with my new baby and never do anything else again,” she says. Then a middle-school choir teacher in Silverdale, WA, Weymiller never imagined that she’d want to stop working. But after saying goodbye to 3-month-old Alex that morning, nothing felt right. “Getting through the first days back was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “It felt like a disaster to let go of my time with him.”

Weymiller did continue to work, and both she and Alex have thrived. In the seven years since his birth, she’s become the principal at Artondale Elementary School, in Gig Harbor, WA, and the mother of a second son. Most important, she now finds home and work life satisfying. “It’s not always easy, but it feels normal and happy most of the time now,” she says.

Nearly 2,000 miles away, in Shawnee, KS, Robyn Cunningham returned to her job as a social worker three months after her first child was born, only to decide, in a split second, that she had to quit. “I remember the moment really well. I was on the phone with my caregiver and I could hear Chase crying in the background,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. I need to be the one holding him when he’s crying.'” The next day, Cunningham gave her employer a month’s notice. She stayed home full-time until Chase was 15 months old, then went back to school to become a nurse.

The Big Dilemma

The question comes up sooner or later for nearly every new and expectant mom: Should I quit work to stay home with my baby?

There’s no easy  — or right  — answer, of course. Research conducted over the past five decades shows that a mother’s decision to work or stay home isn’t a good predictor of how her children will turn out, for better or worse (unless their care is substandard). “It’s not really about whether a mom’s employed or not, but under what circumstances and how she feels about it,” says Nancy Marshall, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College who’s studied the effects of work and childcare on children. Family experiences are far more important to a child’s outcome than anything else. And that explains why a mother’s attitude about work counts for so much: If she’s unhappy, her sadness and anger can spill over into her interaction with her kids.

Trouble is, most moms ride an emotional roller coaster for several months after giving birth, and that can make it hard to judge one’s real feelings about work. Even a mom who loves her job may be blindsided by new emotions. “I thought I was one of those women who’d have the baby in the fields and walk right back to work. Boy, was I wrong!” says Barbara Noyes, a police officer in Rockland County, NY, and the mom of two sets of twins. “I didn’t realize how attached I’d be to those babies. I thought about quitting work all the time at first.”

So how do you decide what’s best for your family? It helps to start with a rational assessment of the trade-offs you face and to give yourself a little time to make a decision if you’re wavering. “I suggest women try to take the five-year view,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, in New York City. “You have to think about where you want to be – and how life will be for your entire household – in five years.” Some of the issues to consider:

Family Finances

If you’re thinkiNG about quitting, you’ve probably already had endless conversations with your spouse about surviving on one income, at least for a while. But have you considered the long-term, less-obvious consequences? Social Security and other retirement benefits are based on lifetime earnings and contributions, so any break from work could mean not only less money now but also less later on. Raises and promotions also come more slowly if you take time off, and many women end up taking pay cuts when they switch jobs after having a child. Over time, the impact can be significant. One study shows that women who work continuously until the age of 40 earn about 40 percent more than those who leave and reenter the workforce.

Even if you think you can live on less – now and later – that may not mean your family will actually want to. A second paycheck accounts for 40 percent of the average family budget today. For some, pinching pennies is a noble enterprise. “It is hard. But it’s worth it,” says Susan Day, a social worker in Indianapolis who stopped working when she was pregnant with her second child. Though she’s taken on some part-time and freelance work to make ends meet, “Nothing is more important to me now than to have time with my family. We have to make a lot of tough choices about spending, but that only brings us closer,” she says.

Not everyone finds that a tight budget makes for tighter families. The most important thing is that you and your partner be honest with each other. “We were just starting out, and without my income, we would have been living paycheck to paycheck, watching every single dime we spent,” says Lisa Huffman, a market-research consultant in Washington, DC. “When you have a baby, you’re working through a lot of emotions anyway, and adding financial stress to everything else would have been too much for us.”

Career Fallout

You’ll also need to consider how marketable you’ll be after a pause in your work life. Every field extracts some penalty for those who take time off; the question is whether it’s one you can tolerate. Stepping out of a job in the high-tech industry, for instance, may be career-crimping, since the industry changes every few nanoseconds. Some moms keep up by doing temp work or consulting. For others, there’s simply no way back. “You can’t freelance for the police department, and there’s a long list of people waiting for jobs like mine. Given that there are exactly four openings every three years in Rockland County, I knew I couldn’t quit and come back,” says Noyes.

Most fields offer some middle ground, but it often takes effort to find it. “A lot of women I know thought about this as a black-and-white issue, but I tried not to think that way. I knew I wanted to be home while my children were young and that I’d want to return to work eventually, so I decided to try to make my job work for me,” says Jaci Shiendling, a mother of two and then a convention planner in Miami. “I kept thinking of how I could shape my own career.” Given the nature of organizing conventions, she was able to work part-time, evenings, and weekends once her oldest child turned 2. At the time, nearly ten years ago, her approach was pioneering; now she sees more women either persuading their employers to let them try part-time, job-sharing, and consulting arrangements, or striking off on their own in order to have more control over their careers.

Psychological Shifts

Leaving the workforce can also affect your self-image and the dynamics of your marriage. “Some days I felt like someone out of a fifties sitcom – picking up the dry cleaning, going to the park, running errands,” says Shelley Labiner, a mother of two boys who stayed home for nine years to raise them in the New Jersey suburbs. “I’m glad I was home. It’s what I wanted to do. But no one ever tells you that you’re doing a good job, so you have to find your rewards in seeing the kids grow up and in knowing that you’re the one who’s there providing the bulk of their nurturing.”

Other women see work as an integral part of their identity. “My husband and I had talks about this before we even got married. We both have ambition and love our jobs as teachers. I was afraid that if I ever quit working, I wouldn’t have anything to talk about, that I wouldn’t have a passion the way I do now,” says Kathy Weymiller. “Plus, I feel that what I do is important, that I make a difference in the lives of five hundred kids every day.”

Research shows that relationship roles can change profoundly when one spouse stops working. Some women feel less willing to speak up. “There’s often a shift in power when one spouse doesn’t have an income,” says Janice Steil, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies the dynamics of dual-earner couples. “Many women don’t feel as entitled to voice an opinion or make family decisions when they’re not contributing financially.” She suspects that this is why she and other researchers have found that dual-earner couples who value each other’s careers have happier marriages.

But there are two important exceptions to this rule. The first is when a working woman winds up doing a second shift at home without much help from her partner. “Marriages work best when there is a deep, reciprocal level of support for one another,” says Francine Deutsch, Ph.D., a psychologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, and author of Halving It All, an in-depth study of dual-career couples. “Just about everything goes more smoothly for working women when their husbands are really willing to share the day-to-day responsibility for a new child.” Otherwise, the joint burdens of trying to keep up at work and making sure things run smoothly at home can be overwhelming.

The second exception comes straight from the heart: “If one or both spouses truly believe that it’s wrong for a mother to work, then you can wind up with a stressful marriage if she’s employed outside the home,” says Steil.

Childcare Choices

Many new moms consider staying home right up until the moment they find the perfect caregiver or childcare center for their baby, so consider checking out your options before you feel pressured to make up your mind. “Our babysitter is a godsend. She’s been with us for five years,” says Huffman. “Without her, I don’t know whether I could work.”

By contrast, many moms who decide to stay home feel that they don’t want to leave their child in anyone else’s care. “Somebody has to be with the kids, and I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter who it is,” says Labiner. “I think children need a parent at home, so I was happy to stay with them.”

For still others, it’s timing that counts. “I felt it was important to be there for the first year. When I looked at daycare facilities, I got very sad when I went to the infants’ rooms. Those babies were so little,” says Cunningham. But she found the toddler room fun and lively and believes that her son, Branden, age 2, benefited from being there when she went back to work. “He was ready to be in a more social atmosphere,” she says.

In the end, of course, choosing whether to stay home or to continue working is a very personal decision, and no one can tell you how you’re going to feel after you have your baby. Your best course of action: Consider all the variables  — then follow your gut.

Contributing editor Betty Holcomb is the author of Not Guilty! The Good News for Working Mothers.