Does It Make Sense To Work When Child Care Is So Expensive?

On the brink of another life change, before I got married the first time, my mom offered the following unsolicited advice:

“Always have girlfriends, and always keep your own bank account.”

In other words, always stay interdependent with others outside your family, and always maintain enough independence to call at least some of your own shots.

It’s something I’m considering as I navigate the fraught terrain for women planning to merge career and child care for the first time. How do I find this stuff? How much should it cost? How do you make sure it’s good?

And the biggest question of all, one that keeps coming up with other friends who are expecting children or new parents:

Is it selfish to keep working when child care is so expensive and he makes more money than I do?

That question. My goodness. That question we’d heard before and never thought would apply to us.

I keep thinking back to my mother’s advice. Always have girlfriends. It’s not just about friends. It’s not just about marriage. It’s about a woman’s place in a broader world. It’s about support systems. Having just one support system is not supporting yourself as well as you could. My family is important to me. But I feel like I’m selling all of us short if I don’t have friends and career, which are also important to me and my sense of identity.

Always keep your own bank account. This one feels more tricky. Like a lot of women married to men, my husband makes more money than I do. And with a kid on the way, the questions get louder. As one New York Times blogger wrote, Why Do I Think My Salary Pays for Child Care? I admit to the same thinking, and hearing it among friends. Does it economically make sense for me to work? Given that we almost always direct this question at women, how will we clear the way so our daughters don’t have to ask this question? Sure, we often get paid less. But maybe if we stick around at work we can help be part of the ongoing and as-yet unrealized call for equal pay.

It’s also about now and not just the future. As one of my friends said to me, sure he makes more than I do, and he’s going to pick up more money for the baby’s needs. What if I work less or not at all to stay with the kid, and I want to buy a pair of jeans? What if I want to stop for a coffee? And whether we’re talking about disposable income or accessing basics like food and health care, that’s what money really comes down to: Power. The power to make your own decisions and be in control of your life.

I don’t have easy answers to these questions. Our baby will come soon. As I consider a life on the brink of great change, I can’t stop thinking about what my mom said. Mixing interdependence, independence, child, work and family is not easy. It makes me frustrated that these issues are typically seen as women’s issues. They are societal issues. My guess is the more we move toward that frame, the easier it will be to make some changes.

4 thoughts on “Does It Make Sense To Work When Child Care Is So Expensive?

  1. Katie Joffee

    Paying for childcare now is like an insurance policy. Insurance to keep yourself professionally relevant. Keep at least one foot in the workplace Erin and you’ll assure yourself a space there long after daycare expenses are necessary.

  2. Erin, sounds like your nesting instinct is kicking in. I can only share my own experiences with you here. When my son was born, it was expected by everyone, especially me, that I would return to work in three months. However, one night my husband woke up to find me in the living room going over expenses with tears streaming down my face. “Please”, I begged him, “I just cannot leave this baby and go back to work.” My husband was really a true feminist, so he sat down with me, and we proceeded to figure out how we could go from two paychecks down to one.

    I stayed home for two years with my son. During that time, I turned over my bank account to my husband (I believed like your mom, and I’ll get back to that). I bounced one check, and he took the checkbook away from me because I’m not really good at balancing the check book. (then as well as now!). So for two years, I received a stipend of $35 a week. I had to buy all the groceries, formula, diapers, and dog food (we had 3 German Shepherds). It was a struggle, but I did it.

    What made me decide to go back to work was that I was spending too much time in front of the tv watching Mr. Rogers who told me he liked me….just the way I was. Which felt good for a woman who hadn’t yet had her shower and smelled of kiddie poo and other bodily fluids.

    So I went back to work. This was in 1981. I was brought back into the corporation making exactly what I was making when I left in 1979. It took a while before someone realized I needed an adjustment in pay (no one listened when I continually brought this up). However, I was basically making enough money to pay for day care, groceries, and gas for my car. Very little left over for frills. However, I was back talking with adults and smelled much better. Also, I had enough sense to get back into my company’s retirement program (don’t think they called it 401K at the time), and re-open my own bank account.

    I cannot emphasize your mother’s advise strongly enough. I have made that suggestion to many women over the past 30+ years, and I always get the same response, once they have done so: it is a liberating and empowering feeling. Some women have had to do it on the sly because their husbands’ felt like they would leave. Just do it. Open your own charge card in your own name so that you have your own credit! Trust me, when John passed away two years ago, it was so helpful to me to have had all of that in my name. Oh, by the way, in case anyone thought he was mean because he took the checkbook away from me, let me just say that he balanced the checkbook down to the penny, made it neat (used whiteout for any mistakes), and valued his credit score as much as anything. I wasn’t angry. I still don’t balance my checkbook, and manage just fine!

  3. I think that this is a question you return to again and again. I recently got a job (YAY) which I will be starting soon. I was home with my daughter for 19 months. When we needed to put her in day care two days a week, so that I could job search, I felt bad. However, I just needed the space not only to job search, but also recharge. Now that she is transitioning to full time day care, it is hard. My husband and I are coordinating a drop-off and pick-up schedule and will also be changing up household duties. Even though these changes are good and I want to work, I still feel nervous about the change. I made the mistake of trying to talk with my father-in-law and he told me, “That is what happens when you love your job more than your daughter.” <<< What the fuck??!? The judgment on working mothers is so intense and unfair. No one every said anything like that to my husband.. Both of us our working to provide for our family and because we love it and want this other part of our identity.

    I agree with your sister that loving yourself and doing right for your own self is just as crucial to your child's well being as attending to her other needs.

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