If there’s a way to afford it, many of us choose to take at least some time off to stay home with our babies and toddlers. That’s great, and it’s a shame there aren’t better economic supports in place in the United States to make it easier for all parents who want to make that choice. A few months -- even a few years -- out of the job market is often not a big deal.
But as a divorce lawyer, I see lots of women -- many with college and graduate degrees -- who stopped working when their children were small and ended up not going back. They usually intended to, but then there was a second child, maybe a third, and their comfort level with life as a full-time mom grew at the same time as their professional skills receded into the past. Fifteen or 20 years down the road, they wake up and realize they are living in a state of complete financial dependence on their spouse. For a whole host of reasons, this is not a good position to be in.
You Can’t Count on Prince Charming
Fairy tales die hard. At some level, we might all want to believe we will be swept off our feet and taken care of forever. It’s fine if it happens -- enjoy the ride. But make sure you have a Plan B because you absolutely cannot count on happily ever after. In the real world, approximately half of all marriages end in divorce. And spouses, even young ones, can die. Or get sick. Or become disabled. Everyone knows their spouse should have life insurance, but the fact is that either divorce or disability is statistically far more likely during the child-raising years. Your ability to support yourself and your kids is your personal insurance policy against all of those scenarios none of us want to think about. A little sign hanging in my law partner’s office says: “A Man is Not a Financial Plan.” Wise words.
The Longer You Opt Out, the Harder It Is to Opt Back In
There’s no magic formula, but the longer you’re home raising kids full-time -- or taking time off for any other reason -- the harder it’s likely to be to re-enter the marketplace. Even if you have a profession you practiced for years prior to stepping out of the workforce, certifications lapse, skills get rusty, contacts disappear and confidence erodes. The reality is that you cannot just pick up where you left off. You will need a period of retraining or you may have to take a position significantly below your previous level in order to build back your resume and refresh your skills. And in a job market like this one it’s a hard sell to convince someone to hire you at all when the last time you worked in an office, the fax machine was the hot new technology.
You Might Get Divorced
The working-father-stay-at-home-mother scenario may start out fine, but your husband could come to think otherwise. If he wants to be divorced, divorce will eventually happen. And unless you have accumulated significant wealth during your marriage, you are going to take a serious financial hit. Even if your state’s laws provide for alimony for some period of time, there’s just no way to spread one income out over two households without both spouses’ standard of living going down. And you will feel it most acutely because yours will go down more. The clients I represent who are in this position are often desperate and terrified. They feel they have no control over their lives. This is not what they signed up for, but they are powerless to stop it.
Here’s where it gets even trickier: you might be the unhappy one in your marriage. You might even be physically or emotionally abused by your spouse. How do you navigate these difficult waters when any thinking you try to do about what would really be best for you and your children is completely intertwined with a sickening fear of not being able to pay the bills because your 20-year-old liberal arts degree is not going to qualify you to do anything that pays more than $12 an hour? By contrast, women who can support themselves are able to weigh their options entirely differently. Are they still in love? Would it be better for their children, on balance, if they stay or go? They may be unhappy, but they feel they have choices.
Money Is Power
Opting out of the workforce can have non-economic consequences for your marriage as well. From where I sit, there is just no question that money is power, and the power dynamic in marriages where one person is financially dependent on the other is dramatically different from marriages where either spouse could pay their own rent if they had to. Time gets valued differently, and it’s unavoidable. The breadwinner’s schedule becomes the important one because he has to keep his job. The homemaker fills in around the edges; she’s the helper.
So, why should he spend time doing laundry or cooking dinner for the family -- activities, we would all agree, are good for our sons and daughters to witness -- when she can do all those things while he’s at work? And decisions about spending and saving often end up becoming his decisions, not mutual ones; after all, he’s earning the money. Women who bring home a paycheck are far more likely to feel that their needs, their time, and their opinions are as important as their husbands’.
Work Can be Good for Your Mental Health
The jury is in on this one. A Pew study released a few months ago finds that at all income levels, stay-at-home moms report more sadness, anger and depression than their employed counterparts. Betty Friedan called it right 50 years ago in “The Feminine Mystique,” when she took the radical position that American housewives were suffering from a malaise that would be cured by working outside the home. My own mother, a member of the Friedan generation who spent 18 years at home raising four children, told me that her “A-ha!” moment came when she realized she was excited about leaving the house for a dentist appointment. That was it, she said; time to get a job.
Even Part-time Work Can Keep You Opted-in
If working full time seems daunting in light of child-rearing responsibilities, think seriously about finding part-time work, the option preferred by both stay-at-home and full-time employed mothers surveyed in the Pew study. Even if you’re just breaking even with the cost of child care, even if you’re treading water in your professional life by working in a position or at a pace below your capability in life before kids, the difference it makes when you are ready to jump back into your career with both feet is huge. (Staying in touch with professional contacts while you’re out is also important -- even if it’s just an occasional email or coffee.) As long as you’re not losing money by working part-time when you consider child care costs, you can think of it an investment in your and your kids’ future -- an intangible, but massively important, rainy day fund.
Margaret Klaw is a founding partner of Berner Klaw & Watson, an all-women law firm located in Center City, Philadelphia, dedicated exclusively to the practice of family law. Named by Martindale-Hubbell as a "Preeminent Woman Lawyer" and designated as a Pennsylvania "Super Lawyer" in the area of family law, Margaret has chaired both the Family Law Section and the Women's Rights Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and is currently an adjunct professor of family law at Temple University's Beasley School of Law. She writes and speaks frequently on family law topics and is the author of KEEPING IT CIVIL: The Pre-Nup and the Porsche & Other True Accounts from the Files of a Family Lawyer.