What Works for Your Family?
Evelyn, 31, eight months pregnant with her third child, found herself wracked with stomach pains—and not because of the impending labor. Instead, she was turning herself inside out trying to decide whether or not to return to work. After her older children were born, Evelyn had taken a half-time teaching position at her local high school, a job she enjoyed because of the income and because of the difference she could make on her students. But she found herself always exhausted and this time wanted to stay home. Could she afford it? Would she go stir crazy? And what about the students she would be leaving?
Such decisions are increasingly plaguing couples, and not all of us are at peace even after the decision is made. One recent study found that 25% of women who worked full-time would rather stay home, and another 44% would rather work part-time. It’s not hard to understand why. Not only are parents worried about the repercussions for their kids; they often find that such hectic schedules make their lives out of control. While there may be times when such a lifestyle is necessary, committing to one before we’ve done our homework is bound to put us in this group of second guessers. Before you decide whether or not to both work, ask yourselves these questions:
Do We Need the Money?
When it comes to work, nothing affects our decision more than money. People who work solely for the money, though, may end up disappointed if they don’t do the math first.
Imagine Cheryl, who once worked as a school librarian for $17 an hour. She and her husband tried to live on his salary so she could stay at home with their children, ages 2 and 5, but it seemed there was never enough money. Finally Cheryl put the kids in care and went back to work. Childcare, though, wasn’t their only expense. They also bought a second car. Cheryl needed more clothes and make up. And they frequently resorted to take out for dinner because they were both too exhausted to cook. Her $17 an hour rapidly shrank to $3.96. (To figure out what your real take-home pay would be, use the chart at the side).
Whether or not work is financially necessary has as much to do with the cost of working as the salary you can expect to bring home. For some families, that $3.96 may be all that’s keeping them from losing their home. For others, it may not make enough of a contribution to warrant the extra stress. Figure out how much money your family actually needs, and brainstorm about how you can meet this need.
Who Am I?
My mother, a career consultant, recently met with Cathy, 51, who had just been offered an attractive buyout package. Though her colleagues were falling all over themselves to claim this windfall, she was reluctant to take it. At home she was treated as hired help. She was expected to make all the meals, do all the housework, and clean up after her teenage son. At work she felt important. She couldn’t bear to lose that respect.
Work is unlikely to satisfy your deepest psychological and spiritual needs, though; these are met only in relationship. If we work solely for this reason, we may be setting ourselves up for disappointment, because we lose out on the chance to address the family problems that might make work so attractive in the first place! Before you decide to work to meet a psychological need, make sure you can’t meet that need in other ways. If work gives you social contacts, you could join a gym or a playgroup. If work gives you a sense of accomplishment, you could organize a school fundraiser. And if work gives you respect, read books about how you can foster respect from your family. I wrote To Love, Honor and Vacuum to help women like Kathy to stop feeling so taken for granted. That’s something we can all benefit from.
What About My Career?
Perhaps the fear of losing your career is what’s pulling you to work. Evelyn’s dedication to her career faded once children came. In other cases, though, the years of education we invested or the sense of calling we feel make it difficult to abandon a career completely.
The good news is that the workplace is becoming much more flexible. Several decades ago, most people stayed with one company and worked their way up. Today, the average worker will change jobs approximately seven times over his or her lifetime. Exiting and entering the workforce is thus much easier. Many companies are also willing to offer flexible working arrangements in order to keep skilled workers. With all these changes, it may be possible to find a way to combine working while still being home with the kids some of the time.
Perhaps your spouse, too, can find ways to change his job situatoin so it’s easier for you to pursue yours. Maybe you can each work opposite hours, so someone is usually home with the children (just be sure you’re sometimes home together!). Or perhaps there’s a way to stay in your career, but do a different job. Alison Froese left her clinical anesthesia practice when her daughters were born to go into research, allowing her to be home two and a half days a week. Often if we search, compromises can be found to suit us in this chapter of our lives that is bound to be the busiest!
Once you’ve settled these difficult practical questions, you’re free to dream with God about what you want for your family. Steven Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, reminds us that it is through family relatoinships that we feed our souls. Too often we live life on a default setting, doing what’s expected of us, instead of taking a step back and asking what the wisest decision would be. Every family is different, and all of us need to ask what is the best way to keep our families—and ourselves—healthy and together.