When I got pregnant with my third child five years ago, I sat down one day to do some money math. My teaching job, which I loved, paid a decent salary. But our childcare bills, which would grow again with the addition of another baby, were steep as well. The verdict? Every month, I would be paying my entire salary plus $200 to our childcare provider, at least until our oldest child went to public school. That’s right. If I kept my job, I would have to pay to work.
Of course, that’s ridiculous. It’s also something that many working moms face. My husband and I talked a lot about what we would do. He encouraged me to keep working. He knew I loved my job and that being home full-time was not something that would make me happy. But the math looked really bad.
I agonized about it for weeks. Then, one night at dinner with a friend, she laid out another way to think about it. If I actually liked my job, and I actually wanted to keep working, I needed to think about these childcare costs as spread out over the 18 years that my kids were going to be in the house. Basically, she said that if I take a hit for a few years, that’s tough; but if it meant staying in a job I loved for the long-term, it was worth it.
I stayed. I cut back a bit, but I stayed. Thank fucking God.
Last fall, as I started out the school year with a group of bright-eyed teenagers, my husband fell ill. After Thanksgiving break, he was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. By January, he was gone. He had been a healthy 40-year-old who did CrossFit and ran a small company. It was inconceivable to everyone that this had happened. Because it was so fast, we had no plan for how I would move forward. We barely had time to say goodbye.
The first few months after his death were a blur and I could barely lift my head above the fog. But even in that daze, I knew I had to figure out a few vital things. I needed to make sure I could support the kids. I needed to make sure that all of us would continue to have health insurance. I needed to make sure we could stay in our house.
Luckily, even though I had cut back, I was eligible for health care at my work once the coverage from my husband’s employer ended. I could go to full-time in the next school year. I could change the percentage I contributed to my retirement and the kids could get Social Security payments each month.
We also had resources that many people don’t have – savings, insurance, and a network of friends and family who made sure I didn’t cook a meal until the summer rolled around. I didn’t lose my house. I didn’t have to move back to my hometown. My kids’ lives were horribly changed in so many ways, but they still saw the same familiar faces on the playground who hugged them and encouraged them and laughed with them. They will grow up with the same families who’ve always surrounded us.
And I still have my job.
I am not saying that every mother (or father) should keep working when he or she has kids. There are many reasons why it makes sense to stay home, especially if you want to stay home. Sometimes, that extra $200 a month makes it impossible for both parents to keep working. Sometimes the other person’s job is too much, and it’s really important for one parent to remain at home.
I get it. I do. I know a lot of happy and financially stable stay-at-home parents.
But shit happens.
Even when you think you’ve planned every little detail in your life, and even when you believe you made all the right choices, things can go awry. Someone gets fired. Another has an affair. And sometimes, if you have really terrible luck, someone dies.
Many years ago, way before I even conceptualized having kids, an old roommate told me something I’ve never forgotten. My roommate’s father had left her mother when she was pregnant. My roommate’s mom had struggled as a single mom for many years. Consequently, she told her daughter, “Always make sure you can make it without a man.”
I remember when I met my husband, and for the decade and a half we were married, I always thought that “being able to make it without a man” was a good plan for other women. But my husband was never going to leave me. He was devoted to our family and he still routinely told me I was the best woman he’d ever met.
But he did leave me. Not willingly, of course, but he’s no longer on this earth and I am alone. I am a newly single parent to three kids under ten with no clue in hell about how to make it all work.
And yet, we will be okay. We will be okay for many reasons, but one of those reasons is because many years ago, I must have known that quitting my job would be a bad idea for my family. Maybe, somehow, I heard a voice from the future saying, “Do not, under any circumstances, quit your job.”
Others might decide for an extra-large insurance policy or a different back-up plan. That’s all good. Figure out what works for you, as long as you know you can make it if circumstances change. Because shit happens.
I know. I’m living in it right now. And I will tell you this: thank God for my job.