(Photo above: Martha & Don’s daughters 25 years ago.)
I remember reading a post at Hannah’s Unplanned Finance in which she briefly touched upon the risks involved for a woman, who has put a pause on her career to raise children, re-launching her career at “forty-five” in a culture that favours youth. It made me think of my sister Martha.
Martha stepped out of full-time work as an occupational therapist for over a decade when she and her husband Don had their three daughters. When her youngest was out of elementary school, she started to work towards her Master’s Degree. She then went back to full-time work almost exactly at Hannah’s dreaded “forty-five”, and found her way to a position in Health Canada. More than another decade has passed since that time, and my sister’s rise through the ranks in the intervening years has been incredible. She spoke at the UN this past summer!
Her experience has made me believe that staying home or reducing work to part-time, even for a significant number of years, doesn’t have to compromise a woman’s (or a man’s) career potential. Reduced income doesn’t have to compromise the couple’s financial health. Here is my interview with my sister:
When you became a mom, was it difficult for you to decide whether or not you would continue working full-time? What factors influenced your decision?
When we first became parents it was important to both of us that one of us be at home with our precious baby. Both of our mothers had stayed at home. For me, career wasn’t a strong push at all even though I enjoyed my work. As Don was a full-time graduate student (with scholarship funds), I did need to earn some income, and we worked all sorts of arrangements over the the 2 years after her birth – sometimes with no childcare and sometimes part-time care.
Did you ever struggle with longings to have the disposable income of double-income couples? Or to put your professional know-how to more use?
No. I didn’t expect to have a large double income and we had what we wanted – the girls had what they wanted. Life was simple early on with few expenses in terms of clothes, food, size of house, activities, etc. We had fun together, with family at the park, with neighbors and we all tended to be in the same room of the house together – usually the kitchen with its craft table.
What were the benefits of working part-time so that you could be at home with your daughters?
I was very part-time for 2 years after having had our third daughter – down to 1.25 days of work per week during the school year, with summers completely off. I increased to 3 days a week for 11 years. Part-time had all sorts of benefits – more relaxed pace at home to connect with our kids and do stuff together; manage school work, illnesses, logistics of activities; more time with friends and family. Time is the biggest luxury. My working part-time also made it easier for us to get involved in our community – on church council, soccer coaching, board of Nursery school. This led to great friendships and contributed to the community (from which we benefited), but it also built our own leadership and organizational skills which have helped in our jobs.
How did you know when it was time to prepare to re-launch into your career?
The girls were all beyond elementary school and I was very interested in learning more and going back to school, thinking I would then step up my work more. I hadn’t charted out a career – in fact I thought I would seek work in health administration, not in the Government. However during my Masters degree I met many bureaucrats and had profs from the Government or affiliated with it. I was the most surprised to realize that I was interested in Government policy – particularly health policy. I found it interesting how options were developed,weighed and decisions made. Upon graduation I applied all over in the Government and eventually obtained a permanent job. Part-time was no longer an option for me there, and I was ready for full-time.
When the time came and I was interested in new ventures, he fully supported my return to school and full-time work and had a stronger belief in me than I had in my own abilities to do it. It was a very big adjustment as my hours were more than full-time during some years and much of the responsibility for after school and dinner was left to him. He continues to encourage me to climb the hierarchy, but I’m happy where I am at!
What message would you like to give to parents of young children who are wrestling with the financial implications of stepping back from a double-income situation?
There is no one right way and lots of possible combinations. Do what your and your partners’ guts want, and you’ll make it work. Our work life can span between ages 16 and 65 or beyond. It’s a long time, and a lot can happen. Taking a few years on a part-time basis or fully off when you have children isn’t t the largest chunk of your working life. There’s still time to do lots. Outside of my 3 maternity leaves I have worked 34 years since graduating as an occupational therapist – only 13 of those were part-time.
If possible, keep your foot in the job market even on a very part-time basis. It will help your confidence and ease your eventual return to the workforce full-time. It also takes the pressure off your spouse for all income, and it keeps you in touch with your area of work and the broader world.
Have you struggled with the decision for one spouse to stay home or to reduce to part-time work to raise children? Do you think that compromises, in terms of financial health and career potential, are involved in doing so? Your comments are welcome.