Reduced Work & Reduced Income to Raise Children?

(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.

In terms of my job, I was lucky as a part-time occupational therapist. I got to put my “know-how” into use.  I thoroughly enjoyed keeping my work and putting my skills to use.

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.

Have you found that your age has been an advantage or a disadvantage in the workplace? Both? Neither? 
I am a bit of an odd duck being my age with only 12 years experience in the Government.  Generally, I think my age leads people to expect good work and to respect me. I haven’t been aware of any disadvantages.
Do you have any financial regrets? Do you think your finances would be radically different from what they are now if you had chosen not to take time out of your career to raise your children?
I don’t have any financial regretsI feel very lucky to have been able to be at home so much and to have had a family that made the adjustment with me to full-time work – it was an adjustment for all!  I don’t really think our finances would have been radically different.  We would have likely spent more on childcare, holidays, meals out etc.
What role would you say your husband has had, both in terms of your decision to stay home and your eventual decision to pursue your career? 
He played a big role.  It was a joint commitment to be at home for a healthy chunk of the girls’ early years – life was easier for both of us.  He was a very active dad for our daughters and took over childcare responsibilities for the after school period while I was still at work and during my studies, as his office was at home.

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 himHe continues to encourage me to climb the hierarchy, but I’m happy where I am at!

Describe what happened during your trip to New York when you were part of a team visiting the UN. 
In June I was part of the Canadian delegation at the United Nations in work related to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  I found the experience so inspiring and emotional. Representatives for over 150 different countries, many of whom have disabilities themselves, were all together trying to make the world more inclusive of the 1 billion people world-wide with disabilities.
I had the honour of sitting in the chair marked “Canada”, filling in for the head of the Canadian delegation until she arrived to give Canada’s commentary in both official languages (English and French). I knew in advance that there was a chance that she wouldn’t make it and that I would actually be the one who would have to speak – and that happened! As the time approached, I texted Don and the girls to say, “I’m in the ‘Canada Chair’ and may need to deliver Canada’s remarks!” They all sent messages back to me: “You go, Mom!” “Wowzer!” “Proud of you!”
I ended up addressing the assembly, reading a prepared text. I was to tap a button after the panel  presentations if I had something to say – the chair would invite us to speak in the order in which we tapped the button.  I guess I was pretty fast in tapping, so Canada was quickly called to speak. I still had on earphones that allowed me to hear the English translations of speakers representing nations from around the world. I started giving my remarks and all was going well until I started to speak in French to deliver the 2nd half of Canada’s remarks. I started hearing my own remarks being translated through my earphones back to me! I quickly pulled off my earphones, drawing a laugh from the representative from Chile seated beside me. He knew exactly what was going on with those earphones! I survived my first remarks at the UN – I was on a high!
What kind of role modelling do you hope your example is setting for your daughters?
Don and I both value the parenting role, and we want our daughters to see that it’s possible to work with your partner to navigate the career years to do what you each want in life. Don’t let yourself  get too stuck – consider the options. 

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. 

14 comments on “Reduced Work & Reduced Income to Raise Children?

  1. I always thought I’d stay home full-time when I became a parent, but when my daughter was about eight months old, I started getting restless and really missed feeling productive and having some adult interaction and work. (I love babies – and my daughter – but caring for them is not always very intellectually stimulating!) I was incredibly fortunate in that I was offered a p/t, temporary position, which quickly became a more regular, p/t position. Before my daughter started kindergarten, we had a babysitter care for her at our house. But since she started full-day school a little over a year ago, I’ve been able to structure my work hours so that I’m home for her morning and afternoon school buses. I also have summers off, which is great. However, working very part-time (11 hours per week now), means my income is quite limited, and I don’t receive any benefits, like 401K contributions from my employer. The flip side is that I’m home with my daughter all of the time she is, we don’t pay for childcare, I can volunteer in her school once a week, and our weekends aren’t a mad-dash of errands and activities. Although we could really use more money, (my blog is called DebtGal, after all!), this balance works for our family now. I anticipate finding a job with more hours when my daughter goes to middle school or high school.

    1. “Although we could really use more money…” I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t say this! Amy, to me, it sounds like your situation is fantastic. These years of part-time income will be like a “training ground”, so that when you’re working full-time, you’ll know how to manage your full-time income really effectively – without waste. I believe that by the time you’re looking back on all of this, like Martha, you won’t have any regrets.

  2. We have had this debate on and off for years. Both of us have good careers that we’ve worked hard for and our gut (or at least mine) tells me that once the kids get to elementary school we need to work out a way for one of us to stay home, so they don’t have to spend early mornings, after school and summers in a daycare. That just isn’t cool. Right now we work hard to save, and I think we will be ok if one of us quits when the oldest gets to kindergarten or first grade – but it is going to be difficult. I may try switching my career to teaching, so that I could still have summers off and hopefully have classes while the kids are in school – we shall see!

    1. From what I understand, you and Mr. SSC are in a position that so few people are in: You’re setting yourselves up for early retirement so that you’ll both have full-range of freedom in choosing to work or not to work. The key for your situation is that you started proactively planning for this now not-so-distant-future freedom when you were young. Your children will be huge beneficiaries of this – as will you both. When you say, “but it is going to be difficult”, do you mean that you expect a very limited income in your early-forties retirement? If that’s the case, your plans for a new line of work – even if it’s part-time – will make up for the shortfall. It will be VERY interesting to see how everything unfolds once your FIRE date arrives. You’ve got this!

  3. I’m so glad you did this interview! I remember your telling me that your sister did something similar to what I hoped to do (or plan to do starting in March). It gives me hope to know that Martha started in a very similar position to the one that I am in (my husband is also in grad school).

    I think it’s really refreshing to hear another voice say that 45 isn’t too late to start a career (even a new-ish career like the one Martha started), and I certainly hope that I come away from the experience without regrets.

    1. I’m glad you got something out of this interview, Hannah! You inspired it, after all : )
      I noticed how similar your situation was to Martha’s as well – both of you starting your families with your husbands in grad school. I find my sister’s experience to be a real example of the saying, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” We live longer and longer lives. 45 today is younger than it was when my mom was 45 – and by the time you hit that age, it will be younger still. From what I understand about your situation, Hannah, you have so much to look forward to – in both the near and more distant future.

  4. Awesome interview!! Even though your sister works now, I really appreciate the perspective she gave on being a stay-at-home-mom and how being there for her girls in their early years was really important. I worked full-time until the birth of my daughter and have been home with her ever since. It was important to both my husband and I, that I be home with her. We subsist on one income, and that is okay. We make do. These years with my daughter have been priceless and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. 🙂

    1. Mackenzie, I think the key to your situation and my sister’s is that you were both on the same page with your husbands. It sounds like you have your husband’s support now in your choice to stay home. With two people behind that kind of decision, it has a much better chance of working out than if only one of the two is really behind it. I hope that if and when the time comes when you choose to pursue part-time of full-time work, you’ll have his support once again. So wonderful that you’re fully able to appreciate the value of your years at home : )

    1. There are so many options for young families – and it can be stressful settling on a plan when, as Martha says, “There is no one right way and lots of possible combinations.”
      (And I agree, Brian – her opportunity to talk at the UN was amazing!)

  5. I always looked to the future and thought, what would I regret most in life? And I knew it would be not being home with my son. I know not everyone can work that out. I’m extremely grateful that we did, even though it was financially idiotic as all get out. I remember a school assignment of my son’s where he had to write his obituary as if he was in his 90’s or so. It really is a good way to look back at your life, so to speak, to examine what you really want. Regrets suck. And by the way, your sister totally rocks in every way! Way to go Martha. Loved that UN story! 🙂

    1. The fact that I was not able to spend more time at home with my children is, I think, my biggest regret. Part of it was outside of our control. My husband went through the high-tech bust roller coaster within months of my having resigned from work – followed by his 6 years of underemployment. So it was back to work big time for me – and full-time instead of the part-time I’d been doing. Heart-breaking. But if we hadn’t been maxed out when the unexpected happened, maybe we’d have been able to navigate that time differently – with more time at home for me. Anyway, I’m focused on setting up well for what lies ahead. If regrets motivate us to better decisions, I guess they’re not so bad. (Wow, Kay. You got me monologuing there.)

        1. I appreciate the hugs : ) But I won’t say I was completely dealt the hand of cards I ended up having to play with. I have to take responsibility for my part in choosing those cards. I’m choosing different cards now, and my hand is looking better all the time.

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