"I had zero experience taking care of children before I had my own," said Laura Mercer, mother of two boys and professional stay-at-home mom outside of Las Vegas, Nev. "Being a career woman most of my adult life, the thought of being a stay-at-home mom didn't even occur to me."
Instead of donning a suit and pumps each morning in pursuit of the corporate American dream, Mercer gets gussied up in kid-proof clothing to confront a very different challenge: maintaining a household and raising two energetic boys. Like most stay-at-home parents, Mercer acts as cook, maid, driver, disciplinarian, and tutor - all without monetary compensation.
So why do thousands of career women nationwide opt to put their careers and salary-earning potential on the back burner to stay home to care for their children? Reasons can range from the exorbitant cost of childcare to deep emotional attachment, but one thing is clear: being a stay-at-home parent is a full-time job.
CPA and stay-at-home mother of two Wendy Schulze of suburban Massachusetts had reservations of her own about staying in the workforce. "I looked into day care, but I wasn't comfortable with it," she said. "And with two children, it's really not worth it to put both of them in day care."
Finances aren't the only, or even the biggest, reason for a parent to stay home and care for the children. Kansas City, Mo., stay-at-home mom Tiffany Allshouse was worried about her daughter's most formative years being defined by someone who wasn't family. Neither she nor her husband has relatives in the nearby area to help out. "The thought of a stranger - not Mom or Dad - being her primary caregiver is horrifying to me, even if the day care is the best around," she said.
Perks and bonuses
"She gets up around 6:30 in the morning to have a bottle and a diaper change," said Allshouse of her daughter. "When she's finished, we spend a few minutes just lying there together. I usually try to remember that this is a time I would not have with her if I were working and rushing her off to day care."
Schulze also takes note of the little things when caring for her two children. "I get to see everything, the first step, the first word. We have a lot of fun, we laugh and giggle," she said. "I know that we would still have that if I was working, but I don't know if I would have been the one clapping my hands, telling them 'You can do it!'"
Not only are stay-at-home parents able to spend their days with their little ones, but they usually get some down time to attend to their own needs during naps and play dates. "The spontaneity of the daily schedule can be kind of nice once you get the hang of it. After years of 9-to-5 jobs, it's a nice change of pace," said Erin Livingstone of northern Texas.
All three women are able to pursue hobbies they weren't able to give attention to while working out of the house. "I love to read and have an insatiable appetite for books," said Allshouse. "Staying at home has given me time to read books that I've been wanting to read for years, including classics and current works."
No raises, no sick days, no adult interaction
For all its priceless benefits, being a stay-at-home parent means no salary, unless the homebound parent works out of the home on a part-time or contract basis. "The worst part is the lack of pay," said Livingstone. "And the hours - it certainly isn't a 9-to-5 job. Being on duty - or at least on call - 24 hours a day can really wear you down at times." When she has time to herself, Livingstone keeps current in graphic design, her pre-motherhood profession. She hopes to start working out of her house on a part-time basis in the future.
Mercer, who plans to expand the Web design business she runs out of her home, also pointed out that stay-at-home parents don't get sick days. "Mommies can't get sick because young children still need care." She remembers a particularly nasty flu she contracted when her children were two and four years old. Unable to get out of bed and prepare them breakfast, she asked them to "to go in the kitchen and do their best to get some food because Mommy could not look at food at the moment." When she made it to the kitchen, she discovered a blanket of Cheerios on the kitchen floor, the refrigerator door wide open, and her kids sitting on the floor eating a bowl of strawberries. "I crawled back to bed and they ate a great deal of Cheerios that day," she added.
"I don't have a lot of adult interaction these days," said Schulze, who without hesitation named lack of "adult stimulation" as the worst thing about staying at home. She's made a conscious effort to get involved with activities outside her family life. "I would have probably done these things anyway, but I wouldn't have stressed it as much as I do now."