February 1, 2010

On Money, Roles and Our Ingrained Ideas

According to this article, for 96% of the population with kids under 18, the typical life story goes something like this:

  1. One or both parents work.
  2. Mom gets knocked up.
  3. Mom takes requisite time off work (6 weeks – 1 year, depending on which socialist regime country you live in).
  4. Mom makes choice to either stay home and take care of kids indefinitely (30%) or go back to work (66%), putting kids in care.
  5. Dad continues as primary wage-earner, albeit with a little less sleep.
  6. Cycle continues with subsequent children until both parents emerge victorious and slowly get their life back as kids are shipped off to boarding school grow older and more independent.

For 4% of the population, like our family, we diverge around Steps 3-4 and do a complete role reversal with Daddy staying home and Mommy going back to work full time. While we are blessed with the option of a year of maternity leave (albeit at a much reduced wage) in Canada, which is distributable to either parent, some of us aren’t in a position to qualify.

We had the perfect storm. I made the higher wage by a substantial amount, while hubby’s work had been on a steady decline over the previous year before we had Version 1.0. In addition, I had been self employed for six months before we had our child, which meant that although I had worked enough hours over the past 12 months to qualify for insurance, they calculate how much you get based on the previous six months. Though I had been working, it had not been insurable earnings as I was self-employed. So basically we ended up with no social security net, no parental leave or employment assistance income. We had no choice but for me to go back to work after my daughter was seven weeks old. In Canada, this is pretty much unheard of.

Because it is still most likely that the father is the primary wage-earner in the household, and because we all have pretty much guaranteed jobs to come back to after a year off, it’s usually the mom that takes the time off. Makes sense, now that I know about the physical side effects of pregnancy and newborns. However, a loving and dedicated father can do just a well caring for baby as a mommy can. But is it that simple? I can tell you, emphatically, “No”.

The first few months were damn hard. To add to the mix, we had started a new business a month before my daughter was born, and I was eager and anxious to dive in and contribute. I’m an entrepreneur by heart and the pull was strong, as was the desire to not lose my professional “edge” (which has arguably dwindled ALOT since my child ripped most of my functioning intellectual prowess out of my head). I was visiting client sites with a breast pump and bags for milk. I had to pump in public washrooms whenever I got the chance. I am sure, to the others visiting the washroom while I pumped away in a stall, that the rhythmic squeaking coming from a few feet away was at best a curious noise and at worst a horrific half-time show which they did not want to be privy to.

As a result, of course, my milk supply dwindled and waned and my daughter did not thrive like she should, so we were forced to revert to formula to give her the nourishment she needed. She was already being supplemented as my supply was meagre, but I didn’t know enough then to be able to adjust and do nights and mornings. The fact that we had to use formula was enough stress and judgment to have made me throw in the towel, but I digress.

Additionally, the emotions and hormones and physical side effects of birth had not fully departed and I struggled a lot with feelings of guilt and sadness that I was missing all the little moments of my child’s development when I had to be away for a day or, worse, overnight. I was too overwhelmed with continued night feedings and exhausted from interrupted sleep to get back into any regular exercise routine and if I was working at home, I felt guilty for taking any time off to go for a walk or play with my daughter. She had colic and cried constantly for the first four months. She had reflux and didn’t gain enough weight, blah blah blah.

While things have definitely calmed now and we have hit our routine somewhat, I do believe it’s taken us a couple of years to get more comfortable. I still cry when I hear “Mommy COME HOME!” on the phone when I’m away for a night, and I still feel exhausted every day as we wrestle our little octopus out of bed with us. Even with a toddler, it’s HARD. And EXHAUSTING. We’re getting there. But then, in a few months, we have to start again. This time I will have little to no time off. We can’t afford it. We’re right in the thick of project work with my clients and my team is depending on me. I have wonderful coworkers and I work from home primarily, but no one can take away the physical stuff you have to get through, the breast feeding at night, the UGH fatigue and sleeplessness, and the sense of responsibility to this little newborn.

My husband – best father ever. Loving, caring, responsible, active, laid back and sweet. No issues there. But I do believe there is just something different between mommy and daddy in terms of ties to a newborn baby - that panicky sense of urgency, that desire to soothe and nurture, etc. It’s hard to explain and not something we choose, just something that comes along with the physical attachment at birth.

When I decided to be a working mom, friends and family both questioned me and looked at me funny. They shook their heads and didn’t believe that this was our only choice. That we somehow hadn’t done our math correctly and that EVERYONE has the option to stay home and WHY would you want to work when you could sit around eating bonbons for a year? SURELY it’s better for Daddy to work while Mommy doesn’t. It was so frustrating to feel like somehow we’d made a choice that was leading to more stress, when really we were like any other family who has to choose one parent working and one staying home because economically it made more sense than daycare when you weighed the financial options, and we really really both felt strongly about having our kids home with parents, just as my parents did. We just flipped the roles. Not everyone approved. In fact, many didn’t and still don’t understand. As if we’re trying to prove something to the world.

What struck me most is how much pressure there is on young women to get educated, get a good job, make good money, be independent, be powerful, ad nauseum. But when it came time to have kids, if they had done all this, they are expected to drop all of that and take the year off, care for the children and why the heck wouldn’t you?

Oh, the career will always be there.
There will always be work.
You can get maternity leave benefits.
Your children need you.
It’s not the right thing.

Actually, it was the right thing for us, as hard as it has been. And no, I would not have had the opportunities I have had if I hadn’t stayed working. Nor would we have been financially viable. I didn’t have benefits. I work. I am a professional. My husband wanted to stay home. He preferred it. Get over it!

Is it any easier for dads to keep working after their child is born? Do dads still feel that pull to be with their children? I don’t know. Is there a difference for one parent or the other? Or do dads just expect it is their role to keep working and adjust to that accordingly? I don’t know. I’ve had the privilege of working mostly from home, where I can be around my kid as much as possible. This is not all that easy and I have had to acquire an external office so I can actually get things done, and sound semi professional on my calls. But I am privileged, and all things considered, very happy.

I just wish everyone could see the full story, could consider a new perspective. As our economy continues to re-invent itself, we may be increasingly forced to make our family decisions like we do our business decisions, considering facts and outcomes without emotion or a tie to tradition. I can’t say I’ve met too many other couples in our scenario but would love to hear other experiences and feel a little less like the social anomaly.


nonlineargirl said...

It is so individual, and the decision can feel right or horrible at any given moment. Sometimes working part time is perfect for me, sometimes it is too much and sometimes not enough. (While my babies were both wailing this afternoon I seriously wondered why I don't work full time.) No matter what, there are joys and guilt. It sounds like you have found a reasonable balance that mostly works for your family.

Anonymous said...

That was a powerful statement. It really moved me. You guys made the right decisions for yourselves and shouldn't feel bad about them.

Elizabeth said...

My parents did the same thing. At the time, my father was struggling get any kind of contract work and my mother had less than stellar maternal instincts. She also had a steady job as a manager and could not afford to leave it. My gather stayed home with both of us for the first 3-4 years and even did all the toilet training.

To this day he is more the maternal parent than my mother. I'm not saying that's the norm either, but just what worked for my parents.

I think you guys made a great decision, emotionally hard as it is. It's what works for you so who gives a shit what other people think. They don't have to live your life do they?

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