I frequently field questions from new moms who are struggling with the realities of returning to work. They usually go something like this:
My daughter just turned three, and I just had my second child. In reviewing our family’s finances, it seems futile for me to return to work when my entire take home pay will be gobbled up in daycare expenses. I’m seriously considering quitting to stay home with the kids while they are young. I can always return to work once they start school. What is your advice?
My advice to these women (I’ve never had the question from a Dad who wants to stay home) is always the same. Think about the decision to remove yourself from the workforce very, very carefully. I know that childcare is expensive, and I know that the decision to place your baby in someone else’s care can be heart wrenching. But voluntarily removing yourself from the workforce for a period of years can put you in a precarious position. Consider the following:
It’s not just about the here and now. In the immediate present, the financial costs of daycare can loom as the most persuasive reason not to return to work. But, it’s not just about the costs of daycare now. If you stop working, you stop progressing in your career. I’m sure someone has crunched the numbers and has come up with the real cost of putting your career on hold, in terms of salary increases, promotions, and currency of skills. I don’t have any such numbers, but I can tell you that it can be significant.
You won’t be saving for your retirement. You won’t be putting money into a 401(k) or other retirement account. All financial planners will tell you that the earlier in life you save for retirement, the better. Also, you won’t be contributing to Social Security, which means your retirement benefits from them will be smaller than if you had continued to work.
Speaking of Social Security. . .did you know that if you have not paid into Social Security for ten years and then become disabled, you may be ineligible to receive disability benefits from them?
It won’t be easy to return to the workforce. In fact, it will probably be very difficult. Yes, some companies offer “returnship” programs for people who’ve been out of the workforce for a number of years, but those programs are still somewhat rare, and are highly competitive.
Your skills will become outdated. The truth is that even if you stay up to date on the latest software, as an example, if you’re not using it in a job, many hiring managers and recruiters will consider it irrelevant. And the fact is that without being an active participant in the workforce, you will become rusty.
If, after carefully weighing all of these, you make the decision to stay home to be a full-time caregiver, here are my suggestions:
- Do your best to stay current in your field. Continue to attend professional networking meetings, volunteer with organizations that can use your expertise. Even if you’re volunteering with your kids’ activities, look to the “business end” of volunteering–fundraising, marketing, promotion.
- Consider using the time away from full-time employment to work on a degree or a professional certification. I recently worked with a client who had been home with her kids for 10 years, but during that time, she had earned an MBA and passed the first of her actuarial exams. She was able to find a full-time position much more easily than some of the other clients I’ve had who have had their careers in “park.”
- Consider working part time or on a freelance/per diem basis doing something related to your field. Not only will this help to keep you current, but it will also help to keep you connected.
The bottom line
Manage your expectations. Working full-time with small kids is hard. Staying home full-time with small kids is hard. Returning to work after a period of voluntary absence is really, really hard. It’s all about choices, so understand the risks before making a decision based only upon the immediate financial impact.