Should I stay with my baby or go back to work?

By on November 2, 2011
Having a baby is exciting, exhausting, and expensive. At some point between midnight feedings and mountains of diaper changes, you will need to decide when or whether to return to work. This choice is often fraught with varying degrees of anxiety, doubt and fear, because it will affect your family’s future and perhaps your sense of identity as well.Some mothers-to-be who brag that they’ll never want to return to the office after giving birth soon swing the other way, realizing they aren’t prepared to give up that hard-earned spot on the corporate ladder. Others plan on taking a minimal maternity leave, only to find themselves taking 18 months off, or quitting their jobs altogether.But how do you decide whether you want to go back to work full-time, part-time, or not at all? Are you prepared to live on one parent’s salary, or work full-time just to pay skyrocketing child care costs? We asked two families to share their wisdom and experiences.When Sharon Mason and Steve Bellamy* started their family six years ago, they came up with their own, rather unorthodox parental leave program. Since they both wanted to stay at home with their new baby daughter, they found a creative solution.

“We had just moved to a new city, and neither of us were ‘on leave’ from a job we wanted to return to, ” recalls Mason, 40. “We felt no pressure to go back to anything in particular. It was a fresh start.”

While most of their successful friends and colleagues juggled raising children and maintaining expensive, fast-paced lifestyles on two incomes, Mason and Bellamy chose a very different path. Over the next four years, Mason stayed at home with Miriam, now five, and Saul, now three. Bellamy, 36, spent the first six months of his daughter’s life at home, then took on a series of part-time jobs, in order to maximize the time he could spend at home with his family.

“I think when most people say they went back to work for the money, they also had big dreams for that money,” says Mason. “We live very modestly, and our dream was to stay home with our kids.”

The couple’s family and friends often wondered how they managed, says Mason. After saving enough money before becoming pregnant to ensure a good-sized cushion for the future, they bought a small bun- galow in the suburbs, doing most repairs themselves. Mason breastfed and used cloth diapers, which she estimates saved them “thousands of dollars” during that first year of parenthood. The couple also graciously accepted hand-me-down gear, clothing and furniture from relatives and friends, and shopped at consignment stores to fill in the gaps.

“People get so caught up in this consumer world,” says Mason, “and I think people need to sit back and ask, ‘What do I really need? What is really important to me?’”

Financial planner Michael Preto, whose clients include many new parents, certainly agrees with that assessment.

“The most important thing for a couple to know is how much they’re spending in that first year after a baby is born,” explains Preto. “If you keep track of your expenses in that first year, you should have a very good idea of how much money you’re spending, and how much you need.”

Next on the list, says Preto, is weighing the cost of childcare against your potential earnings. “Often, a parent is working for a difference of $500 a month. But it’s not just a financial decision,” explains Preto. “If you’re a high-income earner and you’ve got a career that you really enjoy, then it’s a no-brainer. If not, it becomes a difficult decision to make.”

Don’t forget the other costs associated with going back to work, such as work clothes, commuting costs and lunches out. The decision whether or not to return to work is not an irreversible one, as Dana Jennings* discovered.

Jennings had eagerly anticipated going back to work after taking a 14-month maternity leave when her daughter Samantha was born. “Part of it was financial, but I also missed the social interaction with my colleagues. Most of my friends work, so I always thought this was normal,” she explains.

Putting Samantha in full-time daycare meant dropping her off at 7:30 AM and picking her up at 5:30 PM. “It was a long day for her, but she seemed very happy there,” recalls Jennings, 39. A year later, her husband Mark, an attorney, was transferred. Between the stress of leaving her job and moving to a new city, Jennings had several miscarriages. She felt a strong need to be with Samantha, and chose not look for a new job.

Adapting to the stay-at-home-mom beat again after having returned to work proved challenging, says Jennings. “It’s a constant job, with so much more responsibility. I juggle and multi-task on a daily basis, and in some ways, my stress levels have gone up since I stopped working! But I am enjoying my time so much now.”

Although Jennings thinks about returning to work, not deciding right away is sometimes the best decision of all.

“Life is so short, and now is the time to appreciate every minute,” says Jennings. “You have to do what’s most comfortable for you. I just love this precious time with Samantha.”

Bellamy believes anything is possible with the right attitude. “If having one parent stay at home is something you really want, you have to adapt to it,” says Bellamy, who has been at home full-time with his children for over a year. Mason returned to work full-time last fall, and Bellamy says he’s never been happier. “I’ve just always wanted to be a stay-at-home dad.”

To parents agonizing over whether taking an extended parental leave is akin to committing career suicide, Mason admits that at first, she wondered how her long absence would affect her opportunities. “People are so afraid that taking time off is going to reflect badly on them or ruin their chances for advancement,” she says. “I think a lot of people don’t do what they really want to do because of that fear. Now, when I tell colleagues I was home with my kids for four years, nobody bats an eyelash.”

*Names changed upon request

Wendy Helfenbaum grappled with returning to work as a full-time television producer, and now works from home as a freelance writer.

About Wendy Helfenbaum