Stay-at-home mothers find challenge, reward in raising their children

Published: Monday, May 21 2012 6:53 a.m. MDT

Annelie Pettersson watches some TV with her two kids Alva and Gustav and their dog in their Salt Lake home.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When she turned in a job application, Nichole Whiting always knew what the job entailed. The exception is her current position: Stay-at-home mom, which many feel isn't work at all. It has been, she said, the most rewarding and challenging of positions.

The New York City woman has come to view being a mom as a profession. She looks at her day and its productivity and output, what she accomplished and what her goals are, both short-term and long-term. Like any job she's ever thrived in, it requires networking, sharpening all her skills, doing research. And her college degree and previous jobs all help her in her efforts to be the best mom she can and to help her children mature and thrive.

In 2010, 5 million women stayed home to raise their offspring in the United States, down from 5.6 million in 2008 and nearly half the number from 1969, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2010, there were also 154,000 stay-at-home dads. They are the minority. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said in late April that 70.6 percent of all mothers with children under age 18 were working or looking for work in 2011. That overall percentage includes the nearly 64 percent of women with a child under 6 and the 76 percent of working moms whose youngest child was at least 7. The bureau said there are nearly 778,000 day care providers that serve those families.

Who the stay-at-home moms are is a question with renewed interest after Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen took a snipe at Ann Romney, wife of GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, saying she "never worked a day in her life." She later apologized. But the implication that staying home is solely the prerogative of those wealthy enough to afford the "luxury" is not the demographic truth. Most stay-at-home moms are actually younger, less-educated women with lower incomes than in the past. Census data shows 44 percent of them are younger than 35, compared to 38 percent of working moms; 65 percent of those who stay home with kids under 18 are in households earning less than $75,000 a year. More are also likely to be Hispanic than in the past. The bureau said 19 percent of stay-at-home moms have not completed high school, while only 7 percent of those in the workforce are drop outs.

Since jobs are sometimes valued solely for their monetary yield, it's no surprise the dollar value of running a household and raising a family full-time is debated. The calculation can be disparaging or romanticized, depending on who does the math. This year, when Salary.com looked at all the jobs that moms do and what each would cost in the work world if you hired someone, it said a stay-at-home mom's work is worth $112,962 a year, down from the $138,094 of five years ago. The recession has brought pay cuts in some of the jobs moms do: driver, cook, babysitter, janitor, housekeeper, etc. Salary.com also estimated she works about 94 hours a week.

Meeting some stay-at-home moms

Women choose to work outside or stay home with the kids for many reasons. Sometimes, it's pure economics: Women who have low education attainment may not land jobs that pay enough to cover the costs of working, such as day care, transportation and clothing. Business Insider magazine recently noted day care in some states is more expensive than college tuition and board. In some families, there's no financial way mom could stay home, even if she wanted to; the family needs her paycheck. Other families may make financial sacrifice as moms give up earnings because they believe that staying home with the kids is right for their families. The Deseret News interviewed numerous stay-at-home moms to learn what drove their decision and the challenges and rewards they found.

"There are a hundred — maybe even a thousand — good ways to raise a family. It's how you grew up, your aspirations, your finances. If you have the option to work or not to work, it boils down" to what you believe your family needs, said LaDawn Stone, mom of four sons.

Casualene Meyer of Madison, S.D., said she and her husband Ken initially thought they had to have her income as an adjunct instructor, too, but when she did the math, she found they were spending lots on child care and other expenses and they could make adjustments so she could stay home with their seven kids.

Still, it's more complex than just money. Experts agree there are many reasons women choose to work or to stay at home with the kids. Dr. Melinda Morrill, lead researcher on a North Carolina State University study, cautioned against making assumptions and noted that "a mother's decision to work could reflect underlying (and unobserved) ability, skills or preferences, so that a mother that works may be different in important ways from a mother that does not work."

"It was challenging to leave my job because of the value that I placed on what I was doing," said Stone of El Dorado Hills, Calif. Positive feedback and financial perks made her feel she was doing something important by working. The at-home value is less obvious, she said, but has included real appreciation from and closeness with her children, Cameron, 13, Harrison, 11, Jackson, 8 and Lincoln, 5. "It was a change in my perspective from the workplace, but it has felt so worthwhile and become so rewarding," she said.

Marcie Gray of Dandridge, Tenn., said when she considered her own personality and the tug on her heart to be home for the kids against the costs of working, such as day care, the scale tipped.

Initially, Annelie Pettersson had no choice. When she and her husband Niklas moved to Salt Lake from Sweden, she didn't have a work permit. The mother of four — Gustav, 13, Alva, 11, and two grown children in Sweden — had worked when her older children were small. Staying home was a huge change for the sociable woman and it made her nervous. Now, though, she has a work permit and still chooses to be a stay-at-home mother. "The children don't want me to work. They rely on me being here for them."

Mary Cordes always wanted a big family and to be a stay-at-home mom. She got both. She went to college for a couple of years, but left when she and her husband started a family; they now have 11 kids. "It makes me happy, because I have always been passionate about having time for the kids," said the Yucca Valley, Calif., mom. She says her art and music talent, her sense of humor, her time and her attention are among things she shares abundantly with her children.

But staying home has come with a cost, too, she said. "We've never had a lot of money." She cooks, shops, is careful with cash and opts usually for "homemade." Camping is their favorite vacation. And husband Ron has worked lots of side jobs along with his usual accounting job. Some families with stay-at-home moms are still two-income families because dad must earn two incomes to make it possible. Still, when her working friends ask her where she finds her own value, since she doesn't have an outside job, she doesn't have to think about it. She sets her own schedule. She need not "make time" if something is bothering one of her children. They appreciate her and let her know it.

Trade-offs

Gray has been both an employed mom and a stay-at-home mom. Now home, she home schools her two youngest girls, Heather, 14, and Amanda, 13. She and her husband, Don, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, had to scrimp to make it happen. All moms make trade-offs, she said. "I have great sympathy for moms who make the sacrifice to be at work, trusting someone else to care for their children."

Many of the things a stay-at-home mom gives up are not as clear cut as a paycheck, she said. "I gave up time to myself and a breather from all the drama and chaos. I made good money when I worked, so I had freedom to do things I am now more conservative about."

John Stone encouraged his wife to read books and approach raising their children like a job, At first she was a bit offended. "Then I started opening my mind to the resources that are out there to help you learn what it takes to be an excellent mother and to raise an excellent family in today's world. It became like a class, learning how to be a mother, to stimulate my kids, connect to my kids, creating patterns and habits to help them become responsible, well-rounded people. "

Outside employment offers some structure at-home moms must invent. Gray had to figure out a schedule and how to get everything done. In exchange, she has more time with her children. "It's interesting how few people really understand this choice is a full-time job, even though it is in my home."

A different view

A Pew Research Center study found nearly three-fourths of Americans believe having women in the workforce has been a good thing. But when the effect on children is factored in, it drops to 21 percent who think having the mothers of young children working is a good thing, compared to 37 percent who said it isn't.

Jill Makechnie always hoped she'd be able to stay home when she and husband Brendaen had kids. When the Needham, Mass., mom got pregnant with Hailey, now 12, she turned down a new position to stay home. As new babies came along — Chloe, now 10, Ella, 7, and Grace, 3 — she has never felt negatively judged for her decisions. "Wherever I've lived, I've felt supported and accepted," she said.

Not everyone feels that way. Whiting said at social gatherings with professionals she has encountered an "awkward silence" when she answered the question, "What do you do?" She knows, though, that staying home with London, 11, McAllister, 9, and Daisy, 6, is right for her family. As for the Rosen-Romney flap, "Who's still having this argument? Stay-at-home moms and working moms come in so many different forms. And you can even work at home and bring in an income. Why does anyone dare dust off that argument? We all need each other's support."

Still, people say things that rankle. A friend told her, "I could not stay at home; I have to do more with my life."

"Nice," said Whiting. "Like I'm just having pedicures."

A side-by-side journey

Makechnie believes being home has helped her better travel with her children through their ups and downs, "learning how to help them grow and develop." She loves hugging the older ones when they come home from school, helping with homework, readying nutritious meals. Staying home, she said, "is not easier or harder. It's different." Her home is a lab, she noted, not a museum. But laughter and hugs flow freely.

She'd planned to go back to work full-time when her children were old enough to be more independent. But she's come to side with those who, like Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson, believe teens need their moms home as much as preschoolers do. "It is my belief that the teenage years often generate more pressure and make greater demands on parents than when their kids are small," he wrote in "Home with a Heart." "Besides the common rebellion of those years, there's the chauffeuring, the supervising, the cooking and cleaning, the noise and chaos that surround an ambitious teenager. Someone in the family must be available to respond to these challenges and the other stresses associated with adolescence...."

Pettersson thinks being home as her children negotiate their teens is probably more important. When they graduate, she'd love to go back to work. "I think perhaps it will be difficult for me to get a job," she said, fearful that time out of the marketplace and lack of a college degree may limit her options. She will be in her 50s then and wonders if that will make finding a job harder, too.

A toe in the pool

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said when you survey women who work and those who stay home with the kids, you find most on both sides would prefer to work part-time. Stay-at-home moms want to keep a toe in the pool, while working moms would like to be less submerged. Some women, like Makechnie, work a few hours here and there as freelance opportunities arise. And like many other stay-at-home moms, she volunteers for her children's schools and other activities.

Whiting had arranged to work at home part-time after her baby was born. But when daughter London was 2 months old, Whiting realized she wanted to stay with her full time. "Knowing my personality, I had to do one or the other," she said. Her husband Jason returned to school for his MBA, studying nights and on weekends while working full time. They initially sacrificed time together.

Whiting was making a lot of money when she decided to stay home and she loved the mental stimulation she got on the job. But while she's been wooed back to work a few times, she each time found she couldn't be the kind of mom she wanted if she wasn't home for the kids.

A dash of nerves

The question of future work is an uneasy topic, especially for women who left successful careers. Stone doesn't feel judged for choosing to stay home. But she has a friend who does: "When she stops working, she feels the tug to get back into it because of the people who surround her. When she's back working, she feels the tug to get out of it. ... I think it's admirable when mothers can work and can separate themselves and be there for their kids in the way they want to be when they're not working. I never judged anyone for being a working mother. People need to do what works for them."

Meyer treasures spontaneity. The other day, she and her 4-year old made party hats for an impromptu fete at her cousin's house. Her baby is 19 months, her oldest 17 years. She will go back to work some day not because of economics, but because she'll be ready for a different kind of personal enrichment when her children are grown.

She hates how hard her husband Ken works to cover their financial bases. And she admits some angst because "I kind of feel that staying at home only works if there's somebody else earning the money. Some women don't have that option and there's something grossly unfair about that. But I don't want to sound as if I feel that all mothers should be stay-at-home moms."

"I don't think I could have done this successfully without God's grace in my life," Gray said. "It's not as simple as people think. Any woman who works and keeps the home knows this already. It's something of a calling. ...This has been the most challenging and most rewarding thing I will ever do in my life."

EMAIL: Lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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