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Who are you calling "lucky"?

Musings on the meaning and economics of a childcare choice

By Shannon Hyland-Tassava

Not too long ago, at a professional conference I was attending during a rare day away from my young daughter, two different women commented wistfully on how "lucky" I am to be home full-time with my baby. The women were both working mothers, seemingly kind and intelligent, and no doubt nothing but well-intentioned. And, let's get one thing over with and understood right off the bat: Yes, I am fully cognizant of, and grateful for, the fact that, in a world that includes single moms struggling to get by, moms in poverty, moms and children without basic human rights and freedoms -- yes, I am extremely lucky. I am lucky to not be dependent on welfare, I am lucky to have a roof over my head, I am lucky to be educated and healthy and of an advantaged ethnic group (I am white). I am lucky to have an honest, hardworking, educated, supportive, loving husband.

But. The reason the comment about how "lucky" I am annoys me is that I do not think the above kind of luck is what people -- usually other women -- are talking about when they extol my role as the primary caregiver of my young child.  I think the assumption is that my husband must make a nice, fat salary -- enough for me to comfortably take on the stay-at-home-mom role -- or else, how and why would I have?

I do think this assumption is often accurate. It seems to me that most stay-at-home moms I meet in baby class, at the playground, and through mutual friends are reasonably, and sometimes very (in my view), affluent. True, I don't know the details of their financial situations, so I could be wrong. But the clues I observe -- substantial diamonds on their left-hand ring fingers, huge shiny SUVs in the parking lot, offhand references to vacations in Hawaii and paid help with the cleaning -- lead me to make an assumption of my own. So I don't fault women for assuming that I, too, must fall into a particular tax bracket if I am a stay-at-home mom. (Though if they do, they clearly aren't paying enough attention to my own set of clues, including my barely-there wedding diamond and my daughter's frayed hand-me-down jacket, inherited from her two girl cousins.) But that doesn't prevent me from getting a little steamed.

What I really want to say, in a necessarily non-politically-correct kind of way, is this: It's not luck that is allowing me to be a stay-at-home mom, okay? This is what it is. It is living on 1-1/2 incomes instead of two, and banking the other half, for over two years before conceiving our first child. It is consciously and deliberately living a minimalist lifestyle now, one that is not easy or always particularly comfortable, because it is important to us to raise our own child, not put her in daycare for ten hours a day. It's the often-inconvenient arrangement of sharing one vehicle between two adults in a busy household.

It is no cable TV, no NetFlix membership, no movies out, no fancy dinners, no vacations involving airfare or hotels, no iPod nanos, no tiny, shiny flip-phones. It is buying all our clothes at Target, even work clothes. It is gladly accepting third-time hand-me-downs from family members rather than splurging on BabyGap and Mini Boden. It is living in a townhouse instead of a single-family home, even though it meant no private backyard for our children, no swingset, no sandbox allowed. It's a 10-year-old, 16-inch TV when friends are contemplating their second plasma-screen. It's no gym membership. It's store brand from the regular grocery store and not organic from Whole Foods. It's sliding-scale toddler class through the public schools instead of Kindermusik and Montessori. It's brown-bagging lunch at the office and brewing coffee at home instead of stopping for the four-dollar latte. It is a sorely underfed retirement fund, and a savings account gasping its last breath. It is a conscious choice involving material sacrifice in the name of our family's personal values. It is hard work. It is not luck -- at least, not the kind of luck most people seem to think.

Does it sound like I'm feeling sorry for myself? Are you saying, "If she's such a whiner about it, why doesn't she go back to work already?" I swear, I'm not complaining. The above list is meant to be an objective description, not a self-pitying rant.

Well, to be more truthful, most of the time I'm not complaining. Sometimes I do get fed up, I do get utterly exhausted from the stress of trying to pare life down further, further, further, to fit within the economic limits of one income in a two-income society. But most of the time, I am extremely aware of the reasons my husband and I live this way -- the reasons we made this choice to give up more than half our income so that Julia could spend her waking hours with a parent rather than a daycare provider. And being constantly reminded of the reasons is what makes it possible to withstand the financial sacrifice.

But I hate it when others call me "lucky," because it seems to imply that I have been handed an opportunity, rather than having made the opportunity myself through effort and sacrifice. It implies that the ones envying my "luck" aren't lucky enough to do it too. To be fair, some of them probably aren't. But I suspect that many of them are in as good, or better, a financial situation than my husband and I, and that they too could afford to stay home with their babies if their hearts desired it, were they willing to make the lifestyle sacrifices necessary.

The risk in expressing this idea is that it makes me sound as if I believe myself morally superior for choosing to be home with my baby. I do not feel that way. I am not anti-daycare, nor anti-working mother (I work part-time myself, maintaining an evening private psychotherapy practice when my husband is home to care for our child). I do not condemn women who return to work after having children and utilize daycare to do so. Daycare is wrong for our family, because it's not what we want for ourselves at this point in our lives. That does not mean it is wrong for every family, at every stage of life and career.

It's hard to discuss these things without eliciting defensiveness from others in response. I guess that's why, when someone tells me how lucky I am for being able to stay home with my child, I invariably smile, nod, and say, "Yes, I am." And inside, I think, Yes. And no.

mmo : june 2006

Shannon Hyland-Tassava is a writer and psychologist living in southern Minnesota with her husband and 2-year-old daughter.  She is expecting her second baby late this summer.

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