I grew up a girl child in the 80's, both parents working full time and the expectation that I would do the same. Like most Xennials, I also came of age with a highly specialized degree in a collapsing and uncertain job market. I was forced to work thousands of miles from home just to pay off my student loans. By my late 20's I had admitted defeat, returned to school and switched to a career that my heart wasn't in but provided better job prospects. After graduating from university a second time even the market for stable jobs had collapsed, forcing me into random temp jobs just to get by. I was depressed by the expectation of where I would be by a certain age and how far I actually was from that point.
In my 30's the babies came.
We were poor and we were exhausted but oh, I was all in. My days were rich and full and without any expectation beyond the moment. There was still time I figured, to work more often, to earn more money, to travel. Everything would change when the kids were both in school, but for that incredibly short yet long stretch of years I threw myself into stay at home parenting, only working often enough at my substitute teaching job to keep my job security waiting for me. It was a choice where there was no contest.
I'm in my 40's now and for the past year and a half, both kids have been in full time school. We're free from the prohibitive daycare costs that made it senseless for me to work. And still? The far off future never looks the same up close.
Children aren't really in school all that much when you factor in all the holidays, PD days, snow days, illnesses and appointments. I know that double income families deal with this using holiday camps, extended day care, and juggling their paid leave, but in my case if my kids aren't at school, I don't work and I don't get paid. We're not paying child care costs anymore, but as those have disappeared, the kids have become more expensive. They do more sports and activities and need more equipment, footwear and clothing purchased new, as the well of hand me downs tends to dry up as they get older. So despite being here in the anticipated future, the money still really isn't here and won't be until they are old enough to be much more independent.
So what do I do all day while my children aren't here and I'm not working? I take the car in for repairs. I buy the groceries and prep the meals. I bake the stereotypical cookies for my kids lunches. I pull our daughter with autism out of school for therapy and mental health days. I take the kids to the dentist and doctor and the cat to the vet and load and unload the dishwasher 8 billion times. I do our taxes and pay our bills and email our children's teachers and buy gifts and food for all the holidays. I do all of the things that any parent with children has to do anyway if they are working or not, but I make sure I do most of them while everyone else is gone. Our evenings, weekends and holidays are free to spend on outings with the children, their sports or just playing with them. We don't need to run around during peak hours, stay up late or use up my husband's vacation time to get any of it done. His job pays in money, what I do buys us time.
The days I do work are shitty for everyone, because none of us are used to it. The night before I'm moody and anxious and stressed out, and in the morning the children have to be woken up an hour early and taken to the babysitter if I'm to work a full day. I have to do this disrupted routine by myself because my husband is already gone to work and then we come home to the leftover mess from breakfast and nothing even remotely ready for dinner, hangry and frustrated because we're used to eating soon after everyone gets home. It's even worse if my daughter has a swim practice the same evening. If you do it every day, or even on set days it becomes a routine. When it's sporadic it's jarring and mentally draining.
I work with children, so it's not a 'nice change' for me. The other teachers recognize my face and name but don't really know me because I'm not at either school often enough to form any sort of relationships the way you do working together daily. Sometimes it's interesting, sometimes it's really really hard and I mostly just go in, keep my head down and get the hell out in time to pick up my kids afterwards. It pays really well for the amount of time I'm there, so there is that.
Aside from freeing up family time, there are definitely perks to this way of life. I have friends who also stay home and we try to combine errands so we can spend time together and grab coffee or lunch while we're out. I consider these people my true colleagues, and they add so much joy to my life. We have a pool membership and I manage to fit in some lap swimming a few days a week, although I often feel strange to be the only able bodied adult there who is under the age of 70. It's a time of day when everyone else my age is generally at work or tending to small children, trying to fit exercise in before dawn or after dark (if at all), neither of which work for me.
My husband has recently advanced in his career. After years of slogging it out, he was promoted to do something he actually went to school for, and not even something that promised a plethora of secure jobs, but something that's his life passion. He is now an artist with a dental plan. His job is harder, and busier and more stressful, but it also pays more and offers more satisfaction.
What I do? Not so much. My paying job offers no advancement, no recognition, no pension, and no pay raises beyond basic inflation. The work I do at home, despite the ways that it vastly improves the lives of every member of our family, often feels embarrassing and empty. I've learned to bake really well. I've taught my kids to swim. I earn enough extra money that we can buy our kids better Christmas gifts or maybe even go on vacation, but not enough that our life has improved significantly. I'm in this strange limbo between those with full time careers and those who have accepted that they are just going to have a large family and stay home, surrounded by a boisterous and ever growing brood of chaos. I worry that I'm setting a bad example for our daughters, yet loving all the time we both get to spend with them making memories because I free up the time to do so. I wish I had the financial option of staying home fully, without the stress of trying to do both, without the constant mental budget calculations that keep us afloat, but I also like being able to tell both strangers and my own children that I do in fact have a paying job.
Over the years friends have claimed that I have the best of both worlds by working part time, but it feels more like a small sampling of each. These days I just feel jealous of those who live at either extreme without apology.