That’s the weighty question many parents struggle to answer—and even fight over.
In fact, a recent NerdWallet survey found that it’s the number-one source of argument-inducing tension for a third of the 600 moms polled.
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When you face facts, perhaps that's not so hard to believe.
An Institute for Women’s Policy Research report found that half of all households now consist of mothers who are either the primary breadwinner or contribute at least 40% to the household's total earnings.
And considering that full-time child care can cost parents nearly $17,000 a year in some states, that's a potentially crippling burden even for dual-income families.
Is this emotional conversation coming to a boil in your living room?
We asked career pros, financial planners and moms who’ve chosen both paths to lay out their unique cases for going back to work and staying at home—to help you make the right choice for your own family.
The Case for Going Back to Work
It probably wouldn’t shock anyone to learn the primary reason women choose to go back to work after having a baby.
“We interviewed more than 100 women, and money was number one,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, referring to the research she did for her coauthored book, "Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work." “[Some] couples knew there was college tuition looming, [while others realized] they hadn’t saved enough for retirement. It could also be a short-term issue, like paying for day care.”
But beyond covering today's expenses, there's an even bigger financial downside parents can avoid by hanging onto that W-2 status: Studies have shown that, over a 10 year period, well-educated women who leave the workforce for more than six months could earn up to 46% less than their peers who never off-ramped.
What's more, returning to the workplace after a stint at home isn't always easy—especially in key fields that evolve quickly, like finance and technology.
“During the recession so many financial companies merged and changed names. I was terrified to go into my interviews because I was scared I was going to talk about companies that didn’t exist anymore!” says Cohen, 55, who spent 11 years away from her finance career in order to raise four kids.
Daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed as managers, and earned 23% more than those of stay-at-home moms.
Of course, there’s more to the pro-work stance than just money: For many couples it comes down to keeping the playing field even within their relationships.
After quitting her high-powered trader job in her 30s to stay at home with her now-adult son, Lisa Endlich Heffernan, author of "Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success," found that the move shifted the family's power dynamics in ways she hadn't expected.
“Before our children were born and when they were young, my husband and I did the same job—we left in the morning and came home together,” she says. “But in the years since I have been home, our partnership has developed a faint 1950s whiff. I became the one who made all the doctor's appointments and did the shopping, because I had more time."
Although she was able to devote that time to raising her three children, she now feels some regret about the decision. "It's so much harder to get back to work again," she explains. "Leaving the workforce was the most expensive decision I've ever made."
An even deeper emotional reason moms may opt for the back-to-work route? “Some of the women we interviewed felt strongly about serving as a role model for their kids—particularly their daughters,” Cohen says. “They wanted them to see that women can work and be full-time caretakers.”
And that’s a lesson with legs. After studying 50,000 people in 25 countries, Harvard researchers found that daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed as managers, and earned 23% more than those of American stay-at-home moms.
Now, who’d want to argue with that?
The Case for Calling It Quits
For some moms, transitioning away from office life is the only choice.
After the birth of her first daughter in 2007, Sasha Brown-Worsham, 37, a mom of three in Maplewood, N.J., says there was no question in her mind to stay at home. “It’s so emotional—that postpartum time. She was still a baby, and I didn’t think anyone could care for her as well as me,” she explains.
It didn’t hurt that in Boston, where Worsham and her husband lived at the time, her $24,000 day care bill exceeded her $45,000 salary. “By the time you took taxes out of my paycheck, it was a wash," she remembers.
Worsham’s certainly not alone in this regard: A 2014 Child Care Aware report found that child care is the highest single household expense for most families in the Northeast, Midwest and South—even exceeding the median cost of housing.
And despite stats suggesting that women’s earning power decreases after a few years out of the workforce, there are some employment trends that are opening more doors than ever for at-home mothers who want to eventually return to work.
The decision to stop working completely or take on projects when it suits you can be a nice selling point for parents arguing about whether to have mom stay home.
In fact, Cohen's company, iRelaunch—which advocates for career re-entry programs—is full of success stories of women in such traditional fields as medicine and accounting who’ve taken breaks of five or more years only to rebuild flourishing careers.
To that point, Cohen has been working with five financial services firms—including Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan—to create pilot programs, or “returnships,” that provide a formalized path for midcareer women to resume their full-time status.
“[When I reentered the workforce at 42], no such programs existed," Cohen says. "Now, with top-tier firms looking to this pool of candidates, it paves the way for more women—and for companies who recognize the value of these workers.”
And these programs aren't limited to finance gigs. Mom Corps, a recruiting company in Atlanta, focuses solely on connecting employers in a variety of industries, including advertising, technology and engineering, with mid- to senior-level professionals who have young families.
And reacHIRE, a Massachusetts-based business, offers a 50-hour training course that helps women refresh their skills, consult with career counselors, and get placed in paid positions with such big-name corporate partners as Microsoft and Panera.
In the interim, Cohen says that stay-at-home parents can keep their skills up by doing what she calls strategic volunteering. “Find opportunities that are aligned with your career goals,” she says. “If you’re [planning to] go into construction management, for example, look for a weekend build project with Habitat for Humanity.”
And, of course, as nontraditional work arrangements grow in popularity—like flexible hours, compressed workweeks and job sharing—and more companies explore freelance workforces, the decision to stop working completely or take on projects when it suits you can be a nice selling point for parents arguing about whether to have one parent stay home.
But it does take some juggling. “It’s always a work in progress,” says Worsham of her own situation. “For the first five years, the pendulum was swinging back and forth. I would work [as a freelancer] for a few months, then slow down—always ramping it up and ramping it down.”
End the Debate: How to Decide What’s Right for You
As with most parenting debates, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue. So we consulted financial psychologist Brad Klontz, a CFP® and coauthor of “Mind Over Money,” for his tips on what points—both emotional and financial—to weigh before putting the conversation to bed.
1. Ask yourselves: What can we really afford? One of the quickest ways to end an argument about whether to return to work is to run the numbers—and realize you can’t actually swing it. “You need to get a clear picture of your cash flow,” Klontz says. “So do some simple math.”
In addition to adding up your current budget line items, you’ll need to factor in new ones, like increased medical expenses and insurance premiums, food and clothes for a growing baby.
Beyond that, there are a few rules of thumb to follow before taking the leap to becoming a one-income family, such as paying off any lingering consumer debt, ensuring your nest egg is in good shape, and building up your emergency fund.
“Don’t forget to build that ‘What if?’ into your plans,” Klontz says, noting that, unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned.
Babies can come early, or there could be complications. For that reason, you may want to shoot for a heftier emergency savings account for extra peace of mind.
2. Do a trial run. Just because you passed the “Can we afford it?” test doesn’t give you the green light to make a big move—yet.
Klontz recommends taking your newly updated budget for a spin, agreeing with your partner to live off one income for a couple months to see how feasible it really is.
You might pass with flying colors—or you might realize there’s not a big enough buffer to accommodate the slightest of spending slip-ups.
“Even the best-laid plans need to be revisited,” Klontz says, “but this is a sure-fire way to see if it’s viable for your family.”
If you’re not on the same page with your partner, consider saving up only a set amount of money to allow one person to stay home for, say, a year.
3. Set a time limit. Keep in mind that being a stay-at-home parent needn’t be a perma-state.
So if you’re not on the same page with your partner, consider saving up only a set amount of money to allow one person to stay home for, say, a year.
This way, you’re forced to take stock after a given period of time and potentially renegotiate your plan—this time with real-life experience and numbers to support your case.
4. Get creative—and stay flexible. “This is an emotional issue," Klontz says. "If you agreed with your partner on every point at the beginning, you’re probably in the minority. It's all about negotiating."
Klontz once had a client who, even though she’d initially agreed with her husband to return to work, felt differently after giving birth. “She thought it was way too early to go with a babysitter,” he says. “So they decided that she would delay her return to work by a few months, and just cut their spending to make that possible.”
Another option? “The spouse who stays home might also look for a part-time job, or another way to bring in a little extra income,” Klontz says. “Just remember that you’re approaching this conversation as a family unit—if you’re fighting, anger is the secondary emotion.”
In other words, if one of you is dead-set on either position, “dig a level deeper to find out what’s really going on,” he says. “Is it a fear of losing the house, or not being there to care for the family? If you can get to the root issue, you’ll have more compassion and can more easily give some ground.”