Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Melanie Jones on tips for Expecting Working Moms

Here's what I have learned about being a working mom with young children.  I hope this is helpful if you are about to have your first!

Financial Tips:

1. Live on One Salary...even for a little while.  Early in our marriage we decided we would live on one salary - which meant that my salary was only for savings and daycare.  There are a lot of reasons to live on one salary while you are expecting.  If you are even remotely considering the possibility of staying at home, living on one salary gives you a chance to try out the financial side of that experiment.  Even if you think you could never stay at home there are great benefits.  The reality is that after paying the daycare bill, most working moms just don't make very much.  This is even more true with additional children added to the family.  Adjusting your budget now will allow you to adapt to a more realistic budget before you start juggling everything that comes with early parenthood.  The second salary savings can be used to pay down debt, start a rainy day fund, or provide a financial cushion as you adjust to a reduced budget once baby arrives.

2.  Pay down as much debt as possible prior to the arrival of your child.  Making decisions based on the well-being of your family is sometimes challenging, but making those same decisions with worries about outstanding loans and debts looming overhead can be even more challenging.  "Simplify" is a great word to keep in mind.  Less debt means less paper, fewer accounts to track, fewer bills to pay, fewer financial conversations to have with your spouse and that all translates to more time spent doing something more exciting than worrying about debt.

3.  Delay Large Baby-Related Purchases.  When I was "nesting" I was tempted to make a lot of purchases.  I am glad my husband talked me out of most of them!  When you are planning on working 40 hours a week, a pump for several hundred dollars, dozens of bottles, and an extra car seat for dad are really practical...but when you decide to reduce to half-time or work from home all of sudden those "necessities" aren't so necessary for you.  You never really know what you are going to do until that baby arrives.  Friends and family members might be able to help you find gently used versions for expensive purchases prior to baby's arrival.  If you discover that you need to "upgrade" it is easy enough to do later. 

Child Care Tips:

1.  Keep your Options Open.  I always felt panicked when someone called to say I had made it to the top of a daycare waiting list, or that I needed to decide immediately if I was going to enroll Abi in a program.  Now I know that there is nothing wrong with keeping options open.  When you find any place you remotely like at all, get on that waiting list and stay on it.  If you find the perfect daycare and your second choice calls and says "we have a spot for you now" go ahead and stay on that list too.  Continue looking for options throughout your pregnancy.  If someone mentions a childcare they liked long after you make your final pick go ahead and visit.  You never know when a center might shut down at the last minute, or the great teacher that you loved switches locations, etc.  Having options to choose from is always a good thing.     

2.  Choose a Childcare based on your Infant:  It's hard to imagine what an as-yet-unseen infant will need when they arrive, so it is easy to get distracted during your search.  When looking for child care you will see amazing preschool programs, talented toddler teachers, summer enrichment programs and parent-friendly conveniences like bus pick-up or parent communication journals.  Remember to only focus on what infants need.  The immediate task is to find the best place for baby snuggles, quiet sleep, and loving attention.  That center with the #1 preschool program in town might have eight infants in a room with two stressed teachers that rarely hold the babies.  Of course, it could also have an amazing infant program.  The point is, choose your childcare environment based on your child's current needs.  I have found that I could always move them to another place as their needs changed.  It was always easier to find placement for children older than infants.

3.  The variables are Quality of Care, Cost, and Hours.  Initially I looked for programs that would work with my previous work schedule, but soon found that to be too much of a limiting factor.  I'm picky about price and care, so being picky about time really narrowed the choices down...to zero.  Whether shopping around for childcare or relying on a friend or family member, you will find that most childcare providers have rigid schedules.  If your work is at all flexible, you can choose a childcare based only on what is best for your child.  Maybe your favorite childcare is open from 6:30-4:00 and you currently work from 8-5.  Work with your boss to adapt your current schedule because it is unlikely that the childcare can be flexible with their hours!  If your job is very inflexible, then you may have to budge on one of the other variables, such as cost or quality of care.    

Work/Life Balance Tips:

1.  Gradually Back to Work.  It's a quandry. At the end of my maternity leave I wasn't making any money at all.  At the same time, I wasn't ready to drop my child off with someone I didn't know for an eight hour day.  If you can't afford to pay a week of full time tuition to let your infant gradually adjust to daycare in two hour increments, choose this solution:  Work with your boss to return to work gradually, and work with your childcare to negotiate a shorter day to start.    This is where the whole "living on one salary" thing comes in handy.  The childcare may actually require you to pay full time daycare even if you only bring Junior in 10 hours a week at first.  That is because they are holding a full time spot for you.  If you have saved a little money and learned to live on less, this experiment is more affordable.  Once you are confident about childcare and work, you can come back into the workforce fully.  Additional benefits of a gradual start include giving your body a chance to adjust if you are going to continue breastfeeding, compensating for tiredness and fatigue, and creating the additional time and space one might need to strengthen relationships with child and childcare provider.

2.  What are you working for anyway?  One great thing about not making much money after paying for daycare is that it allowed me to really see what I was working for.  Once I was down to making $2-$3 an hour it was very apparent what the "benefits" of my labor really were.  It could be anything really.  If you are practical then health insurance benefits and the residual pay benefit of just staying in the workforce building a resume might appeal.  Certainly the continued interaction with adult friends and even those few peaceful moments alone in the car are benefits as well.  Others might just like work in general, or sincerely have a passion about their career.  It is easy to become the "disgruntled, underpaid worker" when you return to the workforce - after all, it is impossible to put a price on your child, and the cost of daycare can feel like a big paycut.  Just remember - no one is forcing you to work - it is something you choose to do every day, for reasons only you know.  Defining what those reasons are is helpful in focusing yourself upon return to work. 

3.  Don't ask Google whether working moms are happier than stay at home moms, or vice versa.  Parenting is a growing experience whether you stay at home or work.  There are studies that show that stay at home moms are miserable, overweight, less focused on their children, and unhappy in their marriages.  Guess what?  The exact same results can be found in relation to working moms.  You can find a book to tell you whatever you want to believe about being a working mom, but experience has taught me this:  I can't say that work was ever connected to whether I was miserable, overweight, unfocused, or unhappy.  The thing that seems to affect my happiness more than anything is my willingness to make life changes that optimize the amount of quality time spent with family, friends, and in solitude.  When I have had less rewarding jobs, I just reminded myself every day that I was making the choice to be in that position for some reason - money, contribution to a meaningful goal, time to myself, opportunity to interact with adults, etc.  By recognizing my full participation in making that choice, it has been easier to leave jobs when the rewards don't outweigh the costs, and to optimize the time spent at work by recognizing what I am really there for.  In general, no single decision has made family life "easy" or "rewarding".  It seems every tiny little piece of your life contributes to that kind of happiness in some way or another.  For example, if I notice quality time with my spouse is lacking, it is unlikely that work is to blame - areas to consider might be the amount of time I spend on the computer, whether I've allowed dinner prep to become too much of a production, or whether participation in a few evening activities has overwhelmed our opportunities to spend time together.  Small adjustments throughout each area of my life usually help bring things into balance.  On the other hand, there are times when work really is part of the problem.  In those cases it still isn't a simple choice between working and staying at home - part-time work or work from home may bring life into a better balance.

1 comment:

Kali said...

Melanie:
This is awesome and extremely comprehensive. I love the point about "owning" the experience of working and finding the benefit--Not blaming the job.

Kali