Brock and I recently finished watching the series Boardwalk Empire, which takes place in the Prohibition-era United States. After watching one heart-breaking scene with a woman and her kids, Brock turned to me.
“It’s so sad how women were trapped in bad marriages or devastated when their husbands left or died back then because of a lack of resources and opportunity.”
“Sadly,” I replied, “It still happens. I hear from women in that very position all the time.”
Circumstances have changed dramatically since the early twentieth century. Staying at home to raise the kids is no longer an assumption, it is generally a carefully made decision. Couples weigh the pros (quality time with the child, no child care costs, more influence on development) against the cons (reduced family income, possibility of isolation or boredom for the parent who stays home, difficulty of re-entering the workforce down the road). It is still usually the female that elects to stay home if that decision is reached, yet increasingly, that role is given to or shared with the man.
The decision to stay home to raise children is an incredibly personal one, with many beliefs and goals entering into the process.
And I am not trying to sway you either way. That choice is entirely yours to make.
I just want you to think about all of the possibilities when you make your decision.
Because I often hear what happens when people don’t.
“I need to get out of this marriage. His drinking is out of control and he’s starting to scare me. I don’t want to raise my kids in this environment. But I don’t have any money and I don’t work. What can I do?”
“My tsunami divorce happened when he sent me an email and then left. The courts ordered that he pay child support, but he’s only made a couple of payments in the last year. I stopped working 10 years ago to raise the kids and I can’t seem to get a job now. What do I do?”
“We always seemed to be okay financially. But then when she died, I learned that there was all kinds of debt I didn’t know about. Since she was the primary bread winner, we decided that I would stay at home when the kids were young. It’s been so long now, my former industry has changed. What should I do?”
I hate reading these questions. I wish I could help them into a time machine and take them back along with the knowledge that they needed to form a contingency plan along with their child care plan.
And I get why people often don’t. You don’t believe that it can happen to you.
I was lucky. Even though I did a lot of things wrong in my marriage (secure in the belief that my husband really meant til death), I had my own career and my own income. My situation was also made significantly easier by the fact that we did not have children. I only had to worry about my own survival, not that of any offspring.
I didn’t follow up enough with the financial conversations that we had to ensure that his words matched the ledgers. I didn’t keep up with the myriad accounts, trusting that he had our best interests in mind. I didn’t have my own money, separate from his reach. I didn’t have an emergency plan for what I could do if the worst came to past. I allowed him access to my preexisting credit card. I didn’t know that he had canceled (or simply neglected to pay) the life insurance policy that let me sleep at night. And I trusted the courts would enforce their ruling that he was to pay me back.
I trusted him to take care of us. Of me. And I neglected to take care of myself.
And those mistakes cost me money.
If I had been a stay-at-home mom who made the same mistakes, the results could have been disastrous and so much larger than just a financial hit.
Because here’s the scary, sad and so-not-fair truth – It can happen to you.
You may find yourself wed (and dependent upon) an abuser. Scared to stay and yet unable to leave.
That same spouse that was so supportive of your staying home may decide that he or she no longer wants to return home.
The perfect parent may suddenly morph into somebody refuses to pay child support.
And through no fault of their own, your husband or wife may be struck down before their time.
And so as much as you hate to , consider those worst cases while you’re making life changes. Your life – and your kids’ lives – may depend upon it.
If you are the partner who will be staying home, consider implementing the following as part of an emergency preparedness plan:
-Build an emergency fund that you have access to. If your spouse also has access, make sure that you periodically check to ensure it’s there. It really doesn’t have to be some great amount. Just enough so that you never feel trapped in that moment because of a lack of funds. This isn’t meant to be a primary savings account or some source of anxiety. Just a small insurance tucked away, hopefully never to be needed.
-Have at least one credit card in your name with a reasonable limit. One problem people often face after staying at home for a period of time is that their credit takes a hit. Use the card at least every few months and then pay it off to keep your credit score high.
-Before you decide to stay home, develop some education or job skills as well as some experience. It’s never easy to return to the working world after a break, but it’s a little easier if you’ve been there before and had something to offer.
-Consider work you can do part-time or from home. Even if the pay is not great, it is something and it keeps you from feeling powerless.
-Maintain connections with people who are in the working world.
-Build and nurture a safety net of friends and family.
-Stay sharp. Enroll in free online courses. Take on freelance gigs that relate to your former career. Keep up with the changes and developments in your industry.
-Have an outline of a “If the sh*t hits the fan plan.” Hopefully the outline grows faded and dusty. But if it’s ever needed, you’ll be so glad you put some thought into it when you could still think rationally.
-Have a pulse on the relationship and the family’s financial standing.
-If divorce is in the picture, don’t assume that alimony or child support will be awarded or promptly paid. Try to put yourself in a position where that money is nice, but not needed.
There are times when you have to be dependent upon somebody else.
And that’s okay.
But never allow yourself to become dependent upon being dependent.
Because that’s a risk that may end up being too big to take.
This is one area where the motto I learned from the residents of a remote – and harsh – Alaskan town applies:
“Prepare for the worst. Expect the best. And live for today.”
Because even though it can happen to you, I hope it never does.
I just want you to be prepared just in case.
So that you are never in a position of asking somebody the unanswerable question, “What can I do now?”