There are plenty of issues to worry about when it comes to deciding whether or not you should go back to work after having a baby.
For me, it all boiled down to three things:
Bottom line: Would staying home even be a feasible option?
The first thing you should do is sit down and draw up two budgets: A going back to work budget and a staying home budget.
Consider the working budget: Your chief financial consideration will be to budget for childcare costs. If you’re returning to work right after your maternity leave, you can expect childcare costs of over $11,500 (according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies or NACCRRA). Of course, those costs are averaged across all 50 states, so you can actually expect to spend significantly less—or significantly more. When my husband and I sat down to look at our financial situation (my husband is a contractor and I, a [junior] copywriter) we had already looked into several childcare options for our son, Jackson (which I’ll get to in a moment). He had been doing quite well at the time, and our initial estimates on childcare were settling around $13,000 per year (expensive for the time and this was more than 10 years ago; you don’t know how much we wished one of us had family in the area).
With the staying home budget, it’s not quite as simple to figure out. I discovered pretty early on in my maternity leave that I’d be driven crazy if I did nothing but take care of Jackson. For this reason alone, we can be all the more grateful for a good nanny! The point here is this: When you’re preparing your staying home budget, make sure to account for consistent and fun escapes. Babysitters, group outings with other moms (I highly recommend this one—imagine you and your friends getting a breather playing mini-golf, strollers and all) and fun classes you and your child can take together (perhaps painting—finger for him—oil for you) at the local community center.
It can be hard to tell how restrictive and practical a yearly budget actually might be looking at a shorter timescale (a week). It’s good to break down the numbers to give yourself an idea of how much you’d actually be paying for childcare and how much you’d have to live on if you stopped working.
Take a look at your after-taxes income for a month—less any fixed expenses (rent, insurance, etc.) and now childcare versus rent, insurance, babysitters, classes and outings. Then divide that into four weekly allowances. Remember this has to cover food and clothes, gas, entertainment and anything else you have to have. For us, financially, the better move was for me to go back to work (even with the more expensive childcare situation).
2. Childcare Options
It’s one thing to get your neighbor’s daughter to babysit a couple nights a week (Yay! for being a late mom). It’s quite another thing to get long-term childcare. You may be lucky because your work benefits include free childcare or you live nearby doting grandparents…otherwise, you face the daunting task of finding someone you can trust. There are a number of options for childcare such as a daycare center, nanny or au pair.
If you’re considering a daycare center and live in a big metropolitan area, your childcare costs will end up being higher than average ($18,000 in places like Massachusetts and California). If you live in a rural area, you’ll end up paying significantly less ($4,000 in parts of Mississippi). In our case, neither of the closest daycare centers would do (I won’t disparage them by name—I hope they’ve cleaned up their acts).
If you have the extra room in your home, an au pair may be a no-brainer. You get the one-on-one care you want for your child and there’s a great chance you’ll find someone who can expose your child to the cultural heritage you’d have done yourself if you weren’t at work (it’s a huge selling point for some people, including friends of ours who loved their au pair, Marie-Élise). You can also expect to pay an au pair (sometimes significantly) less than you would a nanny in part because you’re providing lodging. However, you should know that an au pair may not have previous childcare experience. That can be especially daunting when we’re talking newborns! The au pair agency you work with will let you know whether or not the au pair has certifications or previous experience.
A dedicated nanny—depending on her qualifications and willingness to provide other household services—can end up costing you somewhat less than a daycare to significantly more. It can seem like an impossible task to leave your child for the entire day. Especially because you don’t really know the individual you’re leaving your child with (at least at the start). But it’s good to remind yourself that ultimately, it’s good for your child to see and interact with other people. In fact, that may be the best argument for using a daycare center—in spite of the less than stellar caretaker-to-child ratio. Consider hiring a private investigator to perform a background check on anyone you’re seriously considering.
We came closest to hiring a dedicated nanny. Mrs. Hale was an older woman trained in first aid and more than happy to cook a meal a couple nights a week, should my husband and I be running late, so I’m sure we’d have been thrilled to have her. In the end, we went another way.
3. Your Needs & Wants
In the end, I decided that I’d regret not staying home. Financially it made a great deal more sense for me to go back to work. We’d have netted twice as much as our childcare would cost us and we’d have had the pleasure of getting to know Mrs. Hale. And yet, when we sat down and realized how much of a no-brainer the decision would be—it hit me: I didn’t really care.
I had considered my long-term work goals and realized that although I could have moved up the hierarchical ladder to an actual copy writing position (and I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it) in the end—I could write at home. Not to mention I might have ended up completely exhausted had I tried working and tackling all the domestic duties. Staying at home left me with chores and meal preparation but the time I spent with Jackson was perfect.
I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
I might have been able to work part-time but I decided during my maternity leave that it was hard enough getting chores done in between Jackson’s screaming and napping. If you can pull it off or if you can only get a nanny for half the day (some families share a nanny) then maybe working part-time—to keep your foot in the door for when your child(ren) are a bit older—will work for you. Explore this with your boss.
I might have tried to return to work after a few years but I decided I actually really loved being home after having spent so many years in the office. I’m still trying to write that children’s book I’ve been working on for years, but even struggling to write a children’s book is better than suffocating in a stuffy office.
In the end, you just need to sit down with your partner and openly discuss your thoughts on these subjects. Ultimately, if the two of you agree, you’ll be much happier going forward—no matter what route you choose.
Leslie Mason is a homemaker and garden expert. She enjoys writing, gardening, do-it-yourself projects and fixing up the house.
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Assistant Ed: Dusty Ranft/Ed: Bryonie Wise