The economic sexism of being a stay-at-home mom cost me years of career momentum, salary, and the ability to save for retirement — but I’d do it again

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This essay is part of “Home Ec: The Economics of Stay-at-home Parenting,” a series from Personal Finance Insider about the financial reality of staying home with your kids.

A decade ago, my work life seemed idyllic. My salary was modest as a freelance journalist covering Latin America and Latinx issues across the United States, but I won awards, got paid to travel, and reported in the field for weeks until I got the story just right.

The truth, though, was that work absolutely controlled me. And I let it.

Work was how I defined myself, my single source of self-esteem. I was scathingly self-critical due to untreated childhood trauma, and I overworked myself, subconsciously hoping that each accolade meant I had value. 

During a summer working in Europe came the worst stretch. With a magazine feature due, I kept doubting my writing and decided I was a total failure. The week before the deadline, while in Lisbon for vacation with my partner, I ended up trapped in our Airbnb struggling to write and battling truly frightening panic attacks. 

Although I had chosen freelance life for independence and flexibility, I realized years later that it had also been to avoid the trauma trigger of an older white male boss — so common in journalism. (In the end, I became my very worst boss.) 

But I also knew that work flexibility would help with kids. Like our working moms, women of my generation were assured we could have it all. 

By then, several master’s-educated friends had become stay-at-home moms, which I secretly thought was a waste. I’m ashamed I never asked about the feelings or economics behind their decisions; I’d been brainwashed to believe that career always trumps caregiving. 

Then parenthood came for me, and everything changed. 

During my complicated pregnancy, I was forced to prioritize my baby’s well-being and hit the brakes on work. I had to depend more on my partner’s salary and fell out of touch with professional contacts. By the time I gave birth by a terrifying emergency c-section, few colleagues knew I’d been pregnant. 

My unintentional turn inwards stuck. I had no paid leave, and assumed I’d take around six months off. I set an out-of-office email message and spent nearly every minute of every day with my baby. 

After reading about attachment theory, I was determined to fill my baby’s childhood with the safety, calm, and unconditional love mine had lacked. And surprisingly, gazing into my nursing baby’s eyes and rocking and singing to baby on sleepless nights, I discovered I was a fantastic parent. 

For the first time in my life, I believed in myself. Caring for this little being was also caring for myself, and helped far more than therapy ever had. We both flourished. 

Thanks to my partner’s salary, my six-month-leave stretched longer. (If I’d returned to work to keep my career moving, daycare would’ve eaten nearly my whole paycheck.) I was still saddled with societal pressures around work: working mom friends quizzed me constantly about my return, and I stressed about being “unproductive.”

Old doubts haunted me, too: I was certain my grad school classmates and professors would think stay-at-home-mom equaled loser, and eyes glazed over at parties when I was asked, “What do you do?” Gradually, though, I came to realize that people’s opinions simply didn’t matter. Raising my child made me — and my kid — incredibly happy.

My partner worked long hours, constantly torn between work and family, and I wished he had the moments with our child I was so enjoying. Financially, we scraped by, suffering fitful nights struggling to pay off debt, support my partner’s family abroad, and somehow inch forward on one salary. Frugality saved us: we found style in secondhand clothes and ate well with discount groceries, benefitted from Buy Nothing groups, cut out travel and restaurants, and swapped babysitting with friends. 

When COVID hit during my kid’s first year of school, I felt relieved I hadn’t finished transitioning back to work. I could focus on my child again when it was most important. The pandemic has been grueling for us — I got hit with severe long COVID — but we also managed to buy our first home last year, without a penny of help. 

Now I’m back at work on a part-time contract (while homeschooling to lower COVID risk), and my newfound self-confidence makes me infinitely better at my job. 

After years away, I’ve needed support to help rebuild my freelance business. I admit I sometimes envy my journalism-school peers’ fancy careers. Then I think of my kid. In the big picture, I’d rather my legacy be devoted mom than big-name journalist. 

But taking time off will impact me, and my family, for the rest of my life. While my partner’s salary covers our basic living expenses, and mine goes to savings and student debt, our kid doesn’t have a college fund yet — and we won’t be able to retire before our 70s.

The economic sexism of caregiving cost me years of career momentum, salary, and the ability to save for retirement — even more worrisome now that I am disabled by long COVID. 

If society valued caregiving, with universal basic income, every parent could have both money and time with their kids. For me, having the choice to lean out saved my life.  

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