Sunday, February 13, 2011

Strib posters tell me what I should have been doing instead

The comments responding to my essay "Staying home to raise kids -- priceless (but with a cost)" in today's Star Tribune's Opinion Exchange pages are wonderfully instructive.

I love reading them, love the nice supportive comments but also am also glad to see the negative ones. Those critical commenters raise questions regarding work-family balance (by the way, I prefer that phrase to the more common "work-life balance," which implies that your work isn't part of your life), that don’t get discussed enough. Giving me the perfect opportunity to discuss them!

By Hector Casanova, MCT, from the Strib's Opinion Exchange page

Many defend the choice to stay home with children. I totally get this. I defend it, too, because it's a great choice to make—every way but financially.

But some commenters don't want to go anywhere near there, refuse to entertain the possibility that SAHMs' financial sacrifices could lead to disaster down the road. So they point to other culprits, cite other mistakes. The problem, they argue, isn’t that I stayed with my kids, it’s that:

-- I shouldn't have become a writer.

Picking journalism as a career was, in some eyes, my big mistake. The poster cadguymark put it forcefully: "yeah, not being a mother and throwing yourself 100% into your career at writing would have worked out so much better for you. Your bad job choice wasn't being a mother, it was writing." (At first I thought cadguymark was critiquing my prose, but I think -- think -- he's referring to the weak job market for writers.)

Let’s set aside, for now, cadguymark’s odd underlying assumption that holding a full-time job means “not being a mother” and requires “throwing yourself 100% into  your career.”

Otherwise, cadguymark  has a point. Even back in college in the, er, [cough] early ‘80s [cough] they warned that journalism jobs were scarce, the pay mediocre. Things have gotten worse since then. Countless newspapers have folded or gone bankrupt (OK, they’re countable, but I don’t want do the googling right now—let’s just agree that it’s a lot). Oh, there are still lots of opportunities to write as long as you don’t want any money for it. Even at well-paying slick national magazines, for which I’ve written on and off through the years, the standard $2/word rate hasn't budged since I started freelancing. It's barely budged since the 1970s.
So yeah, I might have an easier time getting hired if I’d gone into nursing or plumbing. But what can I say, cadguymark, my skills and interests are suited to writing. Besides, who could have predicted, when I quit my reporting job in 1996, what the world wide web would do to newspapers? I didn’t even get on the web until the following spring.

The point is, life and the economy are unpredictable. Newspapers have been hard hit, but so have other industries: books, music, department stores. Hey cadguymark, you try sitting there with your 6-month-old baby and plan the next 18 years, carefully taking into account the eventual effects of an amazing technology you’ve barely even heard of, a technology that will transform life as we know it but whose possibilities aren’t even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye, a technology that Mark Zuckerberg may be just now hearing about from his middle-school teachers … you figure out how that technology will affect your industry 15 years down the road.

-- I shouldn’t have gotten divorced.

It’s true that had I stayed married there’d be only one house payment, one heat bill, one internet bill. As long as my husband stayed employed, able-bodied and alive, we'd have a steady income and I'd have group health insurance. Of course, I still wouldn’t be entirely financially secure, for reasons including the fact that my ex-husband works in the aforementioned shrinking newspaper industry and the fact that he is mortal.

Beyond that, it’s hard to argue about divorce. In the end, the decision is too personal, too individual. Some people stay together for the sake of the kids and/or Comcast. We chose not to, for reasons of our own.

In future posts, I’ll examine other consequences, choices, mistakes, options. And I’ll talk about what factors I, personally, blame for the financial plight of SAHMs. In the meantime, how do you feel about my career choices and marital choices—or your own?


  1. OK well that was weird. I've just finished reading your Strib essay and by the second paragraph I hollered out to my husband that I had a doppleganger and she was writing my story. Except for the husband part. I didn't get divorced and it worked out well for us, though during a particularly rough patch in our 30-year marriage the only thing that kept us together was that we couldn't afford to live separately. We have two grown children, I made the decision to stay home with my kids and wrote freelance plus several menial part-time jobs. At various points when our financial situation seemed particularly dire, I too sent out hundreds of resumes and filled out untold applications (Starbucks, Caribou, Target, J Crew, etc etc). I had one interview for a full-time assistant editorial position with MSP mag for $20,000/year. I didn't get the job. Overqualified and underqualified at the same time? I am there. Slick national magazines and well-read online publications? Many pay 50 cents/word, if that. And I too am mostly happy with my choices, except when I get my Social Security statement. Tax time is similarly grim because it spells out in pathetically small numbers the long-term effect of my stay-at-home choice.
    I was not as courageous as you in talking about it because there is a palpable I-told-you-so vibe from working women, and a no-whining sentiment from others -- I made the choice so I should live with the consequences, is what I hear. The world isn't fair, right? Can't get a real job? Must be something wrong with me. Mostly I don't look back or complain about the unfairness of it all. I'm too busy scrambling for my 50 cent/word writing jobs. I'm deeply grateful for your insights -- I thought I was the only one. Tiger Mom doesn't know it but her troubles are just starting when her wunderkind gets into Harvard.

  2. Ok - Sarah (above) and Katy (blogger) we're conjoined triplets. I too read your article and echoed all of the above - also to my husband. I have four children and have ranted for years to my daughters NEVER, NEVER be the stay home parent - have your husband make that choice - but DON'T DO IT. Yes, I loved/hated being home. We COULDN'T AFFORD childcare for three on my salary - and our life was unmanageable. Our nanny made more than I did - so we decided I'd freelance - yes - I am a writer too. I'd write ad copy from 10:30 at night until 2:00 - sneak in sleep and than take on my second job of being mom. Then when I did go back to work (by then we had four children) - I found the full time job plus being the caretaker for my ill dad - was TOO much. Again I left a job I liked for the needs of others. My daughter got a brain tumor after that - and truthfully - I just didn't have the energy to return to work. When I did have the energy - my clients had dried up. I've sent resume after resume to find work. NO LUCK. There are thousands of us very talented hardworking women left without earning opportunities. I now run entrepreneur groups for women (mostly women who are raising kids - or who have raised their kids and can't get other work). I am finding the primary route back to earning is to create your own work. I'd love to have people join my groups and discover how to reinvent their lives as the smart, capable entrepreneurs they can become. Check out The Linden Tree Shop and Finding Joy for more information on groups at their stores.

  3. Hi again Katy - I just left you a comment at the I'll leave it here in the hopes that it won't get lost in the shuffle and that you'll be able to respond.

    Congrats on your article and generating so many comments!

    * * * *

    Katy – your article was so compelling I had to reread it. This second time around, I realize that you’re not as naïve as some commenters have indicated. Your republishing of this essay (1st time, 2nd time StarTribune) is a small, but I think significant indication, that you’re resourceful and know efficient ways generate income. Also, picking such a controversial topic to write about is a great way to get a lot of comments. Kudos – you’re obviously very savvy.

    So this leads me to think that at some point while staying-at-home, when things were going well, you realized that you had potential to become “permanently financially screwed”. Just wondering – did you then reconsider going back to work? If not, why not? I ask this question in all sincerity.

    I hated not being able to stay home with my kids (now 5 & 7). We couldn’t swing it financially because I made the larger income. Several years ago, my husband and I found ourselves in a strange position – I was on the fence about returning to work, he wanted to work, but got laid off. The decision was made for us – I went back to work. He stayed home with the kids, went back to school for 2 years to update his technical skills (he is a writer, like you), and now is back to work and loves it. Would you ever consider going back to school to revamp your technical skills? Just because you’re a skilled writer doesn’t mean you should be adverse to this.

    I dislike that America doesn’t value stay-at-home-parents. However, 7 years of motherhood-experience has also taught me if we choose to live here, we have to live within the confines of our country’s system. We can advocate & work for change, but need to simultaneously support ourselves and our children. Simply put – that’s reality.

    And as a working mother who wanted to stay home, I get it. It’s such a tug-of-war, this work/stay-at-home decision. Don’t regret what you did and are doing Katy. I’m sure you’ll figure our your financial future. You’re savvy, smart, and a good writer who knows how to stir the pot.

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  5. Hi again Strivingbean! (Sorry, in my previous comment I misspelled your name -- I shouldn't post late at night) Those are excellent questions. You're right, I don't consider myself naive -- though some days I don't quite feel "very savvy," either. (By the way, neither Salon nor the Strib is particularly well-paying, so this is more about bringing attention to the issues than generating income, though a little income is always nice.)

    To state it as briefly as possible: Early in my freelance career, I assumed I'd be able to keep expanding my work after the kids started school and make a decent living. But the post-9/11 recession around that time hit freelancing hard -- I lost some well-paying, steady clients. With less paying work coming in, I started focusing on literary essays, which were extremely rewarding creatively but not financially.

    I think early on I recognized that leaving full-time work can involve long-term financial consequences. But also, since I was actually writing all along (technically, I don't really qualify as a SAHM) and doing reasonably well at it (see, I didn't consider my skills to have atrophied and didn't foresee insurmountable difficulties in the job market.

    Anyway, soon after, my then-husband was sending out his resume, so I knew our stay in Minneapolis was limited. He found a job in Chicago in the fall of 2004 and moved. I spent the next year getting our house ready and putting it on the market, plus looking for houses in Chicago. It didn't make sense to look for jobs in Minneapolis at that point, of course.

    When we finally moved to Chicago, the opposite happened. It became clear very quickly that it wasn't going to work out there for our family, and that the kids and I would have to pack everything back up and return to Minneapolis. So again, no point in job hunting in Chicago. And then when we put our house on the market there, it took a full year to sell it.

    Once I knew I was coming back to Minneapolis I focused my job search here, and that's when I started realizing that I could send out all the resumes I wanted and not get much response.

    Actually, there are a lot of other details that would even better clarify some of the complicating factors -- family dynamics kinds of things -- and I will discuss some of them in future posts. But for now, I hope this brief overview will give some indication of why any would-be job searches over the years were interrupted or postponed.