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The Stay-At-Home Versus Working Decision Is Not Really A Decision

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Ask any U.S. mom why she decided to return to work, or stay at home, and I guarantee she has an Excel file tabulating the income versus child-care tradeoff, and a mental ledger of concerns about career momentum versus "quality time while they're young." Ask any mom about her feelings on stay-at-home moms versus working moms, and there will be, well, *feelings.* We tend to think of it as a personal decision, but the stress that comes with this choice actually says a lot more about our society than it does about us individually as moms.

When my daughter was 3 months old, I re-entered the world force with a whole new perspective. What used to feel like my main passion in life, journalism, suddenly felt like a burden. I wanted to write and continue up the proverbial ladder from staff writer to editor, but I also wanted to be home with my daughter. However, working part-time as a writer would not bring in enough money since it would also mean pegging down childcare those days I did work. Going full-time working mom made me want to cry every time I added up the time spent away from my daughter, and being a stay at home mom (SAHM) was out of the question. Not only would it mean cutting our income in half, but being at home full-time with my daughter did not fulfill me the way working did.

My decision, or rather, lack of options for consistent income and a way to maintain my writing career, led me to Team Working Mom, even though I really wanted to be on Team Happy Balance or Team Semi-SAHM. It only took a few months into motherhood to realize that there is no in between for U.S. moms — you’re either in the working-mom tribe or the SAHM tribe.

And misconceptions about these two groups are strong. I remember a fellow first-time mom asking me how I could leave my child all day to work if I had the chance to stay home. I could have pulled up my Excel spreadsheet that compared how we would have to budget in order to maintain our lifestyle (as in bills, pay for food and preschool for our daughter) but I shrugged it off because really, who wants to explain their finances with a stranger? As a working mom, there is a part of me that believes life as a SAHM is less hurried than that of mine. Of course I’m wrong, but it’s these misconceptions that fuel these feelings of mom versus mom.

And the angst that builds inside as we decide whether or not to work or stay home is only made worse by countless news articles, blog posts and research studies that lean toward one option over the other. But is the decision really that heavy? Is any option that much better than the other? Do we really have a choice? If you're stressing about the work of SAHM choice, you're actually worried about something way beyond yourself.

The anxiety that we feel as parents about our choice to work or stay home is heightened by a system that makes us feel as though our choice is an irreversible decision that will basically define us forever. We stay home because we can, or because we can't afford childcare, or we work because we have to, or want to — it's a nebulous mix of privilege and supposed choice. And mobility between the two worlds is low — once you opt out of the workforce, it can be hard to get back in.

Hence, we get tribal about it. Even when a "choice" doesn't work very well for us, we tend to self-justify to wave away the cognitive dissonance. We tell ourselves that we made the right choice, so we don't have to worry that we made the wrong choice.

In other countries, like French and Germany, taking more than 6-12 weeks off from work to bond with your child is not only common, but encouraged. Alongside the 16 weeks of maternity leave in France (26 weeks if you have a second child), childcare costs there are based on your income to make it workable for families. Moms in Germany have the right to return to their jobs up to three years after having a baby. This mobility between deciding whether to work full-time or stay home doesn't exist for most U.S. parents. Financial constraints are weighed heavily when parents decide whether or not one person should stay home to watch the children full-time. For some families, the cost of childcare is more than what a mom or dad would bring in by working full-time, or the salary just covers the cost of childcare. For others, the ability to cut back, while difficult and not without too much pain (goodbye manicures and blowouts, and name brand food items), is not unachievable.

Then there are other families who cannot have one parent stay home because two incomes are required. According to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, the average annual cost of full-time infant day care in Los Angeles County was between $13,000 and $14,999 in 2014 and more than $15,000 in Orange County, which equates to as much as 29 percent of an average family income. So do we really have a choice whether or not to stay home or work? Not all of us.

If the U.S. had a system that provided parents with amply maternity leave, access to reliable quality, affordable childcare, and flexible workplaces that allowed moms and dads to attend school functions, handle family responsibilities and work outside normal business hours, perhaps the “decision” to leave or stay in the workforce would not be a hard one to make. And perhaps it wouldn't make it feel as though one team is better than the other.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.