Having a baby is exciting, exhausting, and can be expensive. At some point between midnight feedings and endless diaper changes, you will need to decide when or whether to return to work. This choice is often fraught with varying degrees of anxiety, doubt and fear because it will affect your family’s future and perhaps your sense of identity as well.
A recent Statistics Canada study revealed that nearly 90% of mothers and 55% of fathers take a leave of absence from work. Nearly one-quarter never return to work at all. Some mothers-to-be who are certain they’ll never want to return to the office after giving birth soon swing the other way, realizing they aren’t prepared to give up that hard-earned spot on the corporate ladder. Others plan on taking a minimal maternity leave, only to find themselves taking 18 months off, or quitting their jobs altogether.
Q: How do you decide whether you want to go back to work full-time, part-time, or not at all?
A: Are you prepared to live on one parent’s salary or work full-time just to pay skyrocketing childcare costs? We asked a local family to share their wisdom and experiences.
When Sharon Mason and Steve Bellamy started their family six years ago, they came up with their own, rather unorthodox parental leave program. Since they both wanted to stay at home with their new baby daughter, they found a creative solution.“We had just moved to a new city, and neither of us were ‘on leave’ from a job we wanted to return to, ” recalls Mason, “We felt no pressure to go back to anything in particular. It was a fresh start.”
While most of their successful friends and colleagues in Vancouver juggled raising children and maintaining expensive, fast-paced lifestyles on two incomes, Mason and Bellamy chose a very different path. Over the next four years, Mason stayed at home with Miriam, now five, and Saul, now three. Bellamy spent the first six months of his daughter’s life at home then took on a series of part-time sales jobs in order to maximize the time he could spend at home with his family
The couple’s family and friends often wondered how they managed, says Mason. After saving enough money before becoming pregnant to ensure a good-sized cushion for the future they bought a small bungalow in the suburbs doing most repairs themselves. Mason breastfed and used cloth diapers which she estimates saved them “thousands of dollars” during that first year of parenthood.
“People get so caught up in this consumer world,” says Mason, “and I think people need to sit back and ask, ‘What do I really need? What is really important to me?’”
Michael Preto certainly agrees with that assessment. As a certified financial planner, Preto advises many young parents. “The most important thing for a couple to know is how much they’re spending in that first year after a baby is born,” explains Preto. “If you keep track of your expenses in that first year, you should have a very good idea of how much money you’re spending, and how much you need.”
Next on the list, says Preto, is weighing the cost of childcare, which runs about $1,000 per month, against your potential earnings. “Often, a parent is working for a difference of $500 a month. But it’s not just a financial decision,” explains Preto. “If you’re a high-income earner and you’ve got a career that you really enjoy, then it’s a no-brainer. If not, it becomes a difficult decision to make.” Don’t forget the other costs associated with going back to work such as work clothes, commuting costs and lunches out.
Bellamy believes anything is possible with the right attitude. “If having one parent stay at home is something you really want, you have to adapt to it,” says Bellamy, who has been at home full-time with his children for over a year. Mason returned to work full-time last fall, and Bellamy says he’s never been happier. “I’ve just always wanted to be a stay-at-home dad.”
To parents agonizing over whether taking an extended parental leave can hurt one’s career; Mason admits that at first, she wondered how her long absence would affect her opportunities. “People are so afraid that taking time off is going to reflect badly on them or ruin their chances for advancement,” she says. “I think a lot of people don’t do what they really want to do because of that fear. Now, when I tell colleagues I was home with my kids for four years, nobody bats an eyelash.”