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Daycare vs. Stay At Home: A Mom’s Perspective

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Dancing in DaycareEditor’s Note: Last week, I wrote a brief post about the financial tradeoffs of daycare versus being a stay at home parent. Kelly of The Centsible Life offered to write a more detailed guest post on the subject because, as a mother of four, she is clearly way more qualified to speak on the tradeoffs than I am. I gladly took her generous offer so here is a mom’s perspective on the issue.

In Jim’s original post he posed a seemingly simple question: Stay at Home or Pay for Daycare? Since Jim isn’t a parent yet, there are many intricacies and options that the post didn’t discuss. I’m here to fill that gap. :)

Income Affects Outcome

Single parents can not even fathom the question of staying at home vs. daycare. They MUST work because they are the only breadwinner in the home. Unfortunately the vast majority of women who are single parents live at or below the poverty line making work equivalent to survival and the only relevant question being how they can provide the best care possible for their children. Not an easy proposition.

Many mothers stay at home with their children because the can not afford childcare. Kathy Lopez, is a mom of 4, who said “last year I had hoped to work or return to school but the cost for care for three children was way more than I could make. I have done an analysis on the costs of care numerous times over the past seven years – the first time I hoped to return to work, paying for FT childcare for my son would have left me with $60/weekly to bring home.”

The Cost of Quality

Babies need attention, love and a stimulating environment to thrive. Caregiving, and parenting is an intuitive process. While it is possible for daycare, nannies, and other caregivers to provide attention, affection and love, not all daycare centers provide this kind of attention. Finding a quality environment for your child is difficult. Christine DeLaurentis, a mother of 2 children who attended daycare from 3 and 5 months respectively, said that she and her husband “found all day care centers in our area, called ALL of them for information, then visited five of them before settling on which one to use.”

Every parent I spoke with had completed a cost analysis for working versus staying at home, and most parents have a clear winner in terms of the numbers.

A Case for Daycare

The parents that were the happiest with daycare were those who were happiest in their careers, or who had found a positive work/life balance. Stacy Hinton, a mom of one son with another on the way, says her career as a teacher allows her to spend a lot of time with her son. She also shares that “in my professional opinion, daycare kids are way more prepared for kindergarten, academically and socially,” making her decision straightforward.

Many families choose daycare and dual incomes to maintain their lifestyle. Liz Murihead, a mom of 2, says that her spouse “… wants to stay home, but isn’t willing to change his standard of living to do it.”

Liz feels that her personality is not suited towards being at home. “I am a better mom because I work. I try to be there and spend lots of my non-work time with my kids. I don’t have the patience to be the kind of SAHM I would want for my kids.” She also says her children are thriving in daycare.

Rob ODaniel feels similarly about his adopted son’s personality. “He just fell right in with daycare, I suspect because it’s so similar to the orphanage environment that he’d been in since he was about 8 months old. He responds very well to structure & routine. Liam is a very sociable boy and has thrived in the group dynamic of daycare.”

The main drawback for most working parents is trying to squeeze activities, homework, cooking and cleaning into the few hours they have at home each evening.

When Does Daycare Work?

For those families that can choose, daycare seems to work best when parents are happy in their careers and earning more than they pay for childcare and work related expenses. It also seems to work best when the child or parent’s temperaments aren’t suited to staying at home. I would also argue that quality, affordable childcare is vastly different in various areas of the country. For tips on how to find a quality daycare in your area check out Smart Momma’s guide.

A Case for Staying At Home

An estimated 6 million parents choose to stay at home with their children. These families make sacrifices, and cut corners to have a parent stay at home. They feel it is important to have a parent provide the care for their children, and are willing to sacrifice career growth, money, and luxuries to do so.

Staying at home also has other benefits. The at home parent can use their time for other opportunities. You only need to look around the blogosphere to see a number of stay at home parents who blog, or run small businesses while their children nap.

Another benefit, the expense of working outside the home (fast food, convenience foods, dry cleaning, work clothes, etc.) disappear, because the at-home parent can choose to focus on ways to save the family money.

It is also possible to choose to stay at home even with a low income. My husband was earning only $18,000 a year when we had our first child. We were very frugal, buying used furniture, having date night at home, and sharing one car.

The main attraction for stay at home parents though is one that has nothing to do with finances. Watching your children grow and explore the world can be an amazing way to spend your time. Kristin Crawford, a mom of 2, has no shortage of activities she provides for her children. “My son loves going places in the car. We go out of the house pretty much everyday. We have playgroups, the zoo, the Y, and other kids play places outside the home.”

The main drawback to staying at home is making sure the at home parent gets plenty of adult interaction. Many moms use the internet for this purpose, and connect with other moms all over the country and world that are facing the same issues. “I couldn’t work because I couldn’t make enough to cover childcare costs, but I needed something for ‘me.’ Hobbies didn’t seem to work out, but I have been able to include volunteer work that has helped keep me in contact with the outside world,” shares Kathy Lopez.

When Does Staying At Home Make Sense?

Staying at home makes sense when childcare expenses are more than or equal to the parents take home pay. It also makes sense for those families who believe that having a parent at home is beneficial to their child(ren). Parents with larger families, the desire, or the personality suited towards taking care of children are the ones who make it work best.

Alternatives

Many families choose neither of the above. They may choose, as one commenter posted “babysharing”, nannies, au pairs, family members who watch their children for free, or a combination of daycare and staying at home. Still other parents choose to work opposite shifts, like Kathy Lopez’s cousin who, “decided to have someone at home with their kid/s because it was important to them. My cousin switches off with her husband. She works daytime hours at an investment firm and he works an overnight shift as a cop in the city.”

Freelancing, consulting and owning a small business all require endless hours of work, but because you are your own boss, you can often make time to start a business or blog when the children are napping.

Kim McGrigg has found balance though by working part-time and using day care part time. “When I was working full time, I often felt like I was not doing either thing (being a parent, being an employee) to the best of my ability. My solution was to go part-time. I learned to better manage my time at work and be there for the kids”.

No ‘Right’ Answer

As Kim points out, “the decision is never as simple as putting down some numbers.”

In the end there is no right answer. Most families struggle with this decision. When a family chooses to have more than one child, the decision making process starts again. For most families there is a combination of a part-time gig with one parent (school, their own business, volunteering, etc.), and the other works full-time. The parents I know that do stay at home full time, are mostly happy with their decision, and highly engaged in being with their kids, and watching them learn and grow. After all, it is only a short time before they are off at school, or out on their own.

Most importantly, it is key to remember (as with everything with children), what works today may not work tomorrow, so to have this discussion is vital, but remember that nothing is set in stone.

The experience of having a child changes many things in your life, if you are open to it, and just when you thought you had your answer you just might surprise yourself.

Who am I?
I’m a parent to 4 children. Aged 11, 7, 5, and 3.

I’ve never had a full-time job outside of the home, but I have taken part-time work, and (as I do now) held several jobs at once. I did for a time fully dedicate myself to my kids, and loved and hated it depending on the day.

I did not have a career before my first son was born at age 21, and therefore my earning power was significantly lower than many first-time mothers. I had hoped to go back to school and start a career once the kids were all old enough, but my oldest was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and is now homeschooled, making a full-time job out of the question for now.

My husband works really hard, and has a great career that allows him to be home at a reasonable hour, without much travel.

Kelly can be found on my blog, The Centsible Life and on twitter @centsiblelife.

(Photo: eugeniajulian)

{ 19 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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19 Responses to “Daycare vs. Stay At Home: A Mom’s Perspective”

  1. kristen says:

    i think this is a wonderful article! also a good topic.

    one thing that i have a difficult time understand is the idea that a parent cannot work when they would like to do so because “they can barely cover daycare with their salary.” i think this may be due to the differences in how people look at their salary.

    for my husband and i, we have both of our salaries shown as streams of income. when it comes to covering daycare, i don’t see it that my salary may barely cover daycare so i shouldn’t work because it doesn’t make financial sense.

    instead, we look at it as daycare is an expense against our total income, just like the mortgage or anything else. in this way, it doesn’t matter if my salary can cover the daycare or not – it matters if we can afford it.

    • Andrew says:

      Yes, but if the low-wage spouse gave up working for wages and stayed home with the kids, they could save that expense. So that’s why it makes sense to look at whether the low-wage spouses wages cover daycare or not.

  2. Ron says:

    Very nice piece Kelly – you did a great job nailing down all the important factors one should consider. My wife is a stay-at-home-Mom after working the past 20 years in well paying jobs. We have a 1 and 3 year old and we would not trade their home and social lives for anything. I work full time and lucky enough to have military retirement income. I do have one question: My wife has possibly 25 years until retirement and if she decides not to return to the workforce for the next 10 years or so, will her potential Social Security benefit be reduced significantly? We are already noticing her SS statements are reflecting less and less every year. Can this be made up or is this the price one pays?

  3. Nick says:

    I think a drawback of staying at home that tends to be overlooked is how negatively all the time off impacts your long term career future. Taking 10 years off from work basically kills your career. Even if the cost of daycare (plus work related expenses) = the amount you’d earn from work, in the long run just working those years and breaking even will increase your earning potential once the kids are done with daycare. That doesn’t address all the things you miss by having kids in daycare, but I think people tend to worry to much about the short term financial implications without considering all of the long term implications.

  4. This weekend I was talking with my mom about the cost of daycare and how Mr M will probably move into the role of SAHD due to the cost in Los Angeles. I pointed out that he doesn’t earn enough for us to come out ahead while paying for daycare. My mom said it didn’t make sense for them either but she couldn’t stand being a stay at home parent (with apologies to me)! She had done a similar analysis back in the day and in her case was only bringing home $15 a week once you accounted for daycare, but still preferred it to being home all day. Obviously this sort of analysis is never cut and dry and even when the numbers show one thing, parents make the opposite choice for their own reasons.

  5. Kelly says:

    Kristin, I completely understand what you mean. Most people live just within their means, so even looking at it as part of a the larger budget won’t net them different results.

    Ron, great question! I’m not well versed in social security, but I’ll look into it and get back to you.

    Nick, I agree with you completely. But in my case, and many other stay-at-home parents I know they either don’t have a career that grows in that manner. In my case I was a college student, so I didn’t have a career to worry about.

    And the fantastic thing about staying at home, is most of the parents I know, including myself are afforded an opportunity to find and follow their passion.

    Miss M, Mr M will be part of a new wave of dads staying at home. Like your mom said, you have to make sure the parent is suited to the job, because it’s not just about the numbers.

  6. Rob O. says:

    Not only would staying at home be a poorer fit for my son, but I’ll be honest enough to admit that it would not suit me well either. If I were honestly seeking what’s best for my family, I’d also hafta seriously question whether I’d be a good fit for stay-at-home parenting. I’m no social butterfly but I do need interaction. I work very well in a team setting and with well-defined goals. I believe I’d go stir crazy if I tried to stay at home long-term.

  7. Lauren J says:

    I’ve worked in Daycare, preschool, as a nanny, and now am a mother of a 6yo. I chose to stay home, but have always told the parents I work with, and my friends, that if they would be happier working, then go work!! The best thing for a child is a happy parent. It’s hard to be a happy parent if staying home makes you miserable. And if my working friends are miserable in their jobs, then THEY aren’t happy parents, and I tell them that it’s time to look very carefully at what path they are taking, and maybe it’s time to make changes. Thanks for the post Kelly!!

  8. Janesville Daycare says:

    This is a wonderful article. It was quite comprehensive.

  9. Sara says:

    4. Mingus, you are so right. After I lost my job, I was miserable. Then, I started searching the net for stories like this, job ideas and so on. Now, I have a little home business, time to be with my kids, go to the gym, see friend and I am really happy.
    PS. I also got hooked to those freebie sites, and there are so many good offers out there. Ladies, you should check this one out – $1000 of free cash I just got yesterday: http://www.mediancs.com/rd_p?p=192462&t=9534&a=25081-scash&gift=25081

  10. Bryce says:

    Great article! While I fall into the work outside of the home camp, I think you did a great job at expressing both sides.

    What resonated with me most was the “what works today, may not work tomorrow” line. That’s one thing I’ve learned is certain since becoming a mother!

  11. Kelly says:

    Thanks for all the comments!

    Bryce, when I had 1 child I was firmly in the stay at home camp, but since I’ve had more children, and met AMAZING moms who work at home, part-time, or full-time I definitely think there is no one size fits all approach!

    I’m itching to get to work, so for now freelancing, and blogging are my outlets.

    That approach also applies to our school choices, by the way, we have 1 homeschooled, and 2 in public school. Talk about a conflict!

    Lauren summed it up nicely, whatever makes mom (or dad) happy is the best thing for everyone.

  12. J's Mom says:

    Staying home is viewed by many as a luxury- when quality childcare is hard to find and expensive when it is found, this baffles me. I have a bachelor’s degree, but I’m the lucky kind of single mother- the kind where my husband works ridiculously long and random hours to cover the bills, but all the rest falls to me. Many military parents find themselves in a similar position when their spouses are deployed. Though I’d love to work part-time for the sake of sanity and my resume, my husband and I can’t afford to put my son in daycare of any kind, even two days a week, on one income. This makes finding a job, even a freelance or a part-time job, difficult.

    Thank you, by the way, for including the parent/child temperament as another factor in determining whether daycare is appropriate. Some kids just aren’t ready until 4 or 5, some are ready at 3 months. As a parent, it may seem ludicrous to postpone one’s return to work because a 2 or 3 year old isn’t ready for school…until you’ve seen a child who isn’t ready or is in the wrong class.

    Thank you for your insightful article.

  13. Kelly says:

    Thank you J’s Mom for the comment!

    We were in similar shoes when we had our first, my husband’s job was at Lenscrafters so he had “mall hours,” which meant anywhere from 9am-10pm he could be working and it changed every week, and every day!

    Without having a 2nd car, and quality daycare it just seemed impossible to go to work at that point.

    He’s in the corporate world now and things aren’t exactly 9-5 all the time. Deadlines need meeting, things break and need fixing, etc. It’s enough to keep up with one full-time job for us for now.

  14. beth says:

    This article talks about the parents———-what about the children??????
    Interesting use of phrase the “orphanage.” Children go in the morning, eat breakfast at day care and often have to eat dinner there also. I wonder how many parents actually do the research about the day cares available or chose for price or location? What about the children?????

  15. Mattko says:

    I would like to know the kids stay home get bully easily by the kids who go to daycare??

  16. Beth R says:

    The part of this article that is so sad for me is the dad with the adopted child. Daycare works because it’s like the orphanage? I think the analogy is perfect – left with strangers without parents. That is what is so sad! I have an adopted child and would never dream of putting her in a scenario that would be a reminder of where she came from. Wow, that is so sad.

  17. katelyn says:

    My husband and I have been struggling to make ends meet since we got married 5 years ago. He is just starting school (finally!) and we are starting to dream about large houses, family vacations and the such. We have 2 children, and 1 on the way. I am 21..lots of time for anything and everything. But..my question is, how will we afford to have to fun and luxary we both dream about with the career he plans to follow- Game Warden, 60-70k salary? I have always though I would eventually go to Dental school, however to closest one is 5 hours away. We own the house we live in, and I am a SAHM. How do I justify going to school with little kids at home, when I constantly feel guilty for putting them in daycare, but feel just as guilty because I think they don’t socialize enough, or I don’t do enough activities at home. I really feel like I am a poor SAHM, mimicing my mother, whom I don’t want to be anything like. Please, someone give me some advice, I really don’t want to go crazy being home all the time, when I love to work. But feel the same when I’m at work. :/

  18. Aury's Mommy says:

    I have been very fortunate to have never had to put my 3 year old in daycare. Not to say I haven’t worked, but for the first year of her life when I worked a friend of mine who was a SAHM kept her for just 60/wk and loved her like her own. After that, I went back to college FT and my mom kept her until 3 PM when I was able to pick her up. Having completed college, I have stayed at home with her, just enjoying being wth her, as my hunny makes pretty good money where he is at. This coming school year I found a job as a teacher and she will be going to “little school” as she calls it. I do agree, being a FT SAHM parent calls for a certain personality. It is def not a one size fits all. Some parents are happiest and the best parents when they only have to do it for certain hours, Lord knows there are days where I ((jokingly)) wonder if I can donate my child to Goodwill. :P , overall I have been happy with the decsions I have made, it was important to me while she was little for her to have that one on one, and she has benefited greatly from it. Her linguistic skills are extremely advanced for her age as she is around adults a lot and we all talk to her. Also, she is very independent and knows all of her shapes, colors, recognized number to 20 and her alphabet and she just turned 3. No doubt she wouldn’t have gotten that at a daycare because they wouldnt have had the time to dedicate to her. BUT-all good things come to an end, and I feel it is a good time now to enroll her in preschool so she can get the peer interactions she lacks at home. I think the SAHM/SAHD/daycare/babysitter/in home daycare, decision should be one tailored to each family and their needs as well as personalities. Also, not all daycares are the same, it is VERY important to check out several.


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