Editor’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.
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.
(Photo: eugeniajulian )