The Pros and the Cons of Both Parents Working

Parents working in home office with children playing
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Raising children is expensive, no matter where you live. But in the U.S., it’s arguably more difficult to navigate the financial challenges of combining family and career.

That’s because the United States is unique in its lack of social programs to support working families.

The U.S. is one of the few developed nations to offer no mandatory paid parental leave, no universal health care, and little childcare assistance for families living above poverty level.

At the same time, real wages have cratered since the Great Recession, and jobs have grown greedier than ever. It’s not uncommon for many professional jobs to demand 50 or 60 hours a week from workers.

That’s just the baseline; if you want to ascend the corporate ladder to the C-suite, you may find yourself working nearly 24/7, checking in with the office via Slack or email long after the workday is done.

Of course, many workers toil in industries where checking in via email sounds like a luxury. For retail and food service workers, the challenge is finding enough hours to add up to a living wage. Paying for daycare may be out of the question.

Should Both Parents Work? The Pros and Cons

As a result of all these factors, families find themselves making tough choices when it comes to working and raising kids. Chief among those choices: should both parents work, or should one parent stay home?

5 Reasons One Parent Should Stay at Home

1. The Cost of Childcare

The most obvious cost savings for a stay-at-home parent: not having to pay for daycare or a nanny. According to a 2018 Care.com survey, the average weekly daycare cost for an infant is $211. (Costs vary, according to location. Childcare is typically more expensive in more populous metro areas.)

A family care center is cheaper at $195, and a nanny is much more expensive at $580, but regardless, families find it hard to foot the bill. Per Care.com, 1 in 3 families now spend 20% of their annual household income on childcare. One in 5 families allocates more than a quarter of their income to childcare. So, simply not having to pay for childcare can be a big savings: over $10,000 per year, on average.

2. The Impact of Childrearing on the Primary Parent’s Income

As a result of the high costs of childcare, many parents do the math and discover that it’s not worth it to keep both parents in the workforce. The salary of the lower-earning parent would be entirely eaten by taxes and childcare costs. That parent opts to stay home.

In doing so, the parent avoids another impact of trying to juggle work and caregiving responsibilities: the financial hit that comes from being the primary parent.

Many employers place a premium on availability, flexibility, and overtime – just the things that a working parent can’t offer.

If you’re the person who leaves at 4:30 to pick the kids up at daycare and stays home when they’re sick, you may find yourself nixed from consideration when it’s time to hand out promotions.

In many male-female couples, the female partner earns less to begin with. For that reason, as well as cultural expectations, she is often the primary parent and thus the person whose career takes a backseat to childrearing. That in turn whittles away at her earning potential, especially in the short-term.

This cultural bias so ingrained, that even women who don’t prioritize caregiving over their career suffer an income penalty when they marry and have children.

3. A Potential Boost for the Other Parent’s Earnings

Meanwhile, men experience an earnings bonus when they have a family. Research has shown that fathers earn 6% more after having children, while mothers earn 4% less.

Leaving aside cultural bias, there are other reasons – many of them obvious – why a stay-at-home parent boosts the earnings of the working parent.

It’s easier to stay late at the office and impress the boss when your partner is holding things down on the home front.

4. Flexibility

Daycares have regular hours, typically something like 7 or 8 a.m. to 5:30 or 6 p.m. Schools let out for the day between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Even nannies have regular workdays … which don’t always line up with parents’ workdays.

Having a stay-at-home parent means not having to deal with the patchwork childcare plan most working parents have to cobble together. It also means not juggling last-minute changes when someone gets sick or other emergencies arise.

5. Quality of Life

Most importantly, some families find that their quality of life improves when one parent is able to stay home. They may value the time spent with their children while the kids are small and enjoy having more hands-on time with family. It may also help everyone in the household experience less stress and get more rest, depending on the individual situation.

5 Reasons Both Parents Should Work

1. Investment in Your Career

The average annual cost of a 4-year degree at a public college or university was $19,189 in 2015-16, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 7 in 10 students have student loan debt when they graduate. Parents who have spent a significant amount of money on their education and professional development may find it hard to walk away from that investment.

2. The Cost of Walking Away

Further, parents who choose to stay home are sacrificing more than just a few years’ lost earnings. They must also take into account lost retirement savings, including any 401k match their employer may offer, and the impact of decreasing earnings on social security payouts.

Their career trajectory as a whole may be affected, dragging down their earnings for decades after they return to work. Going back to their career may also prove more difficult than anticipated, requiring a further investment in certifications or training to reskill themselves for the current workforce.

3. Self-Esteem and Mental Health

Work also provides more than money and benefits. For many workers, their job is part of their identity, and a source of pride and self-esteem. Leaving your career may be challenging if you identify with the mission of your employer or the products of your work.

Becoming a stay-at-home parent means reorganizing your life around the priorities of others.

Even if you commit to investing in self-care, it can be hard to go from relative independence to a stay-at-home lifestyle.

4. Research Shows No Impact on Kids’ Happiness

Recent research shows that having a working mother has no impact on children’s happiness in adulthood. Further, the daughters of employed moms are often more successful in their later careers, while the sons of employed moms devote more time to caregiving and have more egalitarian gender attitudes.

“People still have this belief that when moms are employed, it’s somehow detrimental to their children,” says Harvard Business School Professor Kathleen McGinn. “So our finding that maternal employment doesn’t affect kids’ happiness in adulthood is really important.”

5. Enjoyment

Finally, of course, some people really enjoy their careers and would miss them if they walked away. When all else is equal, these parents may decide to continue working simply because they want to. And that, of course, is the best reason of all to make a choice – whether the parent chooses to work outside the home or become a stay-at-home parent.