A Labor of Love

"I had zero experience taking care of children before I had my own," said Laura Mercer, mother of two boys and professional stay-at-home mom outside of Las Vegas, Nev. "Being a career woman most of my adult life, the thought of being a stay-at-home mom didn't even occur to me."

Instead of donning a suit and pumps each morning in pursuit of the corporate American dream, Mercer gets gussied up in kid-proof clothing to confront a very different challenge: maintaining a household and raising two energetic boys. Like most stay-at-home parents, Mercer acts as cook, maid, driver, disciplinarian, and tutor - all without monetary compensation.

So why do thousands of career women nationwide opt to put their careers and salary-earning potential on the back burner to stay home to care for their children? Reasons can range from the exorbitant cost of childcare to deep emotional attachment, but one thing is clear: being a stay-at-home parent is a full-time job and something that still lands mostly in mommy's lap.

Mr. Mom is still scarce
According to a 1995 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, fathers account for only 16.6 percent of stay-at-home parents in families where one parent works (not published until October of 2000, these numbers are the latest available). One in six is better than nothing, but full-time parenting is still predominantly female territory.

It's not only that women are historically seen as the traditional homemakers, but also many women who do work earn lower wages than their male counterparts. "My husband was willing to stay home," said Mercer. "But we couldn't survive off my salary, so I stayed home."

CPA and stay-at-home mother of two Wendy Schulze of suburban Massachusetts had reservations of her own about staying in the workforce. "I looked into day care, but I wasn't comfortable with it," she said. "And with two children, it's really not worth it to put both of them in day care."

Finances aren't the only, or even the biggest, reason for a parent to stay home and care for the children. Kansas City, Mo., stay-at-home mom Tiffany Allshouse was worried about her daughter's most formative years being defined by someone who wasn't family. Neither she nor her husband has relatives in the nearby area to help out. "The thought of a stranger - not Mom or Dad - being her primary caregiver is horrifying to me, even if the day care is the best around," she said.

Perks and bonuses
"She gets up around 6:30 in the morning to have a bottle and a diaper change," said Allshouse of her daughter. "When she's finished, we spend a few minutes just lying there together. I usually try to remember that this is a time I would not have with her if I were working and rushing her off to day care."

Schulze also takes note of the little things when caring for her two children. "I get to see everything, the first step, the first word. We have a lot of fun, we laugh and giggle," she said. "I know that we would still have that if I was working, but I don't know if I would have been the one clapping my hands, telling them 'You can do it!'"

Not only are stay-at-home parents able to spend their days with their little ones, but they usually get some down time to attend to their own needs during naps and play dates. "The spontaneity of the daily schedule can be kind of nice once you get the hang of it. After years of 9-to-5 jobs, it's a nice change of pace," said Erin Livingstone of northern Texas.

All three women are able to pursue hobbies they weren't able to give attention to while working out of the house. "I love to read and have an insatiable appetite for books," said Allshouse. "Staying at home has given me time to read books that I've been wanting to read for years, including classics and current works."

No raises, no sick days, no adult interaction
For all its priceless benefits, being a stay-at-home parent means no salary, unless the homebound parent works out of the home on a part-time or contract basis. "The worst part is the lack of pay," said Livingstone. "And the hours - it certainly isn't a 9-to-5 job. Being on duty - or at least on call - 24 hours a day can really wear you down at times." When she has time to herself, Livingstone keeps current in graphic design, her pre-motherhood profession. She hopes to start working out of her house on a part-time basis in the future.

Mercer, who plans to expand the Web design business she runs out of her home, also pointed out that stay-at-home parents don't get sick days. "Mommies can't get sick because young children still need care." She remembers a particularly nasty flu she contracted when her children were two and four years old. Unable to get out of bed and prepare them breakfast, she asked them to "to go in the kitchen and do their best to get some food because Mommy could not look at food at the moment." When she made it to the kitchen, she discovered a blanket of Cheerios on the kitchen floor, the refrigerator door wide open, and her kids sitting on the floor eating a bowl of strawberries. "I crawled back to bed and they ate a great deal of Cheerios that day," she added.

"I don't have a lot of adult interaction these days," said Schulze, who without hesitation named lack of "adult stimulation" as the worst thing about staying at home. She's made a conscious effort to get involved with activities outside her family life. "I would have probably done these things anyway, but I wouldn't have stressed it as much as I do now."

Returning to the workplace
Allshouse, Livingstone, and Schulze are planning to stay home until their children start school, and then move back into the working world part-time or out of the house. "I might go back earlier but it would greatly depend on what kind of opportunity it was," said Allshouse. "There is really a dearth of part-time work available for moms who want to stay home but still keep their minds and talents engaged in the work force."

Mercer plans on staying home until her children are in college. "I plan on being home for them after school when they are teenagers," she said. "That is when I got into the most trouble growing up, so I want to provide a nice place for my kids and their friends to hang out." She plans on working part-time while her children are in school, but she and her husband want to have at least one parent home for the kids in the afternoon and evening.

In The Price of Motherhood, author Ann Crittenden comments on the professional hits that stay-at-home parents take. According to her, mothers pay too large a lifetime price in lost income and status beacause of the time and energy they devote to their children. "Raising children may be the most important job in the world," she wrote, "but you can't put it on a resume."

The earning potential of stay-at-home mothers can therefore take quite the beating. A recent survey by professors at Pace and Rider universities found that businesswomen who pulled out of the job market to care for their children earn nearly 20 percent less than those who never experienced an employment gap.

And, the longer moms take before returning to work, the higher the price many of them pay in the long run. After all, nannies and babysitters qualify for Social Security benefits; stay-at-home mothers do not.

What mothers are really worth
Stay-at-home mothers wear many hats. They're the family CEO, the day care provider, accountant, chauffeur, counselor, chef, nurse, laundress, entertainer, personal stylist, and educator. Based on a 90-hour work week, Salary.com has estimated that a fair wage for the typical stay-at-home mom would be $88,276 for executing all of her daily tasks. Factor in overtime, and the appropriate salary leaps to $112,797.

"Mothers are responsible for the mental and physical well being of the family - putting a price on that isn't easy," said Lena Bottos, compensation market analyst for Salary.com. "But we looked at it as what you would have to pay other people to do the same work if the mom weren't there."

Even if these mothers were getting paid what they'd be worth on the market, Bottos added that they still wouldn't be adequately compensated. "You see that $88,000 amount and you think, 'Wow, that's such a big number.' But when you take into account that it represents a 90-hour workweek, and doesn't even begin to factor in that they are on call 24 hours a day, it's not so large. Plus, stay-at-home moms get no benefits in terms of pension or 401(k)."

Mom jobs

Job title
Annual salary
Child Day Care Worker
$19,176
Educator
$38,500
Taxi Driver
$25,884
Facilities Manager
$68,131
Short-order Cook
$26,009
Laundry Attendant
$16,959
Janitor, Sr.
$24,509
Actor/Performer
$41,198
Counselor
$27,638
CEO
$529,362
Administrative Assistant
$35,475
Accounting Clerk III
$32,520
Licensed Practical Nurse
$34,627
Hairstylist
$19,411
Plumber I
$27,609
Automotive Mechanic I
$26,694
Cake Decorator
$20,199

Jobs listed in order from largest to smallest component of a stay-at-home mom's job. All salaries are national averages. Source: Salary.com, May 2002.

The composite salary calculated by Salary.com's team of compensation experts for a stay-at-home mom is based on a 90-hour work week, consisting of six 14-hour days and one 6-hour day. Job titles, responsibilites, and qualifications were considered and weighed on a scale of importance, frequency, and average time spent on tasks per day. Hourly rates of pay corresponding to the 17 job titles in the above table were applied to the 90-hour model and multiplied by 52 weeks a year to determine an annual salary. It assumes the mother has two children of school age.

The $88,276 figure does not factor in overtime (time-and-a-half pay for hours greater than 40 per week). If a stay-at-home mom worked only 40 hours a week, the annual salary would equal $39,234. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary in the United States is $30,555.) Apply overtime (time-and-a-half pay) for the remaining 50 hours of work and the total cash compensation would increase to $112,797.

Far-reaching effects
Even though stay-at-home parents aren't included in Department of Labor statistics, their type of "non-wage labor" adds incalculable value to future human capital. Mercer hopes that by staying at home, she'll teach her children to be "responsible and well-mannered" productive members of society.

In the long-term, then, staying at home can benefit families financially and emotionally, and provide a boon to future labor markets. While a stay-at-home parent can't really use her or his experiences as resume fodder, caring for children requires attention to detail, multitasking capabilities, and self-confidence - skills that are necessary in any profession. "After being a stay-at-home mom to two very active, non-sleeping boys, I feel confident that I could take on nuclear engineering or anything else," said Mercer. "It is that challenging, but equally rewarding, too."

While not for everyone, staying at home not only benefits families as a whole, it specifically benefits the mothers who do it. "If I were working, I would be so stressed out with work and everything else that I wouldn't have time to see the little things," Schulze said. "I wouldn't have relaxed as much, or taken the time to stop and smell the flowers. I get to see life through a child's eyes, and I wouldn't have gotten that chance."

So, mommies-to-be, talk it over with your significant other, quit that day job, grab the kids...and dream on!