The REAL lives of stay-at-home parents

Is staying at home with kids as easy as working parents imagine it to be? We asked eight SAHMs and SAHDs to set the record straight on stay-at-home-parents


Secret #1: SAHPs don’t have halos

The idea that SAHPs are somehow superior parents is alive and well. “I get a lot of ‘pats on the head’ from people who are unhappy with their grown children’s choices,” says Kathy Ciccale,* SAHM of Mackenzie, three, and Adam, four, in New Westminster, BC. “Someone will say, ‘My daughter went back to work and she never gets to see her son. How can she miss out on these precious moments?’” Ciccale, 37, is uncomfortable being “evidence” for criticisms of moms who work outside the home. “I’m happy with my choice to stay home, but it wasn’t clear-cut,” she says.

Melanie Snagg, age 39, of Vancouver, encountered similar reactions when she left her job as a film and video editor to stay home with Carter, now four. “My least favourite comments imply that I am ‘finally’ doing the right thing for my kid,” she says. “Seriously? To me, that suggests a working mom’s job is like a hobby, something she chooses to do for her own well-being.” Snagg adds that some SAHMs she knows seem to forget staying home isn’t necessarily an option for everyone. “I hope I don’t do that the longer I’m at home.”

Secret #2: Living on one income can be surprisingly doable

Such expenses as transportation, buying lunch and  maintaining a workplace wardrobe are often part of having a job. But for many families who opt to have a parent at home, the deciding factor is child care expenses. “While on mat leave with my third child, I crunched the numbers and realized after paying for child care, I was only taking home about $500 a month,” says Jenn Nadon, 32, a Guelph, Ont., mom of five kids, aged 11 months to 14 years. “It made more sense to stay home than go back to my factory job.” It wasn’t a decision she and her husband, Rickardo Myers, took lightly, since he’s a self-employed automotive technician without a set salary or benefits package.

Caregiver costs were also a factor in Hannah Munday’s decision to leave her executive assistant position and become a SAHM to James, three, and Isaac, five. (The 33-year-old Hatchet Lake, NS, mom also cared for her ailing father-in-law in their home until his death 1½ years ago.) To augment the paycheque from her husband Michael’s job with a contracting firm, Munday did some consulting work and then started a home daycare. “Sudden expenditures like car repairs can cause a bit of hair-pulling,” she says. “But, overall, it hasn’t been a major hardship.”

Plus, stay-at-home parenting can be relatively short-term, as Ciccale points out. She and her husband, Edward Black, a network administrator, budgeted for two years of Ciccale staying home. “I took an extended leave of absence from my job as an administrative assistant, rather than quitting entirely,” she says. “I’ll be going back to work this fall.”

Secret #3: Quantity is quality

Many SAHPs find the extra time with their kids is an ideal combination of stability and flexibility. “I can be there when I’m needed, not when I’m scheduled,” explains Nicole MacPherson, the Calgary SAHM of Jake, five, and Mark, seven. “My boys love knowing that I always pick them up from school, and we all love having time to play together or go to the zoo, pool or library.” MacPherson, 36, is well aware of the potential pitfalls, though: “I am wrapped up in my children’s lives,” she says. “I dread the day they no longer want me to volunteer at their school. I will have to find other ways to fill my time.”

Becoming a SAHD made a big difference in Rod Nowicki’s relationship with his children, six-year-old Alyssa and Avery, nine. “I think because I have daughters, I wasn’t sure how to play with them,” says the 37-year-old northern Ontario dad, who left his job as a natural gas serviceman when his wife Karen’s corporate career started to take off. “I was spending more time in the garage than with them. We’re getting to know each other much better now.”

“I have more patience now,” notes Snagg, the Vancouver film editor. “I remember coming home from work and playing Candy Land with Carter. I was like, ‘Will you just go? It’s your turn!’” she says. “I used to do things for him that he should have been doing, like putting on his shoes or jacket, because I was in a rush.”

Secret #4: Creativity saves sanity

Though their days are packed, many SAHPs reach for scrapbooking supplies, a camera or a keyboard on a regular basis. “When my children were very small, I often felt isolated. I had a lot of time to think, but not a lot of time to do anything,” says MacPherson. “That’s why I started a blog. Often things that seem difficult turn into a funny story when you look back.”

Sure, SAHPs spend plenty of one-on-one (or one-on-two, or three…) time with their kids — painting, reading, kicking a soccer ball, playing dress-up. But at some point in many households, there is a little screen time too. “I spend mornings with my daughter Mairi, who’s four,” says Robert Gordon, a SAHD in Toronto who is also the dad of James, nine, and William, 11. “Sometimes when I do housework, I plop her in front of the TV or computer for a bit.” This is something Gina Clark of Ignace, Ont., a SAHM of 19-month-old Elliot, three-year-old Julia and nine-year-old Sam, understands. “Ah, TV as babysitter,” she says. “I tend to turn it on when I’m trying to get something done like putting a meal together.”

Secret #5: The Internet is a great job tool

“Because I’m in a rural area, I rely on the Internet to meet other SAHDs,” says Nowicki. “I didn’t realize how unsure I was about staying home until I started reading their stories. Suddenly, I wasn’t ashamed anymore. People need reassurance when they’re trying something new, and friends from your old life can’t always provide that.”

Ciccale gives Twitter the thumbs-up. “It’s a great place to take a moment out of a frustrating or boring day and connect with other SAHPs,” she says. “You tweet something like ‘My kids are playing superheroes and trying to concuss themselves on the furniture,’ and you get six responses saying ‘mine too!’” Ciccale compares it to chatting over the fence with neighbours.

The Web helps career-wise too: Clark, 38, a former police officer, is taking a master’s degree via distance education, which requires about 30 hours of study and online group work a week. Snagg keeps on top of developments in her field by doing research online. “I’ve built up this knowledge base in the last 16 years, and it would bother me if I let that go,” she explains.

Secret #6: SAHDs have a rougher road

While there are more SAHDs than ever before (see the stats on p. 130), being a SAHD has unique challenges. “It’s a lot more lonely than being a SAHM,” observes Gordon, 45, a former teacher. “There are quite a few SAHDs in my neighbourhood, but we tend to stand isolated in the schoolyard. SAHDs have become a lot more common in the last few years, but we don’t quite know what our role is. We’re still odd ducks a little bit.”

Nowicki has encountered resistance too. “I think I’m a bit of an embarrassment to some male members of my family,” he says. “And I fear that my wife is being labelled as pushy and controlling.” He adds that dropping the traditional breadwinner role can be particularly difficult for guys: “Staying at home can really leave a husband vulnerable if the marriage breaks up and he’s back at the bottom, career-wise. You need to have a strong marriage to put your career on hold for your kids, whether you’re the dad or the mom.”

Secret #7: Sometimes it’s boring, frustrating and just plain hard

Wiping mashed banana out of your toddler’s hair for the umpteenth time can be — let’s face it — tedious and irritating. “I had a really low point when the boys were little,” says MacPherson, whose sons are about 18 months apart. “I was exhausted all the time. The hours would creep by and if my husband was late coming home, I felt like I was going to die.”

“No question, there is a certain amount of drudge work,” says Gordon. “You have to do laundry and you have to do housework and you have to make a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches.” Munday agrees. “Being a SAHM can be really, really boring. But most jobs are boring sometimes.” Her bust-a-rut tip: Do something messy with the kids. “It’s bloody hard to stay frustrated when you’re fingerpainting or mucking around with playdough!”

Secret #8: Sometimes it’s exciting, fun and just plain wonderful

Still, as every parent knows, there are magical moments that more than make up for the slog. “Sometimes I put on music and we dance around the living room, or the kids draw superheroes on the chalkboard easel, and I feel how right it is to be so entwined with them right now,” explains Ciccale.

Perhaps Snagg sums it up best: “It’s hard work, but you get paid in hugs and kisses.

*Names changed by request.

Writer Bonnie Schiedel freelances from the Thunder Bay, Ont., home she shares with her husband and daughter.

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