Illustration: Linda Yan
Nadia Bechai was in her early 30s and working toward making partner at a boutique downtown-Toronto law firm when she got pregnant with her first child—but it didn’t slow her down. She continued to put in long hours, taking on files that would advance her career, and she planned on jumping right back into work after five or six months of maternity leave. “I was very career focused,” she says. “I was not the kind of woman who envisioned myself really enjoying children and children’s activities.” But Bechai’s feelings toward motherhood—and her career—changed after her son, Noah, was born.
Not ready to leave her baby with a nanny as soon as she’d planned, Bechai extended her leave. She went back to work when Noah was 11 months old, but longed to be at home with him. When she went on mat leave with her twin girls, born two years after Noah, she was up front with her bosses about not coming back before a year. Eleven months into her leave, she resigned.
Quitting her job wasn’t an easy decision: Bechai was raised to pursue a career, and most of her friends were lawyers or other professionals. She saw throwing in the towel on her job as a sign of weakness. If other women managed to juggle a career and kids, why couldn’t she? After months of trying to quash her true feelings, she admitted how she really felt: “I wanted to be home. I wanted to be the one to have the challenges of motherhood, and I wanted to be the one to have the joys.”
Julia James, a career and life coach in Victoria, says there’s a lot of pressure on moms today. “There are expectations that women are to be there 100 percent for their kids, and there are expectations that they will push forward with advancing in their careers,” she says. Those conflicting ideals can weigh heavily on a mom who’s torn between her career and her kids. But James says the decision should ultimately come down to what you want to do, assuming your financial and child-care situations allow you some choice. Even when you block out external voices, it’s easy to get bogged down with your own thoughts and feelings. Here’s what you’ll need to think about to make the right decision for you and your family.
Your decision to work or stay home with the kids will affect many people, but think hard about what will make you most happy, not what you think should make you happy. Picture your days in both scenarios: If you’re working, you’ll have the benefit of camaraderie, lunch breaks and drinking coffee while it’s hot. As a stay-at-home mom, you’ll have more freedom on one level, but your days will revolve around nap times, meals and playdates. “That’s not to say you can’t develop a new network with parents in your community, but the get-togethers are different. They’re more sporadic and the conversation may be less stimulating,” says Sara Dimerman, a psychologist who counsels families in the Toronto area. On the fence? Think about how you feel (or felt) being on mat leave. Are you bored, isolated and frustrated, or do you love the freedom from deadlines and a cubicle?
There’s more to think about than how you’ll be spending your time. Being at home with your kids all day is challenging in a way you can only understand after you’ve done it, and for some, it takes a toll on their mental health. A 2012 Gallup poll conducted in the US found stay-at-home moms worried more and experienced more sadness and depression than those who were employed. Linda Duxbury, who researches work-life balance at Carleton University in Ottawa, says women who quit their jobs to focus on their kids suffer from what she calls the “all my eggs in one basket” phenomenon. “The more meaningful roles you have in your life, the more likely it is that if something is going wrong in one role, something else will be going well in another,” she says. If you quit your job because you think it’s going to make others happy, you may find yourself resentful when things get tough (because they will). On the other hand, if you want to stay home with your kids, try to ignore external pressures to do otherwise.
After a year at home with your baby, it can be hard to imagine balancing all that with a job. But people do it, and talking to other moms who’ve gone back to work can help. Feeling nervous about dropping your kid off at daycare for the first time or guilty that the nanny will be taking him to mom-and-me classes? Research shows kids who are looked after by caregivers thrive just as well as those cared for by their mothers. In fact, a US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study of more than 1,000 kids found no difference in the development of children cared for by their mothers compared with those cared for by others (including their fathers) during the first four and a half years of life. And consider what you’re modelling: A study out of Harvard Business School, which looked at data from 24 countries, found that women whose moms worked while raising their kids were more likely to have a good job themselves and earn more than those who grew up in homes with a stay-at-home mom. And men who had a working mom were more likely to contribute to household chores and spend time taking care of family members.
Research aside, for some parents, having their kids with a caregiver during the day simply doesn’t sit right. “It just felt natural to be at home while the boys were little, and I’m glad we were able to financially support that,” says Michelle Williams, a mom in St. George, Ont., whose two sons are now in school.
Ultimately, the most important thing is that your kids are in a loving, stimulating and stress-free environment. If you can and want to provide that, great. But a daycare or nanny is just fine, and you can still have a great relationship with your kids—remember that quantity doesn’t equal quality when it comes to time together.
You can’t ignore the money. Depending on your situation, you might take a financial hit if you quit your job, or you might find staying at home makes sense if the cost of daycare is high in comparison to your income. When you’re crunching the numbers, don’t forget to factor in no longer having benefits (unless your partner has a comparable plan), as well as losing out on raises and promotions, which can have a compounding effect on your finances later in life. If your company contributes to a pension or RRSP account on your behalf, think about those retirement savings losses. And don’t discount lifestyle: If you want to travel or have your kids in extracurricular activities, the money to pay for that has to come from somewhere. One of the reasons Angela Lecompte works is to be able to give her three kids, ages seven, four and two, certain experiences. “I like being able to afford to live in Toronto and also that the girls have the opportunity to be in dance and violin and summer camp,” she says. It helps that Lecompte really enjoys her job as a disabilities counsellor at York University—even though it’s hard missing days with her toddler and school drop-offs and pickups.
For Bechai, money was an important factor because, at the time she quit, she was earning more than her husband, who’s a business manager for a mining company. But Bechai’s desire to be at home with the kids outweighed the lifestyle changes they had to make, like eating out less and waiting to buy clothes on sale. Still, Dimerman cautions against downplaying a financial hit, whether it’s a loss of income or high child-care costs. “You have to measure the kind of stress that can result from being in debt,” she says.
The hard truth about quitting your job to stay home with your kids when they’re young is that it will affect your career. “We’re pumping out smart university grads, and technology is growing exponentially right now, so your skill set after five years out of the market is going to be hard to sell,” says Duxbury. She suggests women who’ve spent time and money on their education and building a career should strongly consider what they may be giving up if they take time out of the workforce.
Denise Darling, a videographer at an ad agency in Winnipeg, went back to work after a year off with her daughter. “We would probably be OK financially if I didn’t work, but I didn’t want to let go of this side of my life yet,” she says. Bechai, on the other hand, was confident she could go back to practising law later on. “We felt strongly that I wasn’t becoming a person incapable of earning an income by making this decision,” she says. “I wasn’t losing the years of education and work experience I had under my belt, and I was also not losing my drive and determination.”
If you want to focus on your kids now, rather than your career, Duxbury suggests having a plan for keeping your skills sharp and staying on top of changes in your profession, as well as thinking ahead to how you might re-enter the workforce. Bechai, for instance, thinks she’ll start working again at some point, but she doesn’t see herself in the same role. “I envision myself working from home and doing something—like a small law practice or freelance writing—where I could manage the workflow myself.”
The silver lining in this debate is that you don’t always need to make an all-or-nothing decision. Part-time work, reduced hours, contract jobs, freelancing or job sharing are great options. Robyn Brown, an early childhood educator in Winnipeg, decided to work part-time so she could be with her son but still maintain a bit of income and keep one foot in her career. “It’s nice to feel like someone other than ‘Oliver’s mom’ two days a week,” she says. Once Oliver is in grade one, she plans on picking up more hours. Duxbury also points out that the question of career versus family doesn’t have to be limited to you. If you do want to focus on your career, now or five years from now, there’s no reason your partner can’t take a step back from his or her career so you can focus on yours.
Whatever you decide, be kind to yourself. The truth is, you can have it all—a happy family life and a fulfilling career—but you can’t do it all. If you’re working, you’ll be pulled in a bunch of directions at once. Look for ways to relieve the burden, like regular babysitting, using pre-made foods or hiring a cleaner. Have a candid discussion with your partner about divvying up household and parenting tasks, and be sure to take some guilt-free time for yourself. And when you’re home with your kids, turn off your phone and enjoy it. On the flip side, being a stay-at-home mom doesn’t mean you have to be a supermom. If you like making themed bento box lunches, great—but it’s not required. And you’ll also need me-time and a few nights out with friends. At the end of the day, your kids will be fine either way. You’re guaranteed to find moms who’ve made different decisions—that’s OK. Own yours.
The most important thing is that your kids are in a loving, stimulating and stress-free environment.
A version of this article appeared in our June 2016 issue with the headline "Quitting time?," p. 35-37.