Being A Stay-At-Home Mom: How To Make It Work So You Can Be With Your Baby

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Our Experts In This Episode

Martha Bullen is an expert on at-home motherhood, self-employment and family issues. She co-wrote the books Staying Home: From Full-Time Professional to Full-Time Parent, Turn Your Talents into Profits and Tales from the Homefront.

Liz Pulliam Weston is a personal finance columnist for MSN Money and author of the question-and-answer column "Money Talk," which appears in newspapers throughout the country. She is the author of several books, including Easy Money: How to Simplify Your Finances and Get What You Want Out of Life, Deal with Your Debt and Your Credit Score: How to Fix, Protect and Improve the 3-Digit Number that Shapes Your Financial Future. Liz has much more fantastic financial information for you at her website


Welcome to your Pea in the Podcast. I'm Bonnie Petrie with everything you need to know about your body, your baby and the big changes ahead in your life as you begin your journey to becoming a mommy.

This week, some of you may not want to go back to work after the baby comes.

Whether you planned it that way your entire life...

"That's what my mom did and that's just what I just assumed that I would do."

Or not...

"Oh no, no I thought I was going to go back to work."

More and more women are making the choice to stay at home with their babies. We talk to the woman who wrote the book on how to make that transition from working outside of the home to working in it. We've gotten advice from an MSN money columnist on how you could afford it. And we'll hear from two moms who are living their choice and loving it -- most of the time -- in this Pea in the Podcast: Staying at Home.

It's the 21st century, and unlike some of our moms and many of our grandmothers, most moms have careers that they love or need. Despite that, a large number of modern women are making the choice to make their careers motherhood.

"There was a report that said about 47% of all American women stay home for a year or more after they have a baby and that actually the majority of mothers of preschoolers are either staying at home or working part-time, that working full-time is not something the majority of mothers do with very young children."

Surprised? I was. But Martha Bullen, co-author of the book Staying Home: From Full-Time Professional to Full-Time Parent wasn't.

"We wrote this book at a time when the media kept talking about -- and you still hear this a lot -- that at-home moms are an endangered species, that they’re declining numbers that, you know, no one can afford to be at home anymore, and then my co-author Dorothy and I would go down to the playground in the middle of the day and it would be jammed with mothers and children. So there was a real disconnect."

Women of all kinds are putting their careers on hold to raise their children. Bullen participates in an at-home mothers group called Mothers and More.

"At a typical meeting we have, you know, doctors and attorneys and business executives and psychologists and writers and marketing people and scientists. It's a very cool, interesting group of women."

Like Emily, an attorney who never expected to be a stay-at-home mom of two rambunctious boys.

"Oh no, no, I thought I was going to go back to work and be a lawyer. And it didn't work out that way."

Right up until she had the baby, Emily fully expected to be back in the land of lawyers in no time.

"You know, before the baby is in your arms, you know, you think on an abstract level that ‘I'd like to go back to work and we'll put the baby in daycare.’ But when the baby is in your arms, it's a whole different matter and while I was on maternity leave it, you know, I knew I was going back but I was having a real hard time dealing with the idea of putting the baby into someone's care other than my own."

While she was on leave, her position at her company was eliminated, and she was relieved.

"I think that event kind of clarified what I actually wanted. It was probably the best thing that ever happened. You know, I’ve never had any regrets about not going back."

Some modern moms though take a page out of the past when they plan their families. Julie always knew she would stay at home.

"That's what my mom did and that's what I just assumed that I would do."

And when her daughter came, that's exactly what she did do. Right now Julie has another baby on the way, and by staying home, she is creating what she perceives as the ideal family environment for her family.

"I know my mom was always there for me and, I mean, she was there to stay home with us before school, she was there to get me from school, from sporting events, she was just there for me and I just love that I had her."

But I think more moms in this day and age may be like Emily, who didn't decide staying at home was really for her until after her baby was born, than Julie, who was joyfully certain home was for her. Liz Pulliam Weston is a personal finance columnist for MSN Money, and she agrees.

"You know, a lot of people aren't ready to make the decision for sure until after the birth. I mean, I've talked to so many people who were absolutely sure that they wanted to be stay-at-home parents, they tried it for three months and they fled back to work. And then the other side, I know a lot of people who did not expect to be stay-at-home parents, had the child and could not imagine doing it any other way. So I would hope you would give yourself the option both ways. Even if you are sure you are going to feel one way or another, give yourself some breathing room so you can make the choice."

And, of course, being an MSN Money columnist, Weston is talking about finances, which is the thing that keeps many women who want to stay at home, at work. Weston says because you don't know how you will feel, you should prepare for the possibility that you will not want to go back to work after the baby comes. So how do you do that?

"Well, one of the basic things you can do that I recommend to anybody, if you can do this even before you get pregnant, is start living on one income. Really see what it’s like. Really see how much money is coming in, where your expenses are, where you can trim them because you can do all of this theoretical stuff, but unless you're doing it on the ground, you're going to miss a lot of the expenses and a lot of the opportunities for saving. So if you can start doing that, that's great."

And if you can do that, that means you'll be saving a good portion of one of your incomes, and savings is very important for a single income family.

"With stay-at-home parents, it's incredibly important to have an adequate emergency fund because if something happens to that primary wage earner, you are more vulnerable. Maybe you can go back to work, but maybe not at the same pay that you were making or whatever."

Start that emergency fund with whatever money you can put away, no matter how little, it’s a start. And work up to three months and then even six months if you can, six months savings that is, six months living expenses. That's good advice for everyone, whether your family has one income or two incomes. Weston says if you're thinking about dropping to one income, though, you need to take a good, hard, long look at your finances.

"Rethink every expense and take a look at things that you maybe never thought about before because you were fairly carefree and could spend what you want, in some cases maybe not in all. You need to look at those things that appear to be luxuries now that you might need to cut back.  And we probably should talk about debt -- if you have any credit card debt, any high-rate debt, payday loans like that you really need to take care of it now because if you don't it's just going to get worse, I can guarantee you. If you could not live on your income before and you had to rely on credit cards and payday lending, you are not going to be able to pull it off as a stay-at-home mother or father.  You're going to dig yourself a deeper hole."

Emily says, oh, yeah, it was financially difficult for her to leave the workplace.

"We went from, you know, having two incomes, and at that time my income was actually slightly higher, and going to having one, and it was tough. It is still tough."

So what do you do? You have to reevaluate what you spend.

"A lot of us feel pressured into spending certain amounts so we think life costs X.  If you look at every expense and really be open to, ‘could I reduce this? How could I reduce this? How could I work it out?’ you'll find you have a lot more flexibility than you think and if you go on the web and start looking around at all of the resources that are available for stay-at-home parents just for living more frugally, you'll realize that you probably do have more choices than you think."

And a lot of people forget this -- if you're not working the cost for the stay-at-home spouse are significantly reduced.

"You know, I am not having to pay car upkeep and gas and dry cleaning bills and new professional clothing and professional expenses that I would have had, so it's not exactly going down to only one income.  It's going down to one income but less expenses that I would have had to pay. It's some consolation anyway."

Weston says a lot of single income couples do forget a very important thing. It's important right up there with the emergency savings account. It's the retirement account for the non-working spouse. Julie admits that one slipped by her. She doesn't have one.

"No I don't, I don't and I have thought about that a few times. The only thing we have for me is life insurance, which is good that we have that. We have taken out quite a big policy for that. As far as for us when we're still here, I don't have anything for me at all."

Emily does have a retirement account.

"Yeah, I have an IRA. It doesn't always get funded, but I have one. We've got college funds for the kids set up, but it is a concern."

Weston says your kids will not thank you for paying for their college educations with the fund to which you've been contributing for years if that means they have to support you through retirement. So get busy starting your retirement account.

"The way that the tax laws are set up, they actually help you out because, you know, your spouse, the working spouse, can put $4,000 into their individual retirement account, into their IRA.  They can also put in $4,000 for you. So I would try to fund that if at all possible. If the primary wage earner has a 401K definitely be taking advantage of that, and especially if it has a match.  You should be contributing at least enough to get the maximum company match. Those are a couple of ways to do it and then you can just save on your own. You know you don't have to have a formal retirement program, although everybody has access to an IRA.  There’s no restrictions on who can put money into an IRA, but you might also want to save more and so you can have your own retirement account outside of it."

Weston says the bottom line is budget, budget, budget.

"I love personal finance software like Quicken or Money. I think it's really helpful.  It gets all of your financial information in one place.  You can set it up so it goes out and downloads your transactions automatically; it keeps track of all of that stuff. If that's too little overwhelming for you, just get your credit card statements, your bills, everything in one place and try to look at your spending for the last month. See where the money is going.  If you have a lot of cash expenditures, you're not sure where those are going, take a little notebook with you and write down every expense so you do have a good idea and then start thinking about, ‘okay I know what my regular bills are and how much they are’, write those all down and think about the irregular bills, the things that don't come every month.  They might come every other month; they might come every quarter, twice a year, once a year, whatever. Write those down, too, and then you'll have a good idea what your expenses are and then take a look at what income you can count on both now and, if you're thinking of staying at home, how much income you could expect afterwards and then you just start playing with numbers. You start looking at, ‘okay where can we trim back?  How can we plan better for these things?’ and it doesn't have to be, ‘I have to track every penny for the rest of my life.’  It really can be just sort of an outline of where you're spending money now and where you want to go."

But you know being a stay-at-home parent doesn't mean you're barred from doing any work at all or bringing in any money. Staying Home: From Full-time Professional to Full-time Parent author Martha Bullen says that is a huge misconception.

"People seem to think either you're working in an office 40-50 hours or you're at home not doing any paid work. That is not true to our experience. Though there is a very much of a grey area where so many women reside that they are at home but they are also freelancing or taking on a case of assignments or as the children get older maybe working retail part of the time while their kids are in school or doing professional part-time work. So you know there is a continuum."

And working on that continuum can be very important because leaving the work force to become a stay-at-home parent can be hard on your identity. The number one complaint of stay at home parents is they feel isolated.

"Oh, yes. Yes I do. When your most interesting conversation during the day is your three year old telling you that he pooped, you really look for some sort of mental stimulation. I go on the computer or spend some time online, hound my girlfriends at work, try to meet up with some people once in a while for lunch dates, but overall it's tough because my girlfriends that don't have kids aren't really interested in hanging out with little kids. They want to go out in the evenings and, you know, I can't really go out in the evenings, I've got these guys."

Julie's experiences are similar.

"Every once in a while, you start to feel like everyone else is living a life but you. But, you know, overall just because I have what I always wanted overall, that overcomes any of those feelings."

Bullen says you can also take actions to overcome those feelings.

"I think a couple of things. One is that you try to get out of the house every day, particularly in winter. You can be stuck inside, you can really get the blues. So even just going to the library and grabbing some books, doing a walk around the neighborhood, going to the park, something as simple as an errand but just getting out, getting fresh air and maybe talking to a human being. After that I really as the kids get older you can sign up for all kinds of mom and tot playgroups and story times and things like that. Finding other people in your neighborhood hopefully through community bulletin boards and community centers and organizations like Mothers and More."

And as you get out and about, Bullen says, believe it or not, you might run into some judgment for your choice to stay home, so be ready for that.

"We've interviewed women that people just said terrible things to them. They said something like one woman announced that she was leaving her job and her co-worker said 'Oh, you're just going to go home and let your mind rot?' And you had others who accused them of letting down the feminist movement by giving up their job. So every now and then you really get given a hard time for this decision, which is so unfortunate because it really ought to be the choice that you make that is the best for you, your husband and your family and it shouldn't be something that other people are taking pot shots at you from the sidelines."

Bullen says part of the problem is there are a lot of big misconceptions about stay-at home-parents, and who they are, and what they do.

"This myth of Jean Cleaver is ridiculous how it endures, but people still seem to think that an at-home mom is primarily there to be a housewife. That her job is cleaning, cooking, wearing aprons, the domestic sphere, when in fact the women we surveyed were primarily college-educated, many professionally-educated and they made this choice consciously in order to raise their children, you know, to be there for them, to teach them, to help them grow and to share their values, and the house is, I have to tell you, way, way, way down on that list of priorities."

Because, honestly, with an infant or a toddler or two or three -- just between you and me -- who has the time for daily dusting and pearls? A baby is busy. Which answers the other question outsiders ask about stay at home parents, what do you do all day?

"We usually get up in the morning and eat breakfast and then we'll read books and play blocks and do whatever she wants to do and then it's already time for a snack and then it's time for we'll go outside if the weather is nice and play outside and then it's lunch time and then it's nap time and then they get up and pretty much the same thing. She likes to read books in the afternoon after she gets up from her nap and before we know it, it's time to get dinner started and it sounds like not a lot but it is."

And the biggest problem with the June Cleaver myth is plenty of stay-at-home parents are, in fact, dads like Kevin.

"Jen happened to have a job, salaried, and she also had health benefits from it and as such, she has a few medical conditions that that is very beneficial and she gets her benefits, so we went ahead and just decided that she would go ahead and keep working."

Kevin would stay home with their infant son. He says they considered daycare, but like with many couples in which one spouse chooses to stay at home, the cost seemed too high literally and figuratively. As Kevin put it, he and his wife were not comfortable with someone else having so much influence over their son.

"You have to be in doubt that there would be somebody who would give as much one-to-one care as we could, so that was largely an easy decision."

Bullen says when writing her book they did talk to some stay-at-home dads, and stay-at-home dads face some unique challenges.

"We think that at-home mothers may be perceived as not quite living up to their responsibilities, well at-home dads, you know, ten times that way. And there are people who would basically think of them as unemployed whether or not they were happily employed raising their children. And in that sense, they try to get involved in the neighborhood playgroup and get the cold shoulder because everyone else is a mom. So there is even more adjustment issues I think socially but at the same time they also can really enjoy that opportunity to bond with their children that usually men are working around the clock and just don't have that option."

Kevin has faced some judgment.

"A lot of the guys that I have talked to are like, ‘oh, so you're like Mr. Mom’ and my comeback for that is usually, you know, ‘that’s certainly better than a deadbeat dad.’ "

Bullen says while it may be more difficult for at-home dads to find face-to-face support as they encounter the same challenges of isolation as their female counterparts do, they can find it, it's out there. She says there are active online communities for stay-at-home dads, too.

So how do you decide whether at-home parenting is the right thing for you? In Martha Bullen's book, Staying Home: From Full-time Professional to Full-time Parent, there is a list of questions you can answer that may help you decide.

"Number one, of course, is can your family make it financially if you quit your job? You've got to do some number crunching, think about how much you save, how much you spend, where do your expenses go, where can you cut back. So that's of course the first thing you think about. Secondly, do you think being an at-home mom can be personally satisfying? If you think about it, do you get this sinking feeling and think you'd be bored, do you think you'd be lonely, do you think it might be rewarding? How much do you enjoy your current job? Would it be really wrenching for you to give it up or are you getting kind of sick of it and wouldn't mind having a chance to take a break or do you want to go back at some point, and if so, when? How attached is your family to a certain lifestyle? Can you learn to live on a budget? Then there's some questions about the financial dependency. Do you think, would you get an allowance from your husband if you stayed home or would you share control over the family's finances?  And how do you think that you would be perceived by your spouse, family and friends if you do give up your job? Will you be seen as dependent or less of a viable human being or will they understand you're still you if you make this decision? How will your husband handle being the family provider? That can be very stressful. How will you divide up household chores with your husband once you stay home? And can you expect your family and friends to be supportive of this decision or do you think they would not understand it? And that last question, what kind of childhood do you want to provide for your children? So lots and lots of questions. It's good to really to take some time to think through it, talk through it and everybody is going to make, you know, answer these differently but I think it is a starting point at least for wrestling with some of these questions."

Staying at home, working at home, working outside the home, they all come with some kind of sacrifice in the 21st century.

"There is no perfect solution, but I think if you have this opportunity I do recommend at least giving it a try, but with the caveat that this is not something everyone can do or should do or wants to do. And I've come across experts who say, ‘well if you can, you must stay home, it is terribly important for your child.’ No, there is no one right answer for every woman."

Bullen says if you do go for it, remember, nothing is for forever.  If you decide you want to go back to work in six months you can, that’s okay. If you want to stay home until your kids are all in college you can do that too. For Bullen, whose kids are teens now, staying at home has worked out beautifully.

"In many ways it's just so joyful and rewarding to have this small person that you take home from the hospital and have them really grow into a full human being with your help. I think it’s enormously satisfying. There are days, of course, that are just absolutely wonderful, playful, delightful days with your children. There are other days you are all driving each other completely crazy. The big picture is what a privilege to be able to be there to really shape your child's life."

For more on Martha Bullen's book, Staying Home: From Full-time Professional to Full-time Parent go to our website,

We hope you've enjoyed this Pea in the Podcast: Staying at Home. Please visit our website,, for more information about our experts, to find links and to register to receive tailored week-by-week shows for each week and stage of your pregnancy. It is everything you need to know about your body, your baby and the big changes ahead in your life as you begin your journey to becoming a mommy. For Pea in the Podcast, I'm Bonnie Petrie. Thanks for listening.

A Special Thank You To...

Julie in California, Emily in Texas and Kevin in Colorado for graciously sharing with us their stories of staying at home for this podcast.