What the experts say
Some experts in early childhood development believe there’s no substitute for the consistency and nurturing of parental care, especially if the alternative is poorly funded childcare.
Two groundbreaking studies, one conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the other by the Institute of Child Development of the University of Minnesota, found that kids who spent all day in daycare had higher levels of stress and more aggression than kids cared for at home. Follow-up research in 2010 confirmed these results, showing the continued negative impact of low-quality daycare on young children, even after they reached adolescence.
But other studies contradict these findings, and most experts believe that the quality, not the type of childcare, is what’s most important. A great nanny, babysitter, daycare center worker, relative, or other caregiver can make sure your child gets the stimulation and affection she needs to grow and thrive.
What are the advantages of being a stay-at-home parent?
As a stay-at-home parent you’ll know that your child is being cared for by someone who’s going to be around for a long time, not a caregiver who might take another job next month. And you’ll be directly supervising your child’s care, making sure it’s in a relaxed, nurturing environment.
And you’ll be there to see all those “firsts,” which can be incredibly satisfying. Says mom Molly Olsen, “Staying home with Ezra allowed me to really focus on him and be in touch with his emotional and physical milestones. I’m glad it was me and not a teacher who saw him sit up or laugh for the first time.”
Margie Johnson, who’s been a stay-at-home mom for 24 years with seven kids, says staying home has fulfilled her more than anything else could. “It’s the most rewarding ‘career’ you could ever have,” she says. “You’re irreplaceable to your child, and you’re making an ongoing personal investment that will outlive you.”
(Johnson is on the board of directors of the Family and Home Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging mothers or fathers to stay home with their children.)
For some families, it’s actually less expensive for one parent to stay home than it would be to pay for childcare. (Read more about measuring the cost of staying home.)
And if you can afford it, you may find that staying home reduces your stress level. Many parents decide to stay home after trying unsatisfactorily to balance work and family. The long hours and the feeling of cutting too many corners leaves them feeling burned out. Staying home will give you more time to spend with your children, maintain your home, and help keep your family life running smoothly.
What are the disadvantages?
For some people, loneliness tops the list. If you’re accustomed to the camaraderie and stimulation of being surrounded by other adults at work, the change of pace can lead to feelings of depression.
Stay-at-home dads may feel doubly isolated because there are so few of them. “There aren’t any other stay-at-home dads just around the block,” says Jay Massey, who cares for his son and used to run a website for at-home dads called Slowlane.
Moms and dads who weren’t happy about leaving the workplace behind can feel even more alienated. “I had a hard time connecting with other stay-at-home moms,” says Ann Nicholas, who’s now back in the work force part-time. “I felt we didn’t have a lot in common.”
If your career has been an important part of how you see yourself, you may feel a loss of identity. Your self-esteem may suffer without the appreciation of a boss and colleagues. After all, you don’t get a lot of positive feedback from a needy newborn or tantrum-throwing toddler.
Changing diapers and tackling endless loads of laundry can be boring and frustrating. You may have to look hard for a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction. Plus, finding time for yourself when you’re home with an attention-seeking baby or toddler can be impossible even a crowded, busy office offers more privacy.
“I often felt like I was lost, without much identity,” Olsen says. “I felt like I was always mommy first, then wife, and then me, if I had any time left.”
You may also find yourself worrying about when and how you’ll resume your career and whether you’ll be penalized for taking time off.
And while you won’t be shelling out thousands of dollars each year for childcare, choosing to stay home is a complicated economic decision. Many families with a stay-at-home parent find they have to budget carefully and devote more time to bargain hunting than before. You might have to substitute camping trips for hotel vacations, cook at home instead of eating out regularly, and make other lifestyle choices that may not be appealing.
Also, as your child grows into toddlerhood and becomes more active and social, he’ll miss out on the automatic socialization that happens in daycare and other group care situations. Some stay-at-home parents find that after a certain age, providing enough stimulation is challenging.
Finally, choosing to stay home could create new tensions between you and your partner if he or she isn’t fully supportive of the idea. So make sure you discuss all the repercussions thoroughly before making this weighty decision.