Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Opting Back In

Last week’s article in Salon by Katy Read about the flip side of “opting out” of the workforce struck a chord with me.

The world was different when The Wife dropped out of the paid workforce in 2004.

When she made the decision to stay home full-time, The Boy was three, and The Girl had just been born. TW was already on a reduced-hours schedule, having gone to 30 hours when TB was born. TB’s daycare alone was over $250 a week, and that was seven years ago. We realized that with both kids in daycare, her entire paycheck would have gone to daycare, and we didn’t see much point in that. We both wanted to see the kids more than the dual-career shuffle would have allowed -- we had several years’ experience of that with TB -- and she wasn’t happy in her job anyway. So she dropped out of the paid workforce, taking her MBA and her experience off the market to give the kids the attention we both wanted them to have.

The plan was that she would stay home until TG was in school; at that point, she’d find something part-time. As the kids got older, she could ramp back up at work.

Then, shortly before The Girl started school, the economy had a meltdown.

Opting back in is proving much harder than we anticipated.

Part of it is the way that the public schools around here do their schedules. Beyond the obvious question of summers -- what do dual-career couples with young kids do in July? -- there’s a panoply of half-days, quirky holidays, and random breaks throughout the year. (And that’s not even counting the “sick kid” days or snow days that throw dual-career schedules into chaos.) The schools clearly assume that there’s a parent at home; when there isn’t, you’re suddenly doing some high-stakes juggling.

Worse, the few local employers who have shown signs of life have apparently been burned by Moms before. At one interview last Fall -- a very small business -- the interviewer told her point-blank that they’d grown weary of trying to accommodate the school/Mom emergencies the last woman had, and that they had no interest in going through that again. That was the end of that.

My job allows for occasional forays -- I’ve made every “lunch with the parents” event -- and a few days off, but it’s not part-time. Depending on the time of year, sometimes it’s more than full-time. I don’t have the summers at home that faculty have, or the freedom to leave at 3:00 on a regular basis. It’s a twelve-month, five-day-a-week office job, with some weekends and some travel. Since pay doesn’t scale on a linear basis with hours -- there’s a quantum leap from part-time to full-time, as any adjunct knows -- the only way to provide reasonable income for the family is to have at least one person work full-time. Two part-time positions add up to less than one full-time one financially, so “just split everything evenly” is not a realistic division of labor. Instead, we have to specialize.

But we’re finding that what felt like an open invitation to return has been cancelled. Even with her credentials and experience, TW hasn’t had a single offer, even for a part-time position.

The economy is not designed for parents.

The kids have had a level of attention that I wish more kids had. They’re great kids, and I’m glad they’ve had that. But we always assumed that when the time came, TW could return in some capacity as the educated professional that she is. Apparently, not.

Any younger couples reading this should probably know that opting back in is a lot harder than it should be. I don’t know that we would have done anything differently, but it’s certainly a cold splash of reality.