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Less money but more time: The price of staying home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly have always said it. But now moderate, even liberal, voices are joining in to tell working parents: One of you needs to go home.

Among them is popular parenting columnist John Rosemond, who once made great friends with working parents when he said it didn't matter who cared for children as long as the care was good. In March, though, Mr. Rosemond criticized career women for putting their infants in child care and said the American family was better off when one parent stayed home.

Then this month comes the alternative, typically pro-feminist magazine Utne Reader with its cover story, "Who Cares About the Kids?" which says children would be better adjusted if they spent their formative years at home.

All of which leaves many parents feeling guilty and angry. Doesn't it take two incomes to make a comfortable lifestyle? And even if one parent could afford to quit his or her job, what about professional leverage? Do they think you can just leave your career midstream?

But while many parents wonder, others do it.

Dwaine Thomas of Columbia, S.C., a nurse, works 24 hours on the weekends, while her husband, Jimmy, an electrician, works during the week. They get two incomes, and one parent is home for their three kids, 10, 7 and 4, most of the time.

Pat McCarthy, also of Columbia, whose husband, Bill, is a well-paid attorney, quit her $40,000-a-year job so she could stay home with her two kids, ages 4 and 1. She keeps a foot in the workplace by taking in part-time consulting work at home.

Many couples with one parent at home buy clothes at yard sales. They make the kids drink water instead of sodas during the occasional trip to the fast-food drive-through. They accept hand-me-down clothes, appliances and other expensive gifts from better-off relatives.

Such is the lifestyle of Sherry and Terry Brand of West Columbia, S.C. They have six kids. Two are teen-agers and the youngest is 5. Mrs. Brand stays home while her husband manages a furniture store, earning $33,000 a year. "It's not poverty, but when you divide it between eight people, that's not a lot," Mr. Brand says.

The Brands make it work by budgeting to the penny. Five of their kids were born at home, partly to save on medical costs. They belong to a food co-op, where they get such items as lettuce for 19 cents a head.

Recently, Sherry Brand agreed to take care of an infant for $50 a week while its mother worked. During Christmas, she farmed out the little kids to her in-laws and worked as a waitress to bring in money for gifts, which are fewer than middle-income kids get at Christmas. Trips to restaurants usually are limited to birthdays.

Mrs. Brand says she sometimes longs for the money, the nice clothes and the gratification that go with a job, but she has another calling. "I just want to be with my kids, to take care of them myself," Mrs. Brand says.

So does Lynda Tassie, a Columbia, S.C., mother of a son, 2, and a daughter, 4. Feeling the financial strain of living off her husband's salary as a teacher, Mrs. Tassie tried two years ago to work outside the home. She'd work at a child-care center in the afternoons after picking up her husband, Joel, from work. She quit after six months, deciding that buying goods at garage sales and having one car instead of two was worth the peace of mind.

"It just wasn't the right thing to do," says Mrs. Tassie, now so committed to staying home that she plans to home-school her children. "I couldn't handle being a mom all day and then picking up Joel and then me going to work. It was stressful with the kids, everything had to be done by 3 o'clock in the afternoon. We couldn't just be relaxed -- we had this big deadline."

Women aren't the only ones taking care of the kids. Fathers who stay home full time are few -- the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1992 counted 578,000, compared with 7.2 million mothers.

But they do exist.

They include Terry Jarvis, who quit his job as a surveyor to be full-time father of three with one on the way. His wife, Barbara France, works as a certified nurse midwife, while he home-schools their children, cooks dinner and does other household chores. He says his ego doesn't suffer like some would expect. "We just reviewed the situation and saw that, with Barbara's income potential, it made more sense for her to work full-time and me to stay home," Mr. Jarvis says.

And there are those fathers who share the duties, working days, then taking over supper time or bath time while the mother TTC works nights or weekends. Couples say there are drawbacks to that kind of lifestyle.

"It's a big trade-off," says Kathy Birnie, pregnant with her third child. She's a nurse who works weekend nights. "Everybody else is planning their Saturday afternoon barbecue, and I'm getting ready for work."

Mrs. Thomas, who once worked while her younger two children went to child care full time, says the trade-offs are worth the changes she sees in her children.

"I see a big difference in the middle child, who was in day care most of his younger years," Mrs. Thomas says. "He's now getting to the point where he's more confident with himself. I just think parents give them extra encouragement, where at day care they don't have time to do all that."

That's apparently Mr. Rosemond's point.

"The American family worked better when there was a parent in the home during the day," Mr. Rosemond wrote in a passionate column in March. "That all-but-constant adult presence provided for greater family stability, smoother internal transitions, more effective overall time management, better supervision and care of children, and more efficient delegation of responsibilities, not to mention a lower level of stress."

Amitai Etzioni, whose Utne Reader article "Children of the Universe" was first published in "The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda," voiced similar views. That article says parents need to do whatever they can -- work flex time, part time or no time -- so as not to send their kids to child care.

Lest parents all feel guilty, the magazine also offered a counterpoint article, "The Kids Are All Right," with a tagline above the story saying, "Research shows our bias against day care is unfounded."

"Most of the research shows that if day care has any long-term effect at all, it has made more children more social and self-assured," wrote noted feminist author Susan Faludi.

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