For Chris and Susan Helmrath, there wasn't a single moment it became clear that one of them should stop working to be with their children.
It was the accumulation of small moments, some that occurred when their children were in child care. "When you heard things like 'your son started walking today,' " said Chris Helmrath, a corporate finance consultant for Clifton Gunderson, a large accounting firm. "I remember that one the greatest."
So, after working through the toddlerhoods of their two elder children, the Helmraths decided six years ago they would do with less so Susan could leave her job as a recruiter and paralegal for a law firm and stay home with their children, now 11, 9 and 6. For the Helmraths, who live in Ellicott City, the switch by no means meant poverty. What it did mean was things like not getting a bigger house, not getting a more expensive car. "It was things that were not needs, but wants," Chris Helmrath said.
Couples who are interested in following the Helmraths' path should do detailed calculations to see if they can swing what can be a steep reduction in income.
"The first thing we do is go back to the budget and see if it's something they can afford to do," said Michael Ward, vice president for Lutherville-based Academy Financial Inc. That means not only scrutinizing what's coming in and what's going out, but also considering costs for business clothes, gasoline and maintenance of a second car, parking and business lunches. And, it can mean working with an accountant to figure out how taxes might be affected.
The calculations can vary widely from family to family, Ward said. Generally speaking, though, unless a second spouse can bring home well over $30,000, a couple with young children should consider whether it's financially worthwhile for both to work.
Part of the calculation involves determining how a couple might patch a financial hole left by a partner who leaves a full-time job. Solutions could include taking in another child at home, launching a home-oriented business or having the working spouse log overtime or take on a second job.
However the conversation proceeds, it's seldom easy. "A lot of times the numbers get overridden by quality-of-life decisions," Ward said.
The more children a couple have, he said, the greater the likelihood that they will decide to go from two to one incomes. As the number of children increases, so do child-care costs, shrinking what a second spouse can net.
Many of today's mothers went to college in the 1980s and advanced far in their careers. Once the children come along, Ward said, "it becomes more important to their husband and them that somebody stay home."
Ellen Galinsky, the president of Families and Work Institute and author of "Ask the Children, What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents," said decisions about how to balance work and home responsibilities are deeply personal. It would be a mistake to think that a couple could make the decision purely by crunching the numbers.
"What is enough income for one family is not enough income for another family," she said. "And it's not because they are greedy. It's a complicated picture."
A couple of things have changed over the past few years, Galinsky said. In a 1992 poll, 47 percent of workers said they would prefer to work fewer hours. That was 64 percent in 1997. "What people are really wanting is a less stressful life," she said.
In a recent survey, most parents guessed that if their children had one wish about their parents, they would want a mother and father who spent more time with them. But the children in the survey said they would wish for their parents to be under less stress and less tired.
Parents are getting to spend more time with their children than 20 years ago, "and people are having fewer children," Galinsky said.
The debate over whether both parents should work typically gets framed in extremes, Galinsky said. "It gets debated as if one option is good and the other is bad," she said.
In reality, she said, the choice depends on the person. People should try to make a decision that conforms with their beliefs, Galinsky said.
"The people at home who think they should be working and the people at work who think they should be at home have children that can be affected," she said.
Randy Farnum, the director of operations and finance for Brooks Financial Group Inc., has seen the issue from two angles -- that of father and of financial planner.
"Each situation is unique," said Farnum, whose wife stopped working as a free-lance graphics designer to spend time with their four children. "What it ultimately boils down to is what are the goals and objectives of the couple."
People who want badly to live on one income generally "will find a way on the financial side to make it happen."
Farnum recommends that couples talk about the issue before they have children, so they are not making the decision without knowledge of each other's feelings about money, roles and security.
"I think it's a defining moment in a relationship," Farnum said.
With both parents working in the Helmrath family, life could easily get hectic. "If a kid got sick, who stayed home?" Chris Helmrath asked. "If it was a snow day, who stayed home?"
Finally, when their third child was born, the family changed gears, forgoing luxuries for time.
"We finally made the decision that the kids were only going to be young once, and that it was more important for Susan to be home and be a mom," Chris Helmrath said.
Financially, there were some sacrifices. "You had to think about things. You had to budget. We put ourselves on a budget and we lived by that budget."
Things have again changed for the family. With the youngest child now in elementary school, Susan Helmrath has returned to a job that allows her to spend time with her children; she's an instructional aide at her children's elementary school.
Looking back, the Helmraths are glad they made the moves they did. "Do I have a beach house? No." Chris Helmrath said. "Do I have a boat? No. Do I have a nice house? Yes. Do I have kids who I hope will do well? Yes."