Back to work, like it or not

The Baltimore Sun

They stared, disbelieving, at the electricity bill, as if their scrutiny could somehow force the ridiculous number into a more reasonable form.

"Why is it so high?" her husband asked.

"Because I'm home all day," answered Jennifer Hart-Walters, who had quit teaching school to be with their two kids, who wanted to sing them the ABC song all day long, who now, faced with that electricity bill and so many other increasing costs, realized that her days as a stay-at-home mother were over.

In February she reluctantly left the kids in day care and took a part-time job.

"We were noticing much less spending money in our checking account - no money actually in our checking account," said Hart-Walters, 35, who lives in Baltimore's Hunting Ridge neighborhood. "It just felt, you know, critical that I return to work."

The soured economy - with its ever-increasing gas, food and utility prices, its sinking home values and its corporate downsizing - is forcing mothers who have traded careers for families to think about trading back.

Though it's impossible to say how many women are affected nationally, Maryland mothers who have immersed themselves in the world of juice boxes and playgrounds are putting resumes together, filling out job applications at malls, looking into day care licenses and watching other people's children for money during the day.

Their families need cash, and they're shelving their commitment to full-time parenting in order to get it.

These days, even families boasting two professional salaries often find it hard to get by - to afford a home in a safe suburb, to pay for preschool and health care and to save anything extra for college or retirement, says Brad Harrington, executive director of Boston College's Center for Work & Family. With one salary, covering those fundamentals is often all but impossible.

"With six months of rising prices of gas, heating oil and groceries," Harrington says, "I think you are in a situation where there are just so many people who look around and say we literally cannot afford the basics of life unless both of us are working."

Traditional roles

Still, many mothers, including those in the work force, believe they belong at home.

According to the Families and Work Institute's most recent National Study of the Changing Workforce, 48 percent of women in dual-earner households with kids say that men should earn the money and women should take care of the home and children.

Cortney Daidone wanted exactly that when she became pregnant with her first child. She quit her job as a bank teller and has been home ever since, taking care of now 14-month-old Kylie Blejwas. Even if she had money to spare for day care, she wouldn't do it.

"I don't see myself leaving her. I just can't," says Daidone, a 21-year-old from Glen Burnie. "Even if we were millionaires."

Daidone said her fiance, Danny Blejwas, who once made good money fixing cars for Audi, has been bringing home less and less. The summer, typically his busy season, has been anything but.

To compensate for his income drop, they turned their weekly shopping trip for groceries into an every-other-week event. Now they're trying to stretch food to last three weeks.

Daidone used to run around all day on errands and take Kylie to play dates. Now, loath to fill up her fuel-hungry Dodge Durango, she rarely leaves the house. When play invitations come up, she sadly turns them down.

"Our daughter is our No. 1 priority," she says. "We can do without, but she can't. We're fine with that. But it's coming to the point where I have to do something so we can keep that up. She's going to need clothes for the fall. Right now we can't do that."

Daidone has been looking since April for a part-time job with evening hours, when Blejwas would be home to watch Kylie. She has applied to watch kids at a gym day care, to work at mall stores, to do telemarketing.

"The work market isn't that great because of the economy," she says, her voice rising in frustration. "How am I supposed to get a job when everyone else is having to leave work?"

Few jobs, lower pay

Paula Bruno, who founded a blog on women's financial issues called Chicks and Balances, says women who are being pushed back into the work force will probably struggle, like Daidone, to find a decent job.

"We are seeing broad-based cuts in many sectors, and this includes both men and women," she says. "The unemployment number does not reflect all the women that may be looking to get back to work."

Making matters worse, employers often offer women returning to work up to 40 percent less money because of their resume gap. It's known as the "mommy discount."

Vicky Couch worked for Marriott for 16 years. When she had her first daughter in 2004, she and her husband, who also works for the hotel company, decided to open the Contours Express gym in Silver Spring. That way, Couch could manage it and keep an eye on the baby at the same time.

For a while, the plan worked just as imagined. But gym memberships, it seems, become optional when people are feeling financially squeezed. With gym-goers dropping off almost daily, the Rockville couple closed the fitness center in August.

Initially, Couch, who's 35, welcomed the chance to spend more time with her 3 1/2 -year-old, Rebecca, and Miranda, her 16-month-old. The girls, essentially raised on free weights and exercise machines, were starved for quality mom time, she thought.

But the one-salary lifestyle just wasn't tenable. "The price of everything was going up. It got to the point where we were like, 'Hey, we're going to end up in some trouble here if we can't bring in more money,'" Couch says.

Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, says that the economy always drives behavior, including that of mothers who believe in staying home. During the widespread corporate downsizing of the 1990s, she points out, the rate of mothers working spiked.

"With men being downsized, and job insecurity more rampant, women went into the work force to support and protect their families," she says.

Facing mounting bills, Couch became a nanny in February, taking in another little girl during the day. That gave the family some breathing room.

But not enough.

Night and day

So she started back at the hotel for a couple of days a week. The former operations manager - one of the biggest jobs at the hotel - was now taking reservations at the front desk. Quickly she realized that she needed more money, more shifts.

Now Couch works eight-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays; on weekdays, after playing mother and nanny all day, she heads to the hotel at 5:30 when her husband gets home. It's midnight before she sees her girls, who are, of course, sleeping and don't see her.

She hasn't had to choose between her children and an income, yet still, Couch feels that she's losing the battle.

"It's horrible, to be completely honest with you," she says. "I don't get to tuck my kids into bed at night. We used to have a ritual of dinner, then bath and a story. Now Daddy's doing more of that 'cause Mommy has to go to work at night."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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