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When Is the Best Time to Cut the Cord?
Maybe you just got the news that you're expecting or maybe you're a veteran mom with middle school-aged kids at home, it doesn't matter where you are on the mom continuum, at some point you'll be confronted with the burning question: Should you stay home with your children? Should you leave a job you love to stay home with your children who you love?
That question avalanches into a blizzard of other worries. If you quit to assume this new role at home, will your career be over? Will you ever work again and if you do will it be in a job you find fulfilling or will it be in a position for which you'll memorize three words: "paper or plastic?"
You stay up late with your friends and debate whether or not you can have it all--career and family. And, like a lot of us, you find that you can't. At least not all at once.
SUBVERTING THE GUILT PARADIGM
There are basically two reasons mothers decide to quit their jobs--guilt and love.
We visit the day-care facilities we'll be leaving our newborns in. We see row upon row of cribs decorated with a few items from home--sort of the way inmates adorn their prison cells. We see the babies sleeping or staring at the ceiling but not doing much else until their number comes up for a diaper change or bottle.
We see this and we think--not our babies. We're not going to do that to our babies. So we quit to diaper and feed them ourselves.
Or we tough it out for a few years and one day we catch ourselves staring at our computer screens thinking, What am I doing here at anythingtolookbusy.com while my children see me just a couple of hours each evening and on weekends? This isn't worth it. So we quit.
WAIT! WHY DO YOU REALLY WANT TO STAY HOME?
This may seem obvious. You want to quit because you want to nurture your baby. Just like we said, right? You want to watch your child learn to crawl and walk. But, before you even think about quitting, let's make sure that's what's going on.
Our friend, Darcy, is a good example of why not to quit your job.
Darcy didn't just hate her job, she loathed being a physical therapist. She moved from office to office until she ran out of places to go and she realized it wasn't the people, it was the work; she abhorred the tedious insurance forms. Because she hated her job, her husband and two children were miserable. Nobody wanted to be within one hundred feet of Mommy when she returned from work each day for fear of finding out that once again she had a bad day at the office.
At lunch one day, we noticed Darcy wasn't her normal tense self. She told us that she and her husband were considering her quitting her job to stay home with their kids.
"We know it will be tough," Darcy explained between bites of Caesar salad, "but we think it's the right thing to do."
Two months later, Darcy made the big move. Rather than leave quietly, she made sure that all the other therapists knew that she hated the place and was glad to be going. Her departing remark was something along the lines of, "Good luck, suckers."
A week after her departure, we lunched while her kids were in school. She was happy and full of plans.
"We definitely need to do a spa day," she told us excitedly. "And maybe we could all get together for drinks one night a week. I'm also thinking a girls' trip to Hawaii might be nice."
We looked across the table at each other, and it was clear we were both thinking the same thing.
Alarm bells were sounding over Darcy's head.
She thinks she's on vacation!
A month later she shared her itinerary with us. The children were out of school for the summer, so she had lots of time to spend with them. Darcy said she had taken the children shopping, swimming, golfing, and to some of the better restaurants in town. She had also seen almost every movie playing. Her elementary school-aged children saw R-rated movies with her. On a whim, she got a tattoo. We're not sure if the kids went along for that field trip.
When school started, Darcy's vacation abruptly ended. Her husband gave her an ultimatum. The spending had to stop or she had to go back to work. She chose to budget.
With Darcy on a budget and the children in school, she had to find other activities to occupy her time. She started volunteering at her children's school. Soon she was chairing every carnival and fund-raiser it hosted. She was working like she was trying to make partner.
The demands of her volunteer activities spilled over into her evenings and weekends. She had to hire a part-time babysitter because she was away so much. Within a few months, she was bitterly complaining.
"I had it easier when I was working, and I was paid for it," she groaned.
Once Darcy's initial euphoria over leaving the job she hated and her mini-vacation ended, she was dissatisfied with her life. She didn't like all the cleaning and cooking she had to do. She didn't see her children as much as she thought she would because they were occupied with school, sports, and dance classes. Plus she was busy with fund-raisers, which she didn't enjoy all that much because the other volunteers weren't as "professional" as she was.
"They don't take their duties seriously. Some don't even show up when they're supposed to," she complained. She questioned her place in the world. After months of swinging back and forth on the pendulum of depression and denial, she realized she needed a new profession. After a year of saving the money for tuition, she's now studying to become a psychologist.
We're not saying that you shouldn't enjoy yourself when you're at home with your child. For a lot of us staying home is more stressful than working outside the home. We need relaxation and down time. We should never feel guilty about taking that time or a spa day.
Be clear about why you're quitting. Don't simply make your children an excuse for leaving an unpleasant work situation. If you realize you hate your job then make sure you know that's why you're leaving. Make a list of all your reasons for choosing to stay home. Be honest with yourself. Is there more to your decision than just wanting to take care of your children? If most of the items on your list relate to problems at work, consider the possibility that what you really need to do is find a new job. And, if you're still sure you want to quit and stay at home, knowing what is motivating you to leave your job now will help you figure out what job you would like when and if you decide to go back into the workforce later.
WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS?
In addition to analyzing why you're really quitting, think carefully about what your expectations are when you do quit. Make sure that you aren't expecting too much from the experience, because if you do and you're disappointed, your family will suffer.
An analogy can be drawn to psychologists who interview patients undergoing organ transplants or gastric bypass surgery before clearing them for these procedures. The psychologist will ask a morbidly obese woman, for example, what she expects from a gastric bypass operation. If she says she expects it to completely change her life for the better, she isn't cleared for the operation, because while the surgery can improve her life, it isn't a panacea for all her problems. Instead, she's sent for counseling until the psychologist feels her expectations square with reality.
While your decision to stay home certainly doesn't fall in the same category as major surgery, the psychology is the same. If your expectations for the experience don't fit the reality of what's about to happen, you and your children will pay the price. For you, this may mean dealing with a period of disappointment and perhaps even depression later. For your children, it may result in them becoming anxious and acting out.
Carolyn is a woman who thrives on external motivators. She craves accolades from others, winning awards at work, and getting promotions. Before deciding to stay home with the kids, she had to take a long hard look at the reality of the situation.
"It dawned on me one day that I wouldn't have the same things that motivated me at work keeping me going at home," she said. "Clearly, my son wasn't ever going to heap praise on me for the exciting way I read him a bedtime story, and my daughter wasn't likely to present me with an award for driving her around town all week."
In the end, Carolyn decided to stay home, but she is careful to do it in a way that still meets her own needs for fulfillment. While her kids are in school, Carolyn participates in civic groups and community projects where she can still get a pat on the back every once in awhile and perhaps even win an award. By taking this approach, she is dealing with the reality of staying at home in a way that best fits her personality and is realistic as to her needs. Had she not taken this good hard look at herself in advance, she likely would have simply quit and been extremely disappointed with her life. Now Carolyn can plan her return to work at her own pace rather than desperately running back to work after a bad experience at home.
CUTTING THE CORD
Okay, so you've really thought about it and you definitely want to quit. The most important thing to know now is when is the best time to cut the cord.
When You're Pregnant for the First Time
Never act rashly during pregnancy because you don't know if it's the hormones talking or you. Spur of the moment is out. Slow down. Think it over for a week. At the end of the week, think it over for another week. If you still want to quit, don't. At least not right away. You have to devise a game plan.
Why would we say something so awful when you're absolutely sure leaving your job in two weeks is the absolute best thing for you and the baby? Because it's the hormones talking, unless you're in the absolute job from hell and you report directly to Satan or one of his agents on earth. But, if that's the case, why didn't you quit before? Yep, it's probably the hormones.
We say try to make it to the eighth month of pregnancy at least.
We say that for several reasons:
*You'll be bored out of your mind.
*You'll probably feel better with or need the extra money.
*You won't have any other mothers around you all day to talk to about the weird little stuff like your sense of smell going all wonky.
*It'll give you time to shore up things like the current information of important contacts for when you want to go back to work.
*You'll still have health, life, and disability insurance policies.
All those work hours can be useful for something other than work. Plus, you don't eat as much in the office as you do at home, so it's a built-in weight management program to boot.
Once you're resigned to showing up at work through swollen ankles and an itchy stomach, you have to figure out what you want to do after your pregnancy.
When You Already Have Children
It's a little easier to decide to quit after you've already had children. You know what it's like to balance work and family. You cried the first time you left your baby to show up at the morning meeting. You've done it.
When's the best time to leave? Never leave during the busy season. Give a month's notice. Do all the bending over backward necessary to make a good impression.
You have another advantage over pregnant women. You've proven you can work after you gave birth. People will know that when you want to go back to your job you'll be able to handle your family and career. That helps with the transition back to the working world.
When You Said, "I'll Be Back"
The stickiest situation of all is when you take maternity leave and you're absolutely or pretty darn sure you'll be back, but then you don't want to come back, or after a week back on the job you realize working isn't for you right now.
What do you do?
If you're already back at work, tell your boss right away you don't think you'll be staying too long. Also tell her you'll stick it out for a couple months. Wait until the busy season is over. The holidays have passed. You've caught up on all the work that piled up while you were away and paid back a couple favors to colleagues who took on your load. Once a respectable period has elapsed--it could be a few weeks or a couple months--then tell your boss your time is up. Tell her you'll help find and train your replacement. Offer to work part time on projects if she needs help. Assure her that no matter how long it takes to find someone you'll stick it out. Do all this with a smile.
Leaving before you've paid your dues isn't pleasant. Take it from Dana.
Dana was absolutely positive that she'd bound back to work after giving birth. She was a financial analyst for a top investment firm and she loved what she did. She worked in a group of five people analyzing the retail sector. Each person in the group had a specialized area of expertise so there wasn't any overlap of duties. When Dana came back from eight weeks of maternity leave, the work was piled up because no one else in her team could do her job. As a result, many projects the team was responsible for were delayed until Dana caught up.
Dana had about sixty hours of overtime ahead of her in the next three weeks. On top of that she had fallen in love with her baby. She didn't want to go back to work, but she didn't want to disappoint her colleagues either. Her first week back she trudged into the office and hoped her conflicted feelings would evaporate. They didn't. To make matters worse, her colleagues, even the women on her team, were angry with her for being such a "girl." She needed to tough it out, they said.
From the Hardcover edition.