“The obligation for working [parents] is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.” ―Annabel Crabb
Working parenthood is awash with contradictions. Take, for instance, the fact that in 2014, 69 percent of Canadian couples with at least one child under 16 were dual-earner families with both parents working full time. However, south of the border down in the United States, 59 percent of 4,600 adults polled were of the opinion that children are better off with one stay-at-home (SAH) parent. A simple Google search will reveal hundreds of parents asking for advice on topics such as how to afford to be a SAH parent, and opinion-pieces on why individual parents chose to do one or the other. So, which option does the research really support? Let’s talk about working parenthood.
First, let’s take a quick pause to recognize the sheer amount of work that goes into keeping another human being alive. Raising children is a tough gig—one often accompanied by financial hardship and professional sacrifice, not to mention that it’s extremely draining on one’s intellectual and emotional wellbeing. The truth of the matter is that parenting is a relentless, payless, and highly underappreciated job (yes, it’s a job!), contributing to many people’s decisions to avoid having children at all. But it’s not all doom and gloom—in addition to potential perks such as increased mindfulness and happiness, an observational study undertaken in Sweden found a correlation between people with at least one child and increased life-expectancy.
Although the “motherhood penalty” may adversely impact women’s careers over those of their male counterparts (a whole other matter), it remains well documented that in choosing to continue to work, women bring long-lasting benefits to their children. A 2015 Harvard Business School study found that adult children raised by mothers who worked outside the home were more likely to be employed, work in supervisor positions, and earn 23% more than their counterparts. In addition to this, sons raised by mothers who worked outside the home were more likely to take on an equal level of responsibility in taking care of family members and doing chores in their own homes. Conversely, daughters raised by working mothers and benefiting from this positive influence experience higher salaries and healthier careers.
So why might a parent choose to stay home? A Norwegian study undertaken in 2014 found that having a parent at home increased children’s school performance, with the greatest educational impact occurring between the ages of six and seven years old. Research also highlights the benefits of care provided through a devoted parent as opposed to that of an external caregiver, particularly on infants. SAH parents list many other reasons as to why they choose to stay at home—reasons ranging from having grown up with a comforting presence in a parent at home, to being present for the milestones.
Finally, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room—working or SAH parenthood for many families is a reality, not a choice. A 2020 study undertaken in the United States revealed that an increase in dual-earner households is predictable given the need to maintain a minimum threshold standard of living amongst inflation combined with flat wage trends. On the other hand, families may have no choice but to keep one parent at home with daycare fees alone reaching up to $20,220 annually, as in the costliest city for child care—Toronto, Ontario where fees per child average $1,685 a month. Taking into consideration the rising costs of housing in Canada and the over $2.6 billion in student loans handed out between the years of 2012-2013, it’s a wonder couples are reconsidering having more than one child (or any children) at all.
Parenting is a high-risk-high-reward engagement. We love our kids to bits, and although they sure make life difficult sometimes, most parents say they wouldn’t change anything. There is research supporting both working parenthood and SAH parenthood—but hey, no one said this parenting thing would be easy. What matters most is that this decision you make as a parent is a choice best suited to you, your family, and is a choice supported through your workplace or society.
Environmental Planner at Narratives Inc.