The Time Vs. Money Dilemma
As a single mom, I take a financial hit to work from home to be with my daughter, who has some developmental delays. Would she be better off if I just got a well-paid office job?
Not long ago, when I walked into my daughter’s school to pick her up at 11:45 a.m., I found her teary-eyed and flanked by two teacher’s assistants. “She was looking for you!” one said. “She wanted her mama,” the other cooed. It was a pretty dramatic scene, given that I was on time — and given that even when I’m late, my daughter, Story, is usually good-natured about it. Story turned five in August. She has some hearing loss in both ears and, at the age of two and a half, was assessed as having developmental delays in speech, social interaction, and fine motor skills. The separation anxiety is new. It’s her third year at this public school, which houses only preschool through kindergarten. Everyone knows, loves, and looks out for her there. She’s never cried because I wasn’t waiting outside her door for the bell to ring.
The fact that she’s experiencing separation anxiety at this age is significant, because when I was expecting, long before I knew that Story would have special needs, I thought of the age of five as an important milestone — for me as much as for Story. This was the year Story was supposed to start kindergarten, her first year of full-day school, and consequently, I could finally hop off the work-at-home-mom track and go back to full-time employment outside of the house — if I hadn’t done so before then.
I had been working as an adjunct professor for three years when I became pregnant with Story, at the age of 30. While I was pregnant, I taught at two colleges in Michigan, with extended family nearby to help me prepare for childbirth and motherhood. (Story’s father lived in California then, and I knew he would be mostly unavailable to help with her daily care.) My hours were flexible, and I hoped to keep them that way. I imagined continuing to teach and to supplement my income with freelance writing, while relying on my mother and grandmother for childcare help.
For the first year, the plan was working. My mother moved to Michigan from Baltimore and, when the fall semester started four weeks after I gave birth, she watched Story in my apartment. I could prepare for class and grade assignments at home. We lived in Michigan for the first year of Story’s life. But by the end of that year, it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to secure enough courses for the following term to afford my apartment, my car, and my other expenses.
Story and I, along with my mother, moved back to Baltimore and lived with my grandmother, and I took a job at a community college in town. But that job came with its own challenges. My pay as an adjunct in Baltimore was significantly less, per course, than it had been in Michigan; my course load in Baltimore also eventually became too light for it to make financial sense for me to keep teaching. Fortunately, six months before leaving adjunct work, I had secured a one-year telecommuting contract as a social media editor for a non-profit organization. It alleviated my financial stress but also meant juggling a full-time remote gig, a part-time teaching gig, and childcare. My attention was stretched far too thin.
So I gave myself a deadline. Because of Story’s challenges, and because I am a single mother, I thought it would be in her best interest to keep her at home with me during the day, for as long as it took her to acquire enough language to advocate for herself in someone else’s care. Until she turned four, only about half of the words she pronounced could be easily deciphered by strangers. I didn’t want her in a situation where she might be bullied or in need of attention and unable to articulate it.
But I told myself that I would refocus my attention on full-time work when Story turned five. My last stint in an office had been years earlier, before grad school. I had worked for a small publishing company as a newsletter editor for two years. Later, while earning my M.F.A. in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, I spent another two years as a telecommuter. That had been the last time I’d had a steady paycheck, as well as medical and retirement benefits. I missed the stability, especially now that I was a mother, and I longed for the ability to separate work responsibilities from the demands of homemaking.
It hadn’t occurred to me that Story wouldn’t start kindergarten at five. Last year, she was in a special-education Pre-K class, which included children with special needs as well as children on a mainstream education track. This year, at the behest of the special educators who help me make decisions about her progress, she’s in mainstream Pre-K, a way of acknowledging that she’s made some progress in speech, motor skills, and self-advocacy, but not quite enough to progress a full grade level. Both of her Pre-K classes have been held in the morning, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. I question my decisions about Story’s education all the time. Working from home allows me to be my daughter’s full-time caregiver, but it also means I can’t afford to send her to a school that might be better equipped to address her special needs.
Along with the fact that Story hasn’t started kindergarten, there have been other unanticipated developments. Three months before Story turned five, my mother, my only reliable childcare option, moved to another state. And the closer I got to my personal deadline for going back to a full-time office job, the more Story cried when I was out of sight. At the age of five, my daughter is becoming more aware of just how available I am to her. She’s old enough now to notice that she’s one of very few children in her class who are picked up after school rather than being bused to a daycare provider. She’s old enough to know that I rarely leave our house without her in tow. I had hoped that realization would make her more independent, the confidence in my nearness emboldening her. Instead, it’s made her cry when I’m not the first parent to walk through the school pick-up door.
And so, even as Story’s fifth birthday has come and gone, I continue to work from home so that I can give her more of my attention. These days, I write weekly columns at New Republic and the Washington Post’s Act Four. Often, another publication will solicit an essay from me unexpectedly, in response to breaking news. I almost always say yes to the unexpected work, as I need the extra income. But I’m rarely able to meet deadlines during my child-free hours; the work tends to be too intensive to dash off something publishable in the two or three hours that Story spends at school. I also don’t always spend those precious child-free moments writing. Sometimes I’m running errands for myself and others. Sometimes I’m reading a novel (often in hopes that I can spin the reading into a review for one of my columns). Sometimes I’m simply basking in the solitude.
This means that when Story is at home, I’m parenting her and working at the same time. Most days, I start writing as early as 6 a.m., an hour and a half before Story wakes up. After school, I feed her and attempt to set her up with an independent play activity — something engrossing enough to buy me 15 minutes or a half-hour or, on some rare, auspicious day, maybe a full 45 minutes. While she’s hunched over her Legos or figurines or iPad or coloring book, I try to resume my writing. She doesn’t often give me that full 15 or 45 minutes. She comes back in five to ask for water and another five to ask for snacks and another five just to climb into my lap, mash her palms onto my laptop keyboard, and ask me what I’m doing.
I vacillate daily about what I should be doing right now. I apply for telecommuting positions that require full-time commitment while allowing me to maintain my flexible schedule, but I also go on the occasional interview for full-time office positions. During those interviews, I find myself hoping that I get the position, fantasizing about being able to move into my own home with Story. But inevitably, on the ride home, I imagine my daughter panicking over the many hours we’d suddenly be spending apart. I imagine myself panicking over that. Maybe it would mean better academic opportunities for Story, but would it mean sacrificing her emotional well-being? Maybe devoting my attention to work for several set hours a day would mitigate my multitasking stress, but wouldn’t I feel as much guilt working in an office as I do working at home? I’m never sure. The answer changes as often as Story does.