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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Santa Claus economics
October 22, 2008 - 5:44am

At breakfast Monday morning my husband came downstairs to announce that he’d thought of something for his Christmas list. Hurray, I thought, quickly grabbing pen and paper to write down an idea from the world’s most difficult person to shop for.

“I need a new dive watch,” he said.

“Oh, great,” was my sarcastic response. “Something nice and cheap.”

We agreed that it was probably too extravagant a gift and that we’d have to see if we could afford it. But our son suddenly chimed in from his waffle:

“It doesn’t matter to Santa how much it costs. If you ask him for a watch he’ll just leave it for you in your stocking.”

Gulp! My husband and I looked at each other as I scrambled to explain that Santa usually only brings special presents for kids and just leaves little things in the parents’ stockings. “Oh,” he said, back to his waffle. Then, “Hey, I know. Dad, I could put the watch on my list to Santa for you. Then he’ll bring it, and I’ll give it to you. I could put a new toaster on my list too.” (Our current toaster has to be gently coaxed into service each morning.)

I thought we’d been careful about avoiding discussions of finances when the kids were in the room, but we frequently make casual, off-hand comments about what we can or can’t afford. Our kids are listening more than I thought. One of the drawbacks of living solely on my husband’s associate professor salary is that we seem to talk money a lot. I’m sure we’d still have these discussions even if we were both full-time faculty. We certainly didn’t pursue PhDs because we were after the big bucks. It’s fortunate that we had to penny-pinch as grad students for so long because it’s not such a stretch to live that way again. We even wear some of the clothes we wore in grad school. After food and shelter, my husband’s salary mostly goes to cover our kids’ needs and activities. My husband’s salary… the nagging sense that my children and I are now completely dependent on my husband is often unsettling. This financial reliance on one’s partner is something that makes most feminists gag. I have to remind myself that even though I don’t currently contribute financially to our household, it hasn’t always been that way. We’re only able to afford the home we live in now because we invested all of my pre-kid earnings on the down payment for our first house. But after we became parents, almost all of my lecturer salary went to childcare. We save on childcare for me to stay home, but it doesn’t take a lot of worry about our financial situation to make me wonder if I went too far by giving up on academia to be with the kids full-time.

In deciding to be a full-time parent I obviously considered more than money. When I don’t think about the economics, it’s clear that I’ve done the right thing for my family and me. Except for the need to find a bit more time for intellectual pursuits, I’m deeply satisfied with my day-to-day life. Am I living in a bit of a Santa Claus world by ignoring the financial insecurity that total dependence on my husband brings? Maybe, and I don’t think I’ll be home full-time for too much longer. But I also can’t ignore the other ways in which we all benefit by having me home and the tremendous rewards that come from maximizing the time I have with my young children. It’s kind of like an unexpected gift I never would have thought I needed.

 

 

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