The work decision: Who stays with the baby? Who works? And why does it feel like you're screwed either way?

When you have a baby, the decision must be made: Who is taking care of the baby? Will you quit your job? How much day care should you have? Here are some things to keep in mind. | instafather.com

When you have a baby, the decision must be made: Who is taking care of the baby? Will you quit your job? How much day care should you have? Here are some things to keep in mind. | instafather.com

As it turns out, once you have a baby, you can't just set it under a heat lamp, install a sprinkler, and let it grow for 18 years until your kid is ready to go to college or finally earn some money.

You've undoubtedly figured this out, this elaborate ruse of pregnancy that starts out with an unborn baby that has 24-hour childcare automatically available and then all of a sudden, you're on the clock. And that's when the major decisions kick in that can alter your career, finances, mood, availability ... damn, basically everything!

For dads, the timeline from pregnancy to "Wait, how are we taking care of this baby?" :

"We're having a baby!"

"Holy #%#% we're having a baby."

"I have no idea how to be a dad!" (This might help)

"OK, let's do this. I'm ready to become a father."

"Holy #%^& what is coming out of my wife's body and what is that fluid?!?!?"

"This is the most beautiful little angel I've ever seen."

"Wait NOW what the #%^& is coming out of my wife's body? THAT'S a placenta? Oh my god I need to buy my wife a push present." (Got you covered)

"I am so happy to be a dad."

"..."

"..."

"... Wait. How are we taking care of our baby?"

And that's when, if not sooner, it hits you that in some major way, your career and financial status is going to be impacted by growing your family.

Think it's simple? Maybe, if you have clear-cut options, but who really has that? When it comes to deciding childcare options, you have to think about how it impacts you financially, logistically, and even emotionally, because trust me, there is nothing easy about hearing your baby scream because they don't want dropped off at a strange place.* And that's not to mention, you know, that whole "What is going to keep my baby safe and healthy?"

* This doesn't last forever. My son clung to me like a barnacle on a ship for the first few weeks,  and now he just goes "BYEEEEEEE!"

While there are so many unique situations surrounding "Who should watch our baby?" that creating a summary is nearly impossible, in many cases it comes down to these two options.

Both of you work. Your baby goes to full-time day care. 

  • Pros: You don't have to worry about a stalled career, both of you get a reduction in the daily stress and strain of taking care of a baby round the clock, and neither of you needs to feel like they "gave up" their career. You also maximize your earnings.
  • Cons: Full-time daycare costs, and I'm rounding down here, about eleventy billion dollars. Also, unless your daycare is right near your work, you won't get to see your baby all day, which can bring its own sense of guilt and emptiness. It's also a really long stretch in the day where someone else will be taking care of all of your baby's needs. If your baby is six months old, that can be tough to swallow but doable. If you don't have much time off and your baby needs childcare at, say, 4 weeks old, before they can even lift their head (and reduce the chance of suffocation), you probably are feeling anxious about the mere idea. That's where getting references, making sure the child care providers have infant CPR training and all certifications needed, and having a good gut feeing pays off. You're allowed to be picky when it comes to daycare. This isn't ordering Chinese food.

You work full-time. Your wife quits her job/drastically reduces her hours, and takes care of the baby during the day. OR vice versa.

  • Pros: You still have a full-time income and benefits - my God, insurance is important when you have a baby. My twins alone racked up $200,000-plus in medical bills so far and they are seven months old. Without insurance, we'd be screwed. One of you gets to keep pushing forward on your career (and therefore improving your earning potential), and the other person gets the benefit of maximum bonding time with the baby. You greatly reduce dependency on childcare — the cost, the guilt of leaving them there, and the anxiety of someone else taking care of them — and you have a more flexible schedule.
  • Cons: Depending on who is quitting their full-time job, there can be resentment, plus you'll have less income, which on its own can be an ongoing stress. It also puts the two of you in very different daily lives — one of you goes about your business, and the other deals with all the highs and lows of taking care of a baby. A bad day for either of you can be tough to relate to by the other person. If and when you or your partner wants to jump back into the workforce, there's now a gap in employment, and that can make it tough to get a job again. 

My wife and I went with option B. For us, it was the best possible solution. We wanted to have one of us be with our son, and eventually our daughters, as much as we could because you don't get that time back. We did this knowing that we'd greatly be reducing our income (although with the thought of full-time day care, it might have been a wash anyway), but it's been worth it.

My wife left her full-time position at a college and now teaches part-time a few classes a week. She gets to be with our twins and toddler every day, helping to mold them into what we hope will be thoughtful, loving people. We still have to put our kids in day care a few mornings a week, but it's a wonderful place and they are fantastic with our children. Although I'm at work all day, I know that my wife or the day care are looking out for what's best for my kids, and that's a great feeling.

But it's still far from the perfect situation. Why? Because when you have a baby, you're going to feel like no matter what you decide there are drawbacks. 

It can feel like no matter what you do, you can't win. Sound familiar?

Our daily schedule is hectic to say the least. Even with just a few classes to teach, it's enough to cause one of us to constantly be picking up the kids or dropping them off with each other.

We have to pay for day care, and even part time it amounts to thousands of dollars a year (I wouldn't recommend going cheap on day care. You're paying someone to watch your kid, not wash your car.) Some people opt to have a spouse stay home entirely, but as any stay-at-home parent knows, watching a baby is its own full-time job. Good luck getting anything done!

Also, I miss out on moments all the time, like when my son started saying some of his first words — I had to watch it via video.

My wife has to, well, take care of twin babies and a toddler. There's a reason every single person we bump into at the grocery store says "You must have your hands full!" And she also still has to deal with work, so it can be stress on both ends.

Would we change anything? No. We have beautiful, healthy, happy kids.

We hustle and make the finances work, and we're fortunate we even have the option to have one of us home at all (you may be reading all of this and saying "Staying home isn't even an option for us" and for that, I just say, whatever is best for you is all that matters.)

Sometimes, though, doesn't it feel like we're all pressured into making these decisions way too soon?

This is a problem in America more than many other countries, which offer maternity and paternity leave that can go on six months, a year, or even longer. In the U.S., you have to decide between career and baby basically on the way down the hospital elevator.

And every so often, you get a chilling reminder of what's at stake:

"A Baby Dies at Day Care, and a Mother Asks Why She Had to Leave Him So Soon."

That headline stops you in your tracks — because it wouldn't take much for that to apply to me or you.

Disclaimer: The day care in this case was unregulated, and it looks like they messed up by putting the baby to sleep on his side. In isolation, it doesn't sound like a great day care. But the larger point remains — a mom felt she couldn't stay with her three-month-old baby and needed to go back to work, and on the first day of having someone else watch him, her baby died. Would he have lived if she had watched him instead? It's impossible to know, but, to be blunt, that sucks she even has to grapple with that thought.

That's such a scary, tragic story. Fortunately, it's not the standard, it's the exception. Most day cares are fantastic (expensive, but fantastic). I didn't include that story as some kind of avoid-day-care-at-all-costs warning, because that's not even practical. 

Most parents work without huge problems raising their babies. Your parents probably did it. Mine did, too. 

But it's an unavoidable decision. 

I strongly advise you to do two things when deciding about the day care/work balance:

  1. Don't assume anything. Don't assume the status quo is the best — if both of you work, maybe it makes sense for one of you to quit. Don't assume that because more often it's the mom that stays home, that should be your case. Stay-at-home-dads are slowly becoming more prevalent. Don't assume you can't afford day care. There are a lot of flexible options out there. Don't assume that your work won't let you work from home some days, or help you be creative in your new role as a parent. 
  2. Give it some time. Think through what works best for all of you, and what your goals are as parents. Maybe it's getting yourself in a good financial position so you can start saving for college. Maybe it's having one of you there for all the precious moments, and for those crocodile tear moments, too. Maybe breastfeeding is important and pumping doesn't seem realistic or practical. But none of these things you'll know in an instant. You probably need to do some budgeting, at the least, and then really think about what's important.

How will you know you made the right decision?

Here's what one dad, Pat Helmers, said to me:

"Don't get caught up in owning lots of stuff and such. Focus on supporting your wife, raising your children, being a man."

That's a good way to look at it. When you're not focused on owning things, you won't get as frustrated either way — whether it's because your dollars are flying out the window to day care or because one of you quit and the income isn't rolling in. Instead, you're focused on supporting your family's well being. You can't go wrong there.

Another dad, Aaron Gouveia, emphasized how you have to be open to change because jobs and finances aren't set things:

"We never had predefined roles or expectations. We left it fluid and dependent on the circumstances."

Other dads I asked told tales of making the decision to stay at home themselves, or flipping back and forth, or never quite feeling like they've figured out what works best. But each one seem satisfied that they were doing the best they could, and that's what matters.

I can't say what you should do. I can't say what will help you avoid a tragic situation like the one above, or what will make you feel the happiest with the least amount of guilt. And while you need to do due diligence on day care — going somewhere where you already know a friend is satisfied with the level of care is always a smart approach — you can never know for sure what will happen. It can be very stressful.

What I can tell you is that your baby loves you already. You are going to do your best to provide for your family — "provide for my family" is a phrase I never uttered until I became a dad, and then it became something that's part of the core of my being — and as long as you think it through and accept that there are pros and cons, you're going to be OK.

You are always making the right decision when you make it with your family's well being in mind.