By Kim Le

Why I Chose to be a SAHM

It has been six months since I have returned to being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM); and this time I’m confident I’ll be leaving behind my start-up, tech career.

Who Am I?

I’m a college educated female. I have an undergraduate degree in STEM, but not a master’s degree. I have over one decade but less than two decades of work experience. As my career has progressed, I have increasingly specialized in strategic finance and business operations for early stage start-ups, which is a fancy way of saying I do anything and everything except for sell the product and build the product. Most days I do the grunt work of preparing for a board meeting or running our finances. Some days I get the exciting job of closing a big round of funding. I’ve seen companies grow rapidly, and I’ve also seen them fail spectacularly. It’s a fast paced, high pressure environment with long days and sleepless nights. The greatest reward is the thrill of the job, and of course the pay. After dedicating long hours over the years, I’ve made slow but steady progress in my career. However, those career rewards are not without its costs. The costs often fall on my family, my relationships, and my health.

No Space for Two High Pressure Careers

By the time my partner decided to pull the trigger on a life long career goal of starting his own company, we both came to the hard realization that there wasn’t enough space in our household for two technology start-up careers. We could not figure out how to make it work, even though we felt so many before us had; and we only had one kid, while most of our peers had two. We could not make two careers work, so we had to sacrifice one. Last fall when he dived headfirst into his job as a founder writing coding and building product, I left mine, likely permanently.

You might wonder if I carry resentment, regret, or resignation. In reality, I don’t. I’m very content to be a SAHM.

These days I mostly get annoyed when I have to miss my weekly vinyasa yoga class, or don’t get time to sleep-in on weekends. My partner isn’t home much during the week. I spend over 8 waking hours a day taking care of my kid during the week by myself even with school in session. In the winter, I shovel snow. In the summer, I mow the lawn. In the fall, I rake leaves. We lost 50% of our income when I left my job, which required some lifestyle adjustments, but we make things work.

What has allowed me to adjust to my new role was a mental shift on my part combined with a change in the macroeconomic landscape. My acceptance and contentment in this role comes from three overarching presumptions:

-- Being a SAHM is a full-time job, and then some
-- Being a SAHM still leaves room for a career, albeit a non-traditional one
-- Being a SAHM can be a lot like FIRE*, and popular perception is FIRE > SAHM

*FIRE = financial independence, retire early

A Full Time Job

The most common question I get as a SAHM is: What do you do all day?

When I’m in a snarky mood, I’ll say, “I do drop off, go to the gym, have lunch, take a nap, watch TV, and then pick up my kid.” When I’m in a stressed mood, I’ll say, “I haven’t gotten sleep the last few days since my kid was home sick; and now school was closed today. Our kid has been acting up lately, and everything is a fight. We haven’t had a bedtime routine without a meltdown this week. I’m behind on chores and cleaning. The house is a mess.” Each day is different. The daily grind falls somewhere in between these two extremes. Some days are good, and some days are bad.

But generally speaking, if we put together a job description for the role of the SAHM, it would look something like this:

Job Title: Stay-at-Home Mom

Works and Responsibilities:
--
Perform weekly operational tasks to run the household such as cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, home repair projects, and lawn care (mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, leaf removal, etc.)
-- Perform daily transportation duties including school pick up and drop off, providing transportation to all extracurricular activities both structured and unstructured. Some transportation required on an as needed basis for medical, dental, and vision appointments.
-- Perform daily parental duties including the long-term goals of raising a human to be good, capable, and healthy as well as day to day duties of morning and bedtime routines.
-- Manage all household budget and finances including paying bills, preparing annual income tax filings, saving for college, and making ongoing financial investments.
-- Assist in children’s educational attainment such as helping with homework, supplementing with extracurricular activities or additional at home tutoring. Most importantly, fill in where the school system has gaps such as areas of morals and ethics, fitness and health, personal finance, or computer literacy, to name a few.
-- Provide nourishment and care during frequent periods of illness; and support and guidance during periods of emotional, mental, and physical development

Qualifications and Skills:
-- Infinite patience to handle tantrums, meltdowns, and perpetual “button pushing”
-- Deals well with extended periods of sleep deprivation on an as needed basis. Preferred to have a robust immune system to handle monthly illnesses, typically colds, flus, and other common seasonal respiratory illnesses
-- Ability to adapt to constantly changing priorities and project deliverables, such as layoffs, sick child at home, sudden school closures, etc.
-- Communicates well with children whose pre-frontal cortex haven’t fully developed as well as cross-community collaborators like other parents, school administrators, and extended family members
-- Highly organized to handle day to day chores, tight schedules, and a long list of activities. Needs to have a license and can drive under constant stress of babbling children in the car.
-- Excels at manual laboring including but not limited to house cleaning, gardening and landscaping, grocery shopping, cooking, and carrying children up to 50 lbs for extended periods
-- Has strong financial literacy with the ability to create and manage a budget, track all income and expenses, pay bills on time, create financial analyses for major household decisions, make sound financial investment decisions, and draft basic financial reports including net worth tracking on a monthly basis

An Orderly Household and Time for Finances

Running a household and raising children is more than a full-time job requiring a diverse array of skills and experiences. It’s not surprising that dual-income households increasingly outsource the jobs and responsibilities that often fall under the umbrella of the stay at home parent. Examples of this includes hiring nannies, mom’s helpers, or babysitters for childcare. Families strained for time eat takeout, hire cleaners and gardeners, or even send out laundry. Their day jobs don’t allow for the time required for their other full-time job of a parent.

As a desk nerd, adjusting to the role of a stay at home mom has been a steep learning curve; one that I’m still climbing. However, I am learning to take pride in keeping an orderly household. I take pride in being able to cover all of the yard work, and I take even greater pride in being able to carry 20-40 lb bags of groceries every week.

I take the most pride in being our family’s financial investment manager. I’m not a trained CFA, but I am sufficiently financial literate that I can make sound financial investments. I read and educate myself as best as I can on the fundamentals (like basic equities, ETFs, and real estate) while at the same time avoiding high risk financial assets that I don’t understand (like options, margin trading, and crypto). I focus on cultivating the appropriate temperament to be a long-term investor with the understanding that I am not smart enough to beat the market and I can not predict the future. If my partner’s focus is on offense (ie making money), then my job is defense, to make sure that our hard earned money is spent wisely and invested so that money today becomes more money tomorrow.

Lastly, there are many aspects of this job that I love. I love being able to pick-up my kid and hear about their day. I love not missing anything like their first bike ride, first lost tooth, or first book read. I’m there for all of the obvious milestones like the first day of school or apple picking in the fall. I’m also there for all of the little moments like enjoying the season’s first snow fall or reading a new book from the library. I’m there for the hard times when they’re really sick and need to go to the ER, not feeling the guilt of having to work. I love being a mom, and I’m blessed to be at home with my kid.

Dreams not on hold

As I mentioned, this is my second time choosing to be a SAHM. When I first became a stay-at-home mom pre-COVID, I was bitter. I resented being forced to make that decision, especially because my career was on a rapid ascent. Then the pandemic hit. We were raising a kid without any childcare support: no daycare, no grandparents, no space, no public playgrounds, no libraries, no travel. All the while, work kept chugging on without missing a beat. I shortly returned to work full time post-pandemic.

It’s now 2024, and it’s a different world. WFH is now more commonplace as well as both professionally and socially acceptable. This also creates new opportunities for SAHM to continue working in between the household chores and childcare duties.
-- I can take a zoom call while waiting in the car for school pick-up
-- I can pull together an analysis while my child is attending an extracurricular activity
-- I can hop on calls at 9PM after my kid has gone to sleep, because who doesn’t work late these days?

Most importantly, remote work can not be measured by hours in the office like in person work can be. A more appropriate metric is work produced, a proxy for impact made. This metric puts parents on a more level playing field as their childless counterparts. Parents can’t easily dedicate 60 to 80 hours per week without relying on their partners, grandparents or hired help to provide more bandwidth, but with competence, experience, and a focus on efficiency, they can produce similar levels of output in 30-40 hours of focused time.

The greatest compliment I’ve received as a working mom was from my then CEO when I confessed I could only work 30-35 hours per week. She said, “I don’t care that you work only 30 hours because you produce as if you work 60 hours per week.”As a SAHM, I don’t have 30 hours per week. There are only 180 school days in a year running for 6 hours per day. There are 250-260 work days in a year running for 8 hours a day. That means school covers 1,080 hours of the 2000-2080 hours of work per year, a paltry 52-54% of overlap. Therefore, I have 10 to 20 hours at most per week to work, with seasonal variation based on school calendars.

Building a career off of 10 to 20 hours per week wouldn’t be possible on the traditional corporate ladder which often requires 60 to 80 hours per week to stay competitive for steady career advancement. But the ranks of the self-employed, solopreneurs, and gig workers have demonstrated that more can be done with less. The 9-to-5 is not the only path to having a career, and with remote work, there are more opportunities and a higher chance for success.

SAHM = FIRE?

I was an early student of the FIRE movement, inspired at the age of sixteen to aim for financial independence, retire early (FIRE). An avid reader of the Financial Samurai (Sam Dogen) and Retire by 40 (Joe Udo), I’ve followed their journeys of retiring from their corporate careers at the ages of 34 and 38 respectively to pursue FIRE.

Although today our family is not in the same financial position to meet the requirements of FIRE, being a SAHM does allow me to focus on charting our family’s path to FIRE. Focusing on building passive streams of income, diversifying our income sources, and becoming more diligent and rigorous with our financial management are worthwhile skills to develop that can be done on my own time as a mom.

Ending thoughts: An amalgamation of feelings

The days are long but the years are short

When I first heard this phrase, I didn’t realize how true it was. As I look upon our child bouncing around the house, it’s hard to believe this same child gave us endless sleepless nights as a baby just a few years ago. Reminiscing on those chubby cheeks and tiny toes, I really do wonder where all the time has gone. Now, I don’t want to miss out on those precious childhood years, when I can be there.

On raising children

Raising children has always been hard. When I watch documentaries of primates in the jungle raising their young, I think of how far we’ve come in caring for our young. When I see a new mom teetering on the edge of angst and frustration balancing her responsibilities as a mom, an employee, and a wife, I think of how far we still have to go to support new parents.

Being grateful

But as hard as it is, I’m grateful. Grateful that the sky is blue and the air is clear. Grateful that my home is warm in the dead of winter. Grateful that my child has a school she goes to that alleviates some of the pressures and strains from parenthood. Grateful that, although at times conflicting, there’s an abundance of research and knowledge to help guide my parenting journey. Grateful that I can make the choice to be at home, a luxury others can’t consider. Grateful that remote work and advancements in technology provides opportunities today to a SAHM like me to keep working that generations of women before me didn’t have.

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