Image: Staying at home
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
Jenna Kagan checks on a pork chop dinner cooking in her crock pot slow cooker as she works in her kitchen in Maple Valley, Wash., near Seattle. Kagan, who is a stay-at-home mom and home-schools her three children, has taken many steps to save money in the current difficult economy in order to make her husband's salary stretch as far as possible in covering their household expenses.
updated 8/11/2008 2:46:23 PM ET 2008-08-11T18:46:23

“I’m having ’em, so I wanna raise ’em.” That’s the philosophy that led Jenna Kagan to stop working when her daughter was born nine years ago. Two sons soon followed, and their mother remains firm in her belief that staying home with them is best.

But these days, the term “stay-at-home-mom” has taken on a new meaning. Economic stresses, particularly sky-high gas prices, have kept many of these mothers and their families closer to home base than they’d like, a development some find isolating and deeply frustrating.

“It used to be the term ’stay-at-home mother’ was an oxymoron, because you had to get out of the house for your sanity!” says Jen Singer, creator of MommaSaid.net, a resource for stay-at-home mothers like herself. “To the mall, the playground, playdates, to Target, just to go somewhere.”

Now, with gas topping $4 a gallon, everyone’s thinking twice, she says. “If you’re a stay-at-home mother, you’d better have a darned good reason to go somewhere. You wonder, where can I stop by on my way home from another errand?”

So, like many, Kagan, who lives in Maple Valley, Wash., has streamlined all her weekly errands into one marathon day. That includes occupational and speech therapy for one of her sons, doctor’s appointments, and of course shopping.

Her children stay at home more, too — they’re home-schooled, and short trips they used to take as part of that experience have been curtailed as well. “We just don’t have as much money as we used to,” Kagan explains. Weekends? The family now goes to parks more than museums, and instead of going to the movies, they rent.

Even cooking, an activity Kagan loves, has been affected. “I was famous for running here and there to get ingredients,” she says. “If I was missing something I’d run out and get it. I don’t do that anymore. I sit down and plan meals two weeks ahead, then buy everything at once.”

Kagan and her husband, Dan, try to make a game of their tightening budget, seeing just how much they can save, “so that it’s not too depressing,” she says. One bright spot: Dan’s in a profession that’s doing well these days. He’s a credit and collections analyst. “Collectors are really busy right now,” his wife notes ruefully.

Doesn't make sense to go back to work
As for Kagan, who was once a preschool teacher, returning to the work force doesn’t seem to her a practical option. She knows day care would pretty much wipe out a preschool teacher’s salary. And besides: “I’ve always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “I’d rather do the job myself.”

Some stay-at-home mothers, though — there are 5.6 million with kids under 15, according to 2007 census figures — would be eager to return to work, if they thought the right job was out there. But many don’t. Recent labor statistics indicate women in the labor force have been adversely affected by the poor economy, and that the growth in their work force participation, steady for several decades, has slowed in recent years.

That, in turn, has raised the emotionally charged question of whether women have really been “opting out” to care for their children, as some economists thought, or whether it’s more that they’ve been affected by the hard times.

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It can be hard to know which, says Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist specializing in gender issues at the University of Maryland. “It’s easier to decide to opt out,” says Bianchi, “if your supposition is that the prospects aren’t good anyway.”

Singer, of MommaSaid.net, is annoyed by the assumption she feels some economists make that stay-at-home mothers want to work outside the home, but can’t. “I know tons and tons of mothers who choose to stay home whatever the economic difficulties,” she says, counting herself among them. “We are NOT staying home with our children by default.”

Hope that spouse's job is stable
Adding to the day-to-day stress, says Singer, is the fear that their husbands, the sole breadwinners, might lose their jobs. “Stay-at-home moms are very good at being frugal,” she says. “Often they’re the ones in charge of household finances. But when you’re worried that the one paycheck won’t come, it’s that much more frightening.”

One change that Singer, who lives in Kinnelon, N.J., has made in her own life is shopping for things like back-to-school supplies online, rather than in stores. But online shopping is a solitary activity, in a life that for some women is getting increasingly more solitary. Daisy Wilson, a mother of two in Splendora, Texas, calls it claustrophobia. “I really miss the adult interaction,” she says.

For Wilson, 30, who left her job as an office assistant at Wal-Mart seven years ago, the prospect of returning to paid work is tempting. “There are times when I think, if I were back at work, I could afford this or that,” she says. “But I don’t think it would pan out in the end.”

Wilson decided to stay home for both emotional and practical reasons. “There was a little bit of guilt,” she said, because she had worked during the first six years of her son’s life. But it also made economic sense. “They were charging outrageous fees for daycare,” she says. “It was too much for us.”


Wilson’s husband works in the oil fields. His hours are unpredictable, and she needs to be home to pick up both kids, take them to activities, feed and otherwise care for them. “I mostly entertain the kids at home — it’s cheaper,” she says. She would have liked to send her 4-year-old daughter, Winter, to preschool this year for the socialization skills, but can’t justify the expense.

As for her own leisure time, she laughs. “I read in bed, clip coupons,” she says. Going out with her husband alone is rare: “We had a date night for a while once a week but it petered out.”

Dinners out, ‘date nights’ are history
Alexis Allman can’t even remember the last time she went out with her husband. “Maybe it was my birthday in May last year — not this year,” says the mother of three from Marysville, Calif., north of Sacramento. “We did nothing this year.”

Allman left her job as an account coordinator with Hewlett-Packard, which she enjoyed, just over two years ago because “it was too expensive to work,” what with the hour’s drive each way and the cost of daycare for two kids (she now has three). Now, it would make even less sense. “To find a job that pays something decent, I would still have to drive an hour each way at $4.30 a gallon,” she says.

Allman, too, packs all her errands into one day. “I go to five places in one day with three kids — it’s horrible,” she says. The family also needs a bigger car to fit everyone — but that would take too much gas.

Meals out are history, even at McDonald’s, where a meal costs at least $20 for four. “How can we justify eating out when we could go to a store and buy enough for a couple day’s worth of meals?” Allman asks. An exception was her son’s recent fourth birthday, celebrated at Applebees. Other than that, it’s been two years.

“There’s just no time to regroup, none left for ourselves,” Allman notes. That means no date nights, either. But she’s hopeful that may change.

“I’m trying to work out a baby-sitting swap arrangement with friends,” she says. “If it works, we’ll go and see the new ’Batman’ movie. Maybe.”

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