Stay-at-home parents find changes with slower economy

SEATTLE — “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?”

Like many other moms, Kagan, who lives in Maple Valley, has streamlined all her weekly errands into one marathon day. That includes occupational and speech therapy for one of her sons, doctor 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.

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.

It can be hard to know which, said 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.”

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.”

Save a buck

Being a stay-at-home mom or dad can mean literally staying at home a lot more these days to save money.

Here are some suggestions to help save the pocketbook without going stir crazy:

Try to combine errands and make one or two trips to save gas.

Plan meals more carefully so you’re not running to get missing items at the last minute.

Rent a movie instead of taking the family to one.

Visit parks and other free venues rather than museums.

Consider baby-sitting swaps with friends rather than hiring a sitter.

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