When Deciding Whether to Be a Stay-at-Home Parent, Think Like an Economist

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Leaving a job to be a stay-at-home parent is a deeply personal decision, one that involves many different factors. There’s, of course, the financial aspect. There’s also how the change might impact your kid (though this is subjective).

And then there is this question. It’s one that sometimes gets lost in the stressful process of crunching numbers, but an important variable as any other.

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Do you want to stay home with your kids?

There are certainly people who can answer this question without hesitation. “YES THIS IS MY LIFE’S PURPOSE,” you might declare. Or, “Stay home with my kids? Oh God, 100% no.” That’s great! You can stop reading this right now, and go do you.

But for many parents, the answer is less clear. Your thoughts might be all over the place, thanks to the mosh-pit-like nature of parenthood. It could be really nice, you might think one moment, your eyes gazing at your beautiful children who are playing sweetly in the garden. No, it would be the worst, you decide three minutes later, as one child yanks a toy from another and both are now screaming.

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You need a big-picture perspective. For that, you should think like an economist. Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown, describes in her new book Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool how she uses economics theory to confirm her stance that she wouldn’t be happy as a stay-at-home parent.

I work because I like to. I love my kids! They are amazing. But I wouldn’t be happy staying home with them. It isn’t that I like my job better—if I had to pick, the kids would win every time. But the “marginal value” of time with them declines fast. (“Marginal value” will be familiar to anyone who remembers their Econ 101. There may not be any useful data on this question, but economic theory still comes in handy.) The first hour with my kids is great, but by the fourth, I’m ready for some time with my research. My job doesn’t have this nose-dive in marginal value—the highs are not as high, but the hour-to-hour satisfaction declines much more slowly.

I can relate. When my daughter was a baby, I was a stay-at-home parent for about a year. The early mornings with her were quite lovely. I’d lay her on the play mat and watch her be entranced by the brilliance of a zipper. It zips up, and then down, and then up, and then down. How magical it is to discover the world! But by about 10 a.m., I was pretty tired (since I’d been up since 5:30 a.m.). By noon, I was over it. By 4 p.m., I was full of rage. And by about 5:20, when my husband would finally get home from work, I’d basically toss the baby over to him like a relay baton and whimper in the bathroom. If I were to graph my day, it would look like a black diamond ski slope. Multiply that by hundreds and you get a situation that doesn’t feel sustainable. I eventually went to back to work full-time, for a number of a reasons, including my mental health. I have no regrets about how things played out, but I now know how important it is to take a broader view, especially in the erratic infant phase.

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If you’re having trouble with the decision, it might help to chart your feelings for a while, on paper. (Perhaps you can do it while on a staycation at home with your kids—but just keep in mind, this is not the same as staying home with no end date in sight.) Then take a step back and look at the trends. Your data might show that you’re mostly content, making you well-suited to be a stay-at-home parent. Or it may show that the marginal value of time with them isn’t what you expected.

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