The Biggest Mistake

I’ve made some pretty stupid mistakes in my life. We all do. But the biggest mistake I’ve made by far was completely stepping out of the workforce once I had children. I am not going to get into one of those ridiculous “mommy war” debates about this because we all know that, by and large, most mothers everywhere do what they need to in order to raise happy, healthy kids. FOR ME, leaving my career has proven to be a huge error.

Before I had my children, I was a middle and high school English/language arts teacher. I loved my work, and I think I was good at it. During my fourth year as an educator, my husband got a  great job offer across the country with a major tech company, and there was no way he was going to turn that offer down. Because teachers can teach anywhere, I made the move with him and was half-way through the application process at a new school district when I found out I was pregnant.

We had had numerous discussions during our 5 years of marriage up to that point as to what we wanted for our family should we ever have one. It was important to both of us that our kids have a parent home with them when they were little, and we had agreed that whomever was earning less would be the parent to do that.

I felt horrible about not bringing in an income for a very long time. My husband assured me that it was the best thing for our family and that “we are doing this together. This is OUR money.” And it was for a very long time. Once our daughter arrived, I suffered from post-partum depression and culture shock from being so far away from my extended family and lifelong friends. But eventually, I met people, made some great friendships, and life was looking up by the time our second child arrived.

We bought a house. We had the money to remodel it. We had nice cars and took vacations, and because my husband was doing so well and working so hard, money was plentiful. Life was good.

My plan was to return to teaching when our son started Kindergarten. At that point, I had been out of the workforce for 10 years – a long time but not so long that it wasn’t easily doable. It was his Kindergarten teacher who noticed the “quirky” behaviors that eventually led to our son’s autism diagnosis. Any of you who have been through that process understand how difficult and overwhelming it can be. I’ve written in a previous post about how I set out on a mission to get him all the help and support I could. That became my “job’ for the next several years.

It was after those few years that my husband decided to leave.

As you can imagine, I went into a tailspin. I was an educated woman with a teenaged daughter and special needs 9-year-old. My high-earning husband had just walked out the door. Our life was set up in such a way that I was basically a household manager and childcare provider, and he was the earner. It’s a sweet set-up for both people and your kids if you can swing it. It’s mutually beneficial as long as both parties continue to do what they’ve said they will.

But when you are 100% financially dependent on another human being, and something happens to that human being – whether through choice or no choice of their own – you are screwed. Even if, like me, you have a responsible ex-spouse who understands that (s)he has financial obligations to the family and honors them, you still look at the choices YOU made and deal with the repercussions of choosing to leave the workforce long-term.

I gave up prime earning years and payment into a retirement system. I am almost 50 and looking to regain employment after 19 years out of the workforce. It’s certainly possible, but it’s daunting. I have had people tell me (no joke) that I won’t be able to find employment. I’ve had people ask me why the hell I left a job I loved. The only response I have to that is that I loved my family, and I trusted my husband, and I never in a million years thought I’d find myself in this position.

I was stupid.

You never know what someone else is going to do. And my unsolicited advice to anyone, especially young mothers, is to maintain some sort of financial independence. Keep up with your professional field. Maintain your credentials. Take online certifications. Do side work while your kids are little. Even if you have the great luxury of “staying home,” don’t do it forever.

Financial independence is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. If you’re fortunate enough to have it, hang onto it with both hands. I guarantee it will come in handy.

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