It is an eternal debate: do we live for today or save for the future? Some kind of balance needs to be found, as living a hedonistic, spendthrift lifestyle only to end up spending your autumn years on government assistance is no good, but neither is playing the miser through your younger, healthier years just to die and leave it all behind.
I always thought I managed to walk this line fairly well: I work hard and save for the future, with a plan to retire earlier than 65 (after all, who knows what kind of shape I’ll be in by 60), but still enjoy the moment. I’m aware of the power of compounding, and have internalized the math that saving & investing a dollar today means I can spend three in retirement. Inversing that, taking a year off from work now might mean I’d have to tack on 3-5 more working years at the end of my career before retiring.
That’s pretty simple logic on the opportunity cost of taking time off — and it gets even worse when you consider the potential damage of a gap to my career. So I’ve never really considered taking time off without a damned good reason to. Heck, even on my vacations I tend to find side projects to work on, even if they’re not the most profitable post hoc (e.g., book). But now that Blueberry is on the scene I start to wonder.
I missed my daughter’s first steps today. That’s not such a surprise, as even Wayfare has missed some of her firsts (she seems to show off for grandma), and I’m at work all day. Yet it kind of puts a sharp focus on something that’s really been bugging me about my job: I spend so much time commuting and working that I hardly see the whole reason I’m going through the whole mess. A few months ago when she was into her “stranger danger” phase, I went a full week without seeing her, and when I finally did she freaked out and cried because she didn’t recognize her dad. So missing her first steps is a moment that does make me — for perhaps the first time — step back and seriously consider taking some time off from my career.
It’s also a bit of a timely issue because Wayfare’s mat leave has run its course, and yet Blueberry is still too young for daycare, leaving us searching for childcare options. It is heart-wrenching to even think of handing over our little girl to some stranger to watch over, yet it is also difficult to get by on just one income, particularly in this city. I know eventually she will have to go off to spend more time being raised by strangers than with us — at school if not daycare — but it doesn’t stop me from wondering if taking a year off now and draining my savings might be totally worth it. It sure seems nicer to spend some time at home taking care of my baby than to be able to take more time off at the end of my career, when the house will be cold and empty.
And this is the age when I want to be there for her: at 12 she won’t want to see “Da”, she’ll be at school for most of the day and then want to disappear into her room with a book or video/holo game when she’s not. Right now she’s thrilled to have me around, and the world is a magical wonderful place full of adventure and discovery. I want to be there to see her point to a bird singing in a tree and exclaim “Bir!” or to a passing jet and do the same*. I want to watch her dig through her bag of toys until she finds a match for whatever’s already in her hand, and then merrily bang the two similar items together. When she’s a teenager she’ll likely just infuriate me if I see her at all.
But the cold math is the same: Wayfare and I make more than a nanny or daycare service, so Blueberry goes off to the strangers’ arms while we work to keep our heads above water in this crazy world.
An alternative to quitting or taking a full leave of absence — indeed my preferred solution — would be part-time work: ideally I’d work 3-4 days a week, Wayfare would work 2-4, and with one of us having the flexibility to work weekends plus occasional childcare from the grandparents we’d be set. But unfortunately it’s tough to find part-time work — I doubt I’d be able to swing it at my current job, the HR system isn’t really set up for it. Indeed, a 9-day bi-weekly work option (adding ~1 hr to each day and then taking a day off every other week) is a recent experiment there, and that plan’s only around for the summer. Plus there’s too much for me to do to just cut back (though they could almost use another 0.5-0.8 FTE, so perhaps hiring a full-time person and dropping me down to 4 days a week would work for everyone if only the money in the budget could be found).
Health insurance is another hurdle: I get it, Wayfare doesn’t, so it made and continues to make some kind of sense for me to try to keep a stable full-time job while she gets to take the mat/pat leave and spend all the time with Blueberry, even though she’s actually the higher-earner in the family. The value of group insurance for someone so sickly nearly covers the spread in gross pay.
Taking time off would be an easier decision if I had more freelance experience and could use that as essentially a part-time career. Part of what makes me consider it so closely is that I do have some margin of safety in my planning: pushing a planned retirement age from say 60 to 65 is not so bad, not like moving it from 65 to 70 — it’s not like I’d be cutting things so close as to be taking major risks on my ability to work later in life (health, etc.).
Though really as I get more comfortable (even as I write this out) with the idea of sacrificing disposable income and retirement savings to spend time with Blueberry, the big remaining fear is the gap on my resume. It took months to find a decent non-academic job in the first place, and that included accepting the dreaded subway commute. It did kind of backfire on me: part of the reason I went for a non-academic job was to have more stable hours to spend time with my family, and here I am a year later lamenting how little time I manage to spend with my family. Part was for better (short-term) pay: it would have been a lot tighter on a post-doc’s salary, yet here I am considering throwing the financial plan out the window for shits and giggles (literally). With such a gap on my CV and publication record I doubt I would have the option of trying to pursue an academic career now — will it be the same for a non-academic career after a year of being a homemaker?
I just don’t know what to do. I suspect that all my considering and weighing will lead me back to the default choice: keep working, let the woman take the mat/pat leave, and after that let her work part time with hired help to cover the rest of the childcare. It’s kind of sad, but I don’t really see another path…
* - It is apparently babies who confuse birds, planes, and Superman.