What do you lose if you stay home with kids?

If you do not stay home with kids, you’ll be annoyed to hear all the benefits of watching kids, because people don’t really care about what benefits could be gained. We care about what we could lose. This is true for everyone: Consumers, liars, straight-A students. Working moms.

This is why people love to talk about what they could lose by staying home with kids. The discussion often gets extreme—death by boredom!—but most people will say they lose interestingness, self-actualization, and respect from other people.

But I don’t think we gain any of these things from work. And pretending that work provides those benefits makes finding a good job impossible, and it makes staying home with children feel impossible as well.


People do not get paid to solve interesting problems and learn new things all the time. That’s a perfect, heavenly job, so why would you need to be paid? You get paid to work on teams you didn’t choose, and toe the line for an executive board you don’t agree with, and make products that have no intrinsic meaning.

Interesting people are interested, no matter what they do all day. If you are interested in ideas you’ll think about them. If you’re interested in people you’ll connect with them. You don’t need work to do that—and it probably would just get in the way.


Living up to your potential is a terrible goal. People who grow up thinking they are gifted feel pressure to perform in a way that leads to having the most unhappy adult lives. Free yourself from the idea that people are in a horse race and everyone has a scouting report.

The truth is that the only people who have a ton of potential in the workplace are people who will give up everything else for work. That’s about 5% of people. Everyone else sees their career start to flatline at age 30 or 35 and then tank. But our level of self-actualization goes up as we age. And our sense of well-being peaks at the time of life we are least likely to be focused on career.

So self-actualization and career are not particularly related. Self-actualization is much higher on the Maslow hierarchy than winning a gold star or getting a big raise.

Respect from other people

OK. This is where you are really lying to yourself. You do not want respect from people with terrible careers. You want respect from people who have great careers. And people with great careers avoid the mid-life plateau by making work a higher priority than family. If you were able to do that you would have read the headline of this post and clicked delete.

By the time everyone is 35, we can see who is going to be at the top and who isn’t. You will have made a mark. You will have been working very, very hard. You will be ruthlessly climbing to the top of your field. If you have not done that from age 0-35 then you are not giving up the opportunity to do that from 35 on. Because you are not that kind of person who does that.

Adults do not get respect because they have a high IQ or high ambition. At some point, it only matters what you’ve done and who you’ve loved. Respect is hard to come by unless you give it to yourself.

And, in fact, you provide your own interestingness and your own self-actualization as well. It’s hard, for sure, but you don’t need a job or permission from other people. It’s way easier to punt on interestingness/self-actualization/respect and say you couldn’t get them because you stayed home with kids.

Don’t do that.

To be our best selves involves being free of self-criticism, envy, and regret. I don’t know anyone who has achieved that. Because it’s very distracting to have to take care of kids. Or go to work.

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40 replies
  1. graham landi
    graham landi says:

    Spot on regarding interestingness. A lawyer once told me that the reason they get paid so much is because their job is fundamentally so tedious that they have to be paid well to compensate for the boredom.

  2. Caitlin McCabe
    Caitlin McCabe says:

    Thanks for this Penelope – I’m so glad to see this topic here, you coached me through this for YEARS as I navigated my way towards non working.
    My kids, now 4 and 6 have had not shared me with my career for 3 years now and I can say I am a FAR more interesting person now than I ever was.

  3. jennifer lehr
    jennifer lehr says:

    I guess the only thing I could lose would be my house, health insurance, fulfilling work, gas, my car, food for my family, trips, clothing and dog food. I’m sure I’m leaving something off the list.

    • Christiane
      Christiane says:

      This. My mom didn’t pursue a professional career and stayed home to raise 5 children while my dad had a career. In her mid-50s he left her for a younger woman and she had to scramble to find work and pay the bills and raise the youngest kid. It’s not good to set yourself up for complete financial dependence, no matter how much you love each other.

  4. Jane Carnell
    Jane Carnell says:

    Why phone it in as a parent. If you’re going to have kids, be with them, Take care of them yourself. You be the one whose ideas fill their head, Not the nanny’s. Not the maid. Not the babysitter. They’re your kids. Or don’t have them if you won’t be with them. If you want a self-cleaning oven, get one of those. Or a cat. But just be sure you take care of the litter.

    • Janis Schubert
      Janis Schubert says:

      Just wondering…do you consider dads that work to be just phoning it in as a parent? What about single moms who don’t happen to have spouses or home jobs that can support them and their kids? I was able to be home much of the time with my kids, even as a single mom with little support from the ex, but I have a very healthy respect for how hard it can be to support a family, whether or not there is a supportive working spouse involved.

  5. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I left a career 12 years ago to raise kids. My husband has a great job, and he friggin’ loves it. It pays the bills (and then some).

    Now that our tiny people are in school, I’m working part-time in my old field for a dear friend, when *I* feel like working.

    I know I’m freaking lucky. I hit the husband jackpot. My kids are mostly healthy and brilliant little humans. We are all way above average intelligence, probably even gifted, but we probably aren’t fulfilling society’s expectations for who we should be and what we should be doing. And we are ok with that.

    I wanted to go to med school to be a doctor. But a doctor can’t live my life and couldn’t raise my kids or support my marriage. The woman I’ve become CAN do those things. Sometimes I regret not following those childhood dreams, but my reality is pretty darn good.

    I don’t know what the point of this is…I had a Mexican Martini with dinner tonight and am a little loopy & happy. But I wanted to just reach out to Penelope & her readers to say that yeah…career stuff can be all-consuming, but we can also be so much more than just our careers, if that’s what we want. We get to choose, and F anyone who judges us for our choices. ❤️

    Brilliant people can change the world. Brilliant people can raise good humans. Or brilliant people can pay the bills and do whatever makes them happy…and it’s ALL good.

    Penelope – I hate meeting new people. It’s the worst. But if you ever come to Austin, I will buy you dinner/drinks/whatever to thank you for sharing your perspective on all of this life/parenting/job stuff. You are a great mom and a brilliant woman, and I’m grateful for your blog.

    • jane carnell
      jane carnell says:

      Michelle– is Austin a place one could live carlessly. a place open to seniors and individualists? A place with thrift shops and acupuncture and Chinese herbs and qi gong? My house recently flooded and I should move.

        • Jim C.
          Jim C. says:

          New Orleans? For someone who just had her house flooded and wants to move, the most flood-prone city in the USA would be a bad choice.
          (If your comment was meant ironically, I apologize.)

  6. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I read lots of articles about staying at home vs. working; perhaps most importantly the comment sections following them. Some interesting things I’ve noticed:

    1. Working parents often say something like “I’m not interested in cleaning toilets/doing laundry/washing dishes all day.” But unless they’re making enough to afford a housekeeper, they are doing the exact same chores as a stay-at-home parent. Those chores are just being shoehorned into their short evening and weekend hours. Same amount of boring, soul-killing labor: less free time to enjoy with your children in the little time you’re with them.

    2. Working parents respond to any complaints from stay-at-home parents with “you think you’ve got it bad? My life is so much harder than yours!” no doubt due to #1. But at the same time, there is a general sense of looking down on stay-at-homes as being uninteresting, less intelligent, lacking ambition, etc. as if the more hectic life choice is the only one valued. There’s also the implication that parents home with their kids aren’t contributing enough to the family, without earning a paycheck. Some people even view SAHMs as borderline freeloaders, as if making life easier and less stressful for everyone in the family weren’t a valuable contribution.

    3. Working parents who aren’t claiming they are just too smart and interesting to stay at home, often say they can’t possibly afford it, unlike the old days. Nobody seems to realize that in the old days, families shared one car and lived in a 2 or 3 bedroom ranch house with one TV. Expenses like cell phones, cable, internet service and yearly Disney vacations were unheard of. It wasn’t a golden age when one income was high enough to afford everything we consider necessities today. Likewise, most families with a stay-at-home parent probably aren’t buying a new SUV every other year and wearing brand new designer clothing. Just like in the old days, some lifestyle adjustments are required in most cases.

    • galeforcewind
      galeforcewind says:

      Just to be clear though, in general household expenses have gone up and incomes haven’t gone up with them since these grand “old days”, so there are families with multiple incomes that aren’t buying a new SUV every other year and wearing brand new designer clothing and taking yearly Disney vacations and still have to have both parents work to make rent. We’re luck enough to be able to have me stay home, but not everyone can.

      Also, basic phone and internet are not luxury services; they’re utility, so should not be grouped with cable and Disney vacations.

    • Gena
      Gena says:

      I usually don’t comment on blog posts but I thought your reply warranted one. I have been a SAHM for 7 years now since my oldest was born. I have three kids: ages 7,5, and 2.5. I always feel embarrassed when someone asks me what I do and I am forced to reply “I just stay home”.
      I feel like I am underachieving and I should be out in the workforce trying to make something of myself. But staying home is nothing to speak of lightly. Parenting is hard work. Whether you stay home or not, something will be sacrificed. There will be some kind of cost. Either your time if you are able to stay home, or money if you end up paying for childcare. For us it is a bit of a struggle to live on one income. We make it work but it isn’t easy due to the high cost of living. My husband sometimes gets upset that we only have one income. We don’t have a lot of money for new clothes or vacations. Plus we own an old home that is in constant need of repair. But our life would be so much more stressful if I was working. I now have two school age children and I homeschooled my first grader and preschooler last year. I am not sure what we will do this fall and the clock is ticking as it approaches. Part of me wants to continue homeschooling due to the freedom and flexibility it gives us as a family, but the other part says go get a job and put them in school/daycare.
      We live in a complex fast paced world that demands so much from us. I find myself longing for a world much simpler than where we find ourselves today. ( at least in regard to a few things anyway like modern medicine).

      Thank you Penelope for this post. I have enjoyed reading your blog for several years now.
      You are so right. Living an intentional life without criticism of ourselves or others, free of jealousy or regret is something to aspire to.
      We all need to take better care of ourselves and each other, with kindness and respect. Then and only then can we effect some change in a rapidly changing world.

      • Gena
        Gena says:

        I meant to reply to a comment by Jennifer at first but then decided to just post a general comment. Sorry for any confusion, I guess I didn’t edit my comment very well. Oops…

  7. Sorina Weber
    Sorina Weber says:

    Penelope, but what if you just aim to make your own life better first and than make it better for those around? Job or no job.

    I started with honesty. Found a decent job that I liked doing, then a decent man that I liked being around. We just had 2 kids and I am milking the maternity leave money as much as I can. I trained myself to buy and just need less.

    As a mom of 2 under 2, I find that having a part-time work-from-home freelancing job fworks fine now and I can handle the other responsibilities I have coming at me.

    Sure, I have ambitions that I am either slowly working on or just postponing. Also it is hard to take life step by step and just try to maje the best out of each day. But all in all I find that if I am truthful to what I want, need & like, I get to be generous afterwards.

    And this makes me aligned and I am happy now at moments with the cute babies and everything going on and so grateful to be feeling this at all. I’m filling up on these positive feelings for when people I know start dying around me and I’ll have to cater for funerals.

    I enjoy reading your articles a lot, you are very good at writing!

  8. Bex
    Bex says:

    Ive got a very satisfying self-actualizing career as a musician. I only work with my best friends. I travel all over the place.

    I dont want kids because i love my work so much. Also i wouldnt be able to afford kids with this job anyway.

  9. me
    me says:

    “To be our best selves involves being free of self-criticism, jealousy, and regret.”

    This is oh so very true (whether or not you have kids) ….

  10. Sandra Lewis
    Sandra Lewis says:

    This is exactly how I feel about staying home with my kids. It has been the most interesting job I have ever had. Boring people get bored. Teaching my children and watching them grow, learn and change has been incredible. I have gained so much as a human being from being with them. Sure I miss working outside the home, but it can wait, my kids won’t. I’m not missing out on anything by staying home except a few extra bucks.

  11. Francesca Stewart
    Francesca Stewart says:

    I’ve been a SAHM for 22 years, since my oldest was born. I’ve homeschooled, and my youngest is now 16. I’m 55. I can’t say I regret staying home – my kids have thrived, it’s been so fun, and I’ve produced a top-notch product (calm down, everyone) – but I have no idea what to do with myself now that I’m nearing redundancy. I want to work outside the home again, but I’m at a loss as to where to start. I have no contacts in the world in which I used to work. The loss of any hope for a career is the biggest thing I gave up when I decided to be a full-time parent; none of the other things you mentioned bothered me at all. Penelope, we hear from you the reasons it’s a great idea to stay home with the kids, but I would love for you to address what happens to those of us on this end of it.

    • celeste
      celeste says:

      The 50 and 60 year olds I know are volunteering a lot. Find a cause that means something to you (tutoring kids through Schools of Hope, becoming a Big Brother or Sister, joining the Lions Club or Rotary Club or Toastmasters, and the people you meet will be your new jumping off connections. Also, check up meetup.com for any interest, from running to card games, and ask your new friends what they do.

      • Francesca Stewart
        Francesca Stewart says:

        Thank you, Celeste, it was kind of you to take the time to respond.
        I’m not looking for something to fill my days and pass the time. I have interests, and I’ve been volunteering non-stop since I was a kid. I’m looking for something closer to the career I gave up to be a SAHM; a way to contribute that is recognized by the marketplace as valuable.
        There is a real, actual dismissal of those of us who have chosen the path I have. An unspoken (or sometimes not) “just” in front of the words stay-at-home mom. Another one in front of the word “volunteer.” Coupled with the societal invisibility women generally take on when we hit our 50s, it’s bleak.
        Use me as a cautionary tale, ladies. I was you, thinking that something was going to magically fall into place once my kids were grown, I got a career going in my 20s and 30s I can do it again, or that 50 (Fifty?? Eww! Menopause? Reading glasses? I’ll never be old like those AARP people) was so far down the road it wasn’t worth thinking about.

  12. K Milk
    K Milk says:

    I LOVE this. Thank you, Penelope. I am adjusting to my life as a SAHM to my 1 year old. I love it, but the comments of “I could never do that” and “I would be so bored if I stayed home” wear on me. So far I do not feel like I have lost much at all- I am staying interesting by cultivating my interests, it’s the respect of others that I feel I’ve lost the most. That’s why this resonated with me:

    *You do not want respect from people with terrible careers. You want respect from people who have great careers. And people with great careers avoid the mid-life plateau by making work a higher priority than family. If you were able to do that you would have read the headline of this post and clicked delete.

  13. Jean
    Jean says:

    I loved this post. It even made me laugh because the truth is so funny sometimes.
    Thanks for all that you do and hope you’re doing well…

  14. Scotfi
    Scotfi says:

    I quit my job, at the law firm that I cofounded, 2 years ago to stay home with my 4 and 2 year old and newborn. It’s always a relief when Penelope gives me the permission, or maybe the affirmation, yet again. I will return to this post many times, when the days get long and filled with sippy cups and potty breaks. When I’m out for a rare happy hour and I have to try hard to ignore the snide, or is it pitying, looks my working friends exchange more in front of my face than behind my back. When my mind tells me that subpoenas and briefs would be better, or at least more interesting, more gratifying than the life I’m currently living. Thank you, Penelope.

  15. Maily
    Maily says:

    Thank you for this post Penelope. Your perspective about the work norm is so opposite from the conventional idea that has been taught and indoctrinated in our world and certainly, my own culture – and yet it’s so simple, honest and true. A lot of times it seems that the things we humans do are merely jobs, tasks or duties that distract us from the real work that we have to do in our lives – and you convey it in your humorously blunt way!

  16. me
    me says:

    Off topic: I hate to be negative, but the blog revamp is not a good look.

    The light gray text on white background is extremely difficult to read.

    The new site layout looks very clinical/sterile.

    I know change is inevitable and nothing stays the same, but as a long-time fan of the blog (10yrs), these changes – especially the light-colored text – aren’t improvements.

    IMHO, of course.

  17. Dana
    Dana says:

    I work for two reasons. 1. Saving for a dignified old age. I’m not talking about retirement. I’m talking about the years where I will need help bathing and beyond. I watched several relatives become a huge burden on their families in the end- financially, emotionally and physically. 2. Slightly more certain health insurance in scary medical times. I feel much more comfortable that my family won’t go bankrupt with both my husband and I having employer insurance.

    That’s it. I like my job fine, I love my kids. My husband and I have made it work. Sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s great. I imagine that would be the same if I was home.

    We can compare notes when my kids are fully grown, but I’ve come to believe that staying home with kids isn’t about them. The kids will be fine. Staying home doesn’t necessarily change how you parent or where you invest in them. I have never found research that was really compelling that said kids turn out better when a parent is home full time.

    Staying home is for the person staying home. You can always say to yourself, “I did my best. I stayed home. I couldn’t have done anything more.” and you also can say to yourself, “I didn’t miss a minute.” But that’s for you. And good on you if that is what you want and you go for it.

    What I have seen, though, is women in their early forties with no financial security who have lost a decade of experience and are now facing divorce. I have seen my MIL in her fifties headed back to work and scrambling to save for retirement only to get a cancer diagnosis and become dependent on her children for care and money. I watched my 90 year old grandmother become a ward of the state when her small nest egg ran out.

    I feel like I need to make some hay while the sun shines.

  18. JML
    JML says:

    I left a good salary, great benefits and a pension to be home with my kids. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I still have bouts of anxiety, but my kids are thriving. And that alone makes it worthwhile.

    I could never find meaning at work. And living in meaninglessness turned to absurdity very quickly and eroded my sense of self. Being at home has done more for my self-actualisation than being at work ever could. There is not a single thing that I miss about being at work. I wouldn’t go back if you paid me!

    Financially we’re a mess! But we’re making it work. We both have advanced degrees so if push comes to shove, we could make different decisions. I’m grateful for that flexibility.

    The worst part? It’s like quitting smoking. Now when I see working moms, I can’t help but wonder how they can do that to themselves. I hate that I think that, and I know everyone has different needs. I think it’s mostly a reflection of how awful being a working mom was for me. The absolute worst possible fit for my personality. And I’m so happy to finally be free.

    My kids go back to school next week. And I’m sad. But I will be here for them at lunch and when they get home at the end of the day. And they know that I will be here. And therein lies tremendous meaning. For all of us.

  19. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Adults do not get respect because they have a high IQ or high ambition. At some point, it only matters what you’ve done and who you’ve loved. Respect is hard to come by unless you give it to yourself.”
    Very true. I was reminded of this post when I saw a sign for sale at an antique show recently. It said – “Happiness is an inside job”. The funny thing is it wasn’t an antique or a new saying. It’s a truism and applies to other qualities and values as well. As you’ve written, the path to happiness, being content, interestingness, or a host of other desired conditions isn’t a straight line or an easy path. One thing we’re fortunate to have, at least in this country, is the ability to make choices in many of our decisions. I don’t know anybody who has it “all”. So with that in mind, I find being grateful for what I do have to be the most helpful.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Thanks Harris. I’m able to better articulate my thoughts, in part, thanks to Penelope and the members of this community who have contributed by their comments including yours. We’ve all “grown over the years” to borrow from your comment above.

  20. Ashley Stevens
    Ashley Stevens says:

    The older I get the more I realise how primitive our society really is. I wonder how we got here where money and status matters more than a set of fulfilled individuals. Keeping ourselves as parents healthy (physically and mentally), whilst still raising strong healthy children has become at most a secondary concern amongst many people. I keep trying to live for myself and my children but society puts up too many walls to try to make this an untenable way of life. Until society as a whole becomes more enlightened I think people will only realise this at the end of life, when they look back and realise that most of their primary drivers in life were worthless and they finally understand what they missed.

  21. Dee
    Dee says:

    I enjoyed this post as I do most of what you write. I was a stay-at-home-mom for most of my children’s lives and home-schooled the four youngest. My mother-in-law said I would be unfulfilled if I didn’t work. Nothing could be further from the truth. My youngest is in college now. The others are all literate productive human beings with good marriages and children of their own. I am an interesting person because I am interested in many things. By the way, when my MIL needed/wanted advice, she turned to me because she knew that if I didn’t have an answer, I’d find one.

  22. Mike
    Mike says:

    I think at the end of the day we have to focus on what we are not missing out on and focusing on what we are getting. Too many people look at different plates and they don’t see that plates are individualized.

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