Eat the Car

Jun 21, 2007 |Heather Koerner

To stay at home with your kids, it's best to start planning now. But what happens when it's too late to plan? Or your plans just didn't work?

It's not that most women don't want to raise their kids. According to one study, 80 percent of women would prefer staying at home to working full-time.

And it's not that we don't agree what is the best option. Eighty percent of parents say that it would be better if a mom could stay at home.

So what's the problem?

According to the study, we believe it's unrealistic. Two-thirds of parents say having one parent stay home is an unrealistic option in today's world.

Last month, I wrote about planning now so that you can stay at home later. But what happens if you didn't plan? Or if your plans just didn't work? What then? Are those parents in the study right — is it just unrealistic?

Thankfully, I believe the answer is no.

Part of my hope comes from a simple story I heard when I was working at Focus on the Family. This story affected me like no other and, though it's been six years since I left the ministry, I can still recite it. It showed that even if my financial planning one day failed, there was still hope to be a stay at home mom.

Here's the story as told by Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family:

When our firstborn was 2 years old, I was finishing my doctoral work at the University of Southern California. Every available dollar was needed to support my tuition and related expenses. Although we didn't want Shirley to work when Danae was young, we felt we had no alternative. Shirley taught school and our little girl was taken to a day-care center each morning. One day when we arrived at the facility, Danae began to cry uncontrollably. "No! No! No, Daddy!" she said to me. She clung to my neck as I carried her to the door and then begged me not to leave. Children at that age typically do not like to be left by parents, but this was something different. Danae had a look of terror in her eyes, and I suspected that she had been very upset the last time she was there. I could only imagine what had happened. I turned and walked back to the car carrying my precious daughter. When we were alone, I said, "Danae, I promise that you will never have to stay there again." And she never did.

Shirley and I talked about how we were going to keep my promise. We finally decided to sell and "eat" one of our two Volkswagens, which allowed her to stay home and take care of our daughter for a year. By the time the money was gone, I was out of school and we could afford for Shirley to be a full-time mom.
Is It "Can't" or "Won't"?

This story struck a chord with me. Maybe because it showed how Dr. and Mrs. Dobson were once just struggling parents like me. But I especially think about that story when I hear a mother or father say that they "can't" afford to stay home and raise children.

To be sure, there are a few parents in that situation. Dr. Dobson acknowledges that in the next sentence after his story: "Not everyone could do what we did, and certainly, there are millions of single parents out there who have no alternatives. If that is the case, you simply have to make the best of it."

But I think what Dr. Dobson learned, and what I learned from his story, is that most of us don't "have" to do anything — especially when it comes to something as important as our kids. We have alternatives. They may not be pleasant. They may be intimidating. But they are alternatives.

What's Your Priority?

For one thing, the Dobsons became priority-driven. The priority was their child. After that, they had to figure out how to make it work.

Too often, I've found myself doing the exact opposite. I'll take a look at my circumstances and let my decision making become circumstance-driven. "Since my life is this way, then I must do this."

Have you ever fallen into that pattern too? Since my college costs so much, I have to take out loans. Since I want to live here, I have no choice but to take out a huge mortgage. Since I have so much debt, I can't tithe.

Not so for the Dobsons. It became "this is how our life will be, so what matches that?" Danae was the priority. The car lost.

Cheryl Gochnauer writes in Stay-at-Home Handbook, "There are only two people in this world whose lives I can truly sculpt: my children.... They start out holding my hand, then I introduce them to Jesus, who gently takes their other hand. If things go the way I hope, my girls will eventually let go of me and walk securely with Him for the rest of their lives."

That's my hope and prayer too. So, if that's my priority, my decisions have to follow that.

Get Creative

Then I just like the sheer audacity of the Dobsons. Yeah, OK, we've got to eat, so ... guess we'll just sell the car.

They were problem solvers, not problem sulkers.

My husband and I never sold our car, but we did sell our house. After a year of staying home to raise my daughter, my husband and I started seriously considering leaving Denver, Colo. Our family was back in Oklahoma and that was a major draw, but there was another factor: it was just downright expensive in Colorado. As much as we loved it there (I still dream about the aspen trees), we had to make a decision.

One online "cost of living" calculator I found showed Tulsa, Okla. at an 81.9 index (with 100 being the U.S. average) and Denver, Colo. as 110.4. The housing index discrepancy was even greater: Tulsa was 56.3 and Denver a gut-wrenching 119.1.

So my husband hit the Web, called up contacts and got a job back in the plains. We still love Colorado. Only now, we vacation there.

Would you consider moving to lessen the financial strain? Or maybe you can think of other creative solutions — moving to a smaller home; dad putting off college and working full-time until the kids are in school; or maybe just making a drastic alteration to your lifestyle ("we're eating beans and rice and rice and beans" as Dave Ramsey would say).

Most importantly, I think, is just to realize there are options. Pray about it. Ask God to show you what you can do to make staying at home a reality.

It's Not Going to Be Easy

Dr. Dobson doesn't say, but I can't imagine that that year was easy. He was finishing up doctoral work, which any former grad student can tell you is no piece of cake. Mrs. Dobson was raising a 2-year-old, which I can tell you is no piece of cake. And I'm sure they had to keep a tight rein on the budget — even a car will only go so far.

It probably won't be easy for you either. If you've planned, that's great. Maybe you were smart enough to create one of those cushy emergency funds. But it's probably more likely that you've got debt pressing on you and commitments you don't feel you can fulfill unless you are both working.

But just because it won't be easy doesn't mean it won't be worth it. As Cheryl Gochnauer puts it, "Are finances tight? Yes. Is it worth it? You bet. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich with my daughters in the park beats a croissant with a client any day."

I also love what Janet Pope says in her husband Ethan's book, How to Be a Smart Money Manager:

You must have a purpose for your life, a goal that is so big it makes everything else that you want seem small. You must have a goal that is worth any sacrifice, any hardship or any suffering.... You must have a purpose so that when you look back at the end of your life, you will have no regrets.

You may feel like you are in a box. I'm sure Dr. and Mrs. Dobson did. But I think that if you try to do what they did — if you make decisions based on your priorities and if you really, really get creative — you might can accomplish what they accomplished.

As for me, I know now that sometimes, to get the things that are really important, I might just have to eat the car.

Copyright 2007 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved.

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