The parent career switch

Trends: A growing number of mothers and fathers in Howard County are choosing to leave their jobs to stay at home with their children.

March 10, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Linda Lagala-Spano switched careers seven years ago. Now she manages three people.

Her kids.

In Howard County, staying at home is something parents have seldom done. The large share of two-income families in Howard has helped make the county one of the wealthiest places in the nation -- and an expensive place to live even with a pair of salaries.

But something unusual is happening in Howard: More and more moms and dads are opting for home. The stay-at-home parents are typically college-educated with a career under way, and quite a few approach their new lifestyle with all the zeal of a recent hire.

"I felt like this was going to be my new job, and I always sort of treated it as a job, I have to stay up on what's current, and I'm not just floating through each day," said Lagala-Spano, 37, a former promotional director whose children are among the more than 18,000 in Howard with stay-at-home parents. "I have a to-do list just like I always had."

The county still has a higher share of workers than anywhere else in Maryland, according to the 2000 Census -- and ranks 36th in the nation in the number of adults in the labor force. Three-quarters of adults in Howard are in the labor force, compared with two-thirds statewide.

But Howard's percentage of workers is down from a decade ago, the first drop after decades of booming numbers. Stay-at-home parenting is up. In 2000, a third of Howard County children living with both parents had one at home full time, according to the Census. That's 50 percent more children with a parent at home than in 1990.

Other Maryland counties are changing, too. Nearly 20 percent more children had a parent home full time with them in 2000 than in 1990. Arundel County had 32.9 percent of children with a stay-at-home parent, Baltimore City had 41.2 percent, Baltimore County had 34.4 percent, Carroll County reported 32.9 percent and Harford County had 33.6 percent, according to the 2000 Census.

The swelling ranks of stay-at-home parents in Howard have helped drive up attendance at the local libraries' daytime programs and drive down the demand for child care, census figures showed. The crowds at library activities for preschoolers rose 20 percent in the last fiscal year, while day care providers have spots to fill instead of the usual long waiting lists.

The MOMS Club of Ellicott City split into three groups last summer because it was growing so fast. Parents At Home, started by four local women in 2000, has more than 200 members in its Howard County chapters.

Then there's the Columbia Gym, which does a booming business Tuesday mornings. Practically half the facility's crowd that day show up from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. to take advantage of swim lessons, nursery and the nine classes for kids and adults.

And at The Mall in Columbia's weekly family fun day, an estimated 200 parents and kids pack in to hear stories, sing songs and watch entertainers--triple the original numbers in 1995.

"It's amazing," said Chataun Porch, specialty retail manager for the mall.

The Census Bureau doesn't track the reasons for stay-at-home growth, and sometimes the answer is as simple as a bad economy forcing people out of the work force. But in Howard, where unemployment is low and costs are high, it's often trickier to stay at home and make ends meet than to keep a paying job.

The worsening market threatened to force West Friendship resident Kylie Berry back into full-time employment. When the human resources director decided to leave to be with her two children in 2001, she was counting on the ability to cash in some of her husband's stock options from his job with Ciena.

"Well, that's not even an option anymore," she said.

Instead, she arranged the sort of deal that is helping to blur the lines between working parent and stay-at-home parent: She signed on to sell home decor products through parties. In a good month, Berry said, she makes $3,000 and still spends most of her time with her 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.

Members of a Parents At Home playgroup, which meets in homes in Columbia and Sykesville, have similar stories to tell.

Wayne Finegar, 36, who left his litigating job with a private law firm two years ago to care for his twin sons, analyzes news coverage for a media corporation and rarely has to go anywhere to do it.

Christine Engles, 33, works two to three days a week as a systems administrator for the Department of Defense while her husband is home, and he works 12-hour days when she is home.

Dima Alomar, 28, a former computer engineer, is taking classes online with Howard Community College to prepare for a future when she and her husband open a business together.

Stay-at-home parenting is very different than it was a generation or two ago, said Barbara J. Risman, co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families and a sociology professor at North Carolina State University.

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