Dying for dollars

I'm worth more dead than alive.

We recently received one of those semi-annual pension plan statements that shows how much I can expect to make from Social Security and other funds when I retire. Included in the figures was the amount my family would receive per month if I kick the bucket before retirement.

The amount, based on my salary back in the days when I worked a regular 9-to-5 job, is substantially more than I average per month now. Worse yet, my wife was the one who noticed this while doing the household paperwork. She laughingly called it to my attention, but I didn't like the gleam in her eye. I won't be standing next to her on any subway platforms anytime soon, just in case.

One of the grim realities of the movement toward working at home is often a plunge in income. Telecommuters who move their existing jobs home from the office may not experience this, but the rest of us, those who take a flyer on a whole new career, can expect a certain amount of paycheck shock.

This is particularly tough for men, who've been socialized to base their worth on the size of their incomes. We want to be able to flaunt our large, manly paychecks, to wave them under the noses of lesser men. We're supposed to buy expensive toys, such as Porsches and Rolexes and titanium golf clubs. We want women to see us as desirable mating prospects and we foolishly think the size of our wallets matters.

Let's face it: When a man bails out of the workaday world to start a business or (God forbid) a writing career at home, he essentially has chosen unemployment. And no matter how hard he works or how clean he keeps the house or how well he raises the children, his income suffers, at least in the short term.

It's been three years since I left a newspaper job to work at home. I've published a few books during that time and I write this column and I teach a little, trying to cobble together a living. But the fact is, the money still doesn't roll in regularly as it did when I was working full-time. It comes in spurts, sometimes unexpectedly. I'll go along for weeks with no income, then a check will arrive in the mail and I'll once again feel as if I'm contributing to the household income. But it might be weeks (or months) until the next payday.

No one checks his mailbox more frequently than a freelance writer.

I work as hard as I ever did. I spend hours at the computer every day (between trips to the laundry room), banging on the keyboard, herding words. I've got book deals brewing, networking conferences scheduled, honors coming my way. My career is going fine in every way, except that my family would be better off financially if I went under a bus.

I don't mean to whine. I chose this situation and I'm (mostly) happy with it. But at some point all of us parents who work at home have to face the music: We're on the Daddy/Mommy Track, and our financial rewards won't measure up to those who can pour their every waking hour into a career.

How to cope?

We have to find other rewards. The laughter of children who are growing tall and trustworthy. Finishing the laundry and finding that all the socks match. The aroma of brownies in the oven. Going years without wearing a necktie.

They're not lucrative, these little Kodak Moments. But string enough of them together, and you've got a full life, one brimming with reminders that money isn't the most important thing, that you provide for your family in countless other ways. That everyone's better off with you at home, taking care of things, managing the household, being happy.

Guess I'll keep looking both ways before I cross the street.

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