5 Challenges of Going From Breadwinner to Stay-At-Home Mom in Costa Rica

**DISCLAIMER:  Please know that I am not advocating that being a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) is more difficult than being a corporate mom or the other way around.  By corporate mom I mean a mother who works in a salaried job outside of the home.  I deliberately avoid using the term “working mom” because it does give the impression that SAHMs don’t work, which clearly is not true.  The choice to either be a SAHM or a corporate mom is a highly personal one, and I think it is unfair for women to judge the moms who choose one lifestyle different than their own.  One is not better than the other. Both lifestyles have their challenges and blessings, which I will blog about later this week.  I am simply sharing my experience and hope to learn from the experiences of others.**

What are the challenges of going from being the primary breadwinner to a stay-at-home mom?

In the summer of 2013, I made the life-changing choice to put my career as an academic physician aside and move to Costa Rica to be a stay-at-home mom (SAHM).   I was the primary breadwinner for our family for eight years before this.  When Chris was teaching at a private school, I was making 3 times his salary.  When he left teaching to join the corporate world, I was earning double his salary.  He is a confident husband and father and never felt threatened by our salary discrepancy.  The decision to leave the workforce was terrifying for me, as a huge part of my identity as a person was derived from my career.  While I have no regrets about my choice, 6 months into my new life I have come to appreciate the challenges of having gone from primary breadwinner to SAHM.


I miss making my own money.  That sentence pretty much sums up the most glaring downside of quitting my job.  This big change was brought to the forefront of my attention a few weeks ago when I tried to open a personal line of credit with my USA-based bank, mostly to have it as a back-up in case of an emergency while Chris was out of town .  After spending over a half-hour answering questions on the phone for the application with a friendly customer service representative, he asked me what my current income was.  I responded, “I do not have an income right now.  I am on professional leave.  My husband is the sole earner in our family.”  I have to grant it to the gentleman on the other line as he really did try to be as diplomatic as possible.  He said, “I am so sorry.  If you do not have an income, then your husband needs to open the personal line of credit with you.”  Ouch!  I would be lying if I said that did not hurt my feelings and my pride just a little bit.  Actually, a whole lot!  After spending most of my adult life as the primary breadwinner and knowing that the MD next to my name pretty much guaranteed that banks were throwing money at me, my bank’s rejection was a slap in the face.  After the initial shock and frustration of the situation wore off, I told myself that the value I added to my family was no longer measured in money.  Now, I am here for my children every morning, after school, every evening, and on weekends.  I am more involved in their lives.  In fact, my job as a SAHM is very similar to being a pediatric hospitalist in a strange way:  Pediatric hospitalists rarely make money for the hospital, but they add value in other ways such as improved quality of healthcare delivered, patient satisfaction, and through-put efficiency.  As a SAHM, I may not make money, but I add value to the quality, satisfaction, and efficiency of our family.  Regardless of my rationale for getting over my pity-party, I still have to say that not earning a salary sucks!

External Validation

I miss hearing the praise, gratitude, and adulation that comes with being a doctor.  Regardless of the current state of the healthcare system, most people out there still appreciate their physician most of the time.  Not only was I receiving external validation from patients and families, I also received it from nurses, therapists, consultants, hospital administration, unit clerks, medical students, residents, pharmacists, security guards, and colleagues.  And it felt good to be praised!  Don’t get me wrong, my kids and husband do express gratitude and appreciation for what I do now as a SAHM.  But let’s face it, I don’t derive the same level of satisfaction from hearing, “Hey mom, thanks for making these (from scratch) brownies” or “Thanks for doing the laundry” as I did for “Thank you, Doctor, for saving my child’s life”.

Time Management

When I was working full time, I still had to do laundry, cook dinner, pack lunches, and attempt to parent my children.  To survive, I cut corners every way I could and I lived by my iPhone calendar.  I entered every little detail of my personal, social, and professional life into that calendar and set multiple alert systems to keep me on task.  I had an established routine from which I did not deviate for fear of turning the whole system upside down.   If I let my guard down about managing my time effectively, I was acutely aware that my children would not be fed or picked up at school.   When I became a newly minted SAHM, I did let my guard down about effective time management.  I found myself attempting to “wean” myself from the iPhone calendar with disastrous results.  I would forget simple things like doing laundry, taking the kids to guitar lessons, or baking their school snacks.   I was not careful about utilizing the most efficient methods to perform tasks such as grocery shopping.  I had to adjust to the innate inefficiency of life in Costa Rica, such as having to go to 2 separate banks to be able to pay my rent.  I was no longer outsourcing many household tasks to Chris.  I need him to work so he can maximize his (our!) income potential.  If he spends time folding laundry, that is money lost as it is time he could have been working.  When I fold laundry, it does not cost our family money.  I found it difficult to adjust to my increased household responsibilities initially.  After a few weeks of chaos I reluctantly returned to my iPhone, and I was able to manage my time more effectively.  I planned out meals, shopping trips, errands, baking, the kids’ guitar lessons, social events, and volunteering.  I mapped out my blog and writing schedule.  I narrowed my exercise, social, and professional activities.  Old habits die hard, and I found that I thrived with deadlines and checklists even in my new life as a SAHM as I did as a mom who worked a crazy schedule outside of the home.  One of the best pieces of advice I received after moving to Monteverde was to wait at least 6 months before getting involved with community projects.  Because many of the expats that move here suddenly find themselves with a lot of time, they tend to spread themselves thin.  I was able to avoid this thanks to following this advice, and now I am able to focus on a few projects that are very important to me.  The best part is that I do have “wiggle room”.  If I need to change my schedule to help out a friend in need or if one of my kids gets sick, my life does not plummet into chaos.

The Social Factor

I have met some incredible people and made wonderful friends in Monteverde.  I have more time to socialize, and I love that the kids, Chris, and I have integrated social circles.  But it takes more effort to make friends now than it did when I was working outside of the home.  People in Costa Rica work a lot, creating a wide gap between my stay-at-home-expat-mom lifestyle, and the rest of the community.  While American SAHMs have perfected the art of mommy socializing, the practice has not fully reached Costa Rica.

After living in San Antonio for eight years, I was fortunate to have built a strong network of friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  Because I spent most of my time working, most of my friendships were from my work.  Sure, I was friendly with my neighbors, most of whom were SAHMs and I was so blessed that my childhood BFF also lived in San Antonio.  But the biggest proportion of my circle of friends were people I met through work.  As a chronic multi-tasker, I was comfortable with my friendships with my colleagues because when we would socialize, I felt I was “getting work done.”  We could discuss patient cases, quality improvement projects, our trainees, other co-workers, educational endeavors or techniques, and research data.  Sure, we would also talk about our partners, children, and life outside the hospital, but eventually, our discussion often turned to shop talk.  We also understood each other.  They knew what it was like to be under the pressures of juggling home life, motherhood, and our high-stress job.  They understood my fears of feeling inadequate as both a mother and a doctor, because I felt I had my feet in two completely different worlds.  Also, the sheer intensity of our job brought us close together whether we wanted to or not.  Once you have shared the care of patient with someone, you are bonded with that colleague for life.  It is an intense situation that forges a relationship almost automatically.

The upside is that even though forming friendships takes more effort because I don’t have a steady social pool like I did when I was working, I have the time and energy to put forth that effort.  Though it is more challenging to find friends with common interests, views, and values, the people of Monteverde are worth the effort!   I have also continued my friendships with my friends from the US, thanks to Twitter, FaceBook, and Gmail.

Intellectual Stimulation

I am an overachiever.  I was that annoying kid sitting in front of the class with her hand raised high in the air whenever the teacher asked a question.  I was like this from elementary school through medical school.  I don’t think anyone who knew me was surprised that I chose a career in academic medicine.  I loved the intellectual challenges derived from analyzing diagnostic dilemmas.  I also loved teaching young medical students and residents how to think critically and sharpen their clinical reasoning skills so much that I made part of my career in that niche.  One of my favorite parts of my job was when I would get a phone call from an outlying hospital and the referring doctor at the other end started the conversation like this, “Well, I don’t know what is going on with this patient, and I hope you can figure it out.”  Generating a differential diagnosis was like a hot cup of chocolate with extra whipped cream on a cold, rainy day.  Nowadays, my biggest intellectual challenge is making sure I put the library books back on the right shelf at my children’s school, where I volunteer a couple of times per month.  Laundry, cooking, and running errands are important, necessary, and valuable needs that I meet for my family.  But they are not exactly intellectually challenging.  I do miss going into the hospital and having a colleague ask, “Hey, can I run a patient case by you?”  Try as I might, I do not derive the same cerebral satisfaction from exchanging banana bread recipes.

Stay tuned later this week as I will share a blog post about the blessings I have experienced going from the primary breadwinner to SAHM.

If you have given up your career to be a SAHM, share your experiences with me in the comments below!  What have been your biggest challenges?

Pura Vida!

About Noemi Gamel

Noemi Gamel is a physician who prefers writing diverse children's fantasy stories instead of medical charts. She is a geeky nomad, too.
This entry was posted in A Question Worth Answering, Career-Life Balance, Family Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 5 Challenges of Going From Breadwinner to Stay-At-Home Mom in Costa Rica

  1. Pingback: 5 Challenges of Parenting in Costa Rica as an Expat | Pura Vida Familia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s