In a freefall economy, does work-life balance tip over?

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A cosmetologist friend thinks it might. She’s a mother of two whose current profession allows her flexible hours and enjoyable work (if you think scraping dead skin cells off a stranger’s face is a good time). Her employer doesn’t offer benefits or high pay, though, so what with the shaky state of things, she’s thinking of taking on a second job as a teacher’s assistant. Meantime, her sister, a state employee, is hurrying back to work after giving birth because she’s fearful of risking a solid job in this jittery job market.

I’m in a similar conundrum. I just entered the unpaid portion of my maternity leave. My last paycheck arrived in the beginning of October. Of course, over three months of fully paid leave would leave many parents drooling with envy. And under my employer’s unusually generous policy, I can stay out for as long as a year before they kick my non-office-inhabiting butt to the curb.

But as of a few weeks ago, I’m income-free. And in this economy, that’s terrifying. It may well determine when I plop my little one in daycare and join the commuting masses again. I sure wouldn’t be alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau report “Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns of First-Time Mothers: 1961-2003,” issued in 2008, 17% of women in 1961 to 1965 had returned to work a year after giving birth. In the period between 2001 and 2003, 64% had returned to work a year after giving birth.

Are you making major work-life decisions based on the headlines—and your savings account?