Care and Feeding

We’ve Been Telling Our Kids That Mom and Dad Earn “About the Same.” We Don’t.

Are we setting them up for an awful wake-up call when they reach the real world?

Photo illustration of a woman standing, arms crossed, with an unamused expression while a man plays the guitar.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have been happily married for 15 years, and I am confident that we will remain so. Our children are 12 and 14, both girls.

When they ask questions about money, we’ve always said that we make “about the same” or that perhaps Mom makes “a bit more, but money isn’t everything.” But the reality is that my husband has a fun, engaging, and low-paying job as a busy local musician—work he loves—while I have a stressful, demanding, and much (much) better-paying job in corporate management, which is tolerable on a good day and allows us to live a nice life but isn’t “fun” in any way no matter how we spin it.

This is a very sensitive topic. We don’t want to say or do anything that would imply that one path or the other is intrinsically more valuable, but I do want to ensure they will be able to stand confidently on their own two feet financially. And I don’t want to damage my marriage.

But as the kids get older and start to think about college and their futures, they look at our jobs that pay “about the same” and it’s no surprise that being a local musician or doing something similar is more appealing as a career path: It apparently means you are constantly complimented, get to drive a nice car, have lots of free time, live in a big house, vacation around the world, and have fun when you’re at work.

I am concerned we are setting them up for a really harsh wake-up call.

—The Unfun One Who’s the Breadwinner

Dear Unfun,

Ah, it’s the old tangled web problem. One good rule I wish I never had to remind anyone to follow is: Don’t lie to your kids. This never works out well.

Look, I understand, I guess, why lying to your daughters about money once seemed like a good idea. You and your husband didn’t want them to think less of him (and one, if not both, of you were concerned about his presumably fragile male ego). But the fear that the kids would think less of him if they understood that you were the primary breadwinner is based on the assumption that kids care about that sort of thing. And the only reason children (who otherwise couldn’t care less about such a thing) grow up to believe that a person’s worth is tied to how much money they make is that their parents have taught them that.

And you don’t actually believe that, do you?

That’s not a rhetorical question. The way you describe your husband’s supposedly happy-go-lucky life, while you martyr yourself working at a job you describe as pretty miserable, suggests that you feel you not only have the moral high ground in your marriage but are also the better role model when it comes to your children making their own life choices later on.

So you’ve dug yourself a double-wide hole. Assuming that your daughters eventually go off to college still believing that your happy musician husband and your much less happy self earn “about the same,” they will do so without knowing something you badly want them to know about the way the world works—which I think goes something like this: One must make a choice between happiness/fulfillment and a very specific sort of financial security (big house, nice car, swank vacations). At the same time, they will remain blissfully unaware of the enormous sacrifices you have made, which I can tell is really pissing you off.

I have a few things to say about this beyond my rebuke about lies (which is worth repeating: There is nothing about lying to our kids that is a good idea).

First off: There are reasons other than “Dad’s job and Mom’s job pay about the same” that your daughters seem to be more interested in a career in music or “something similar” than in a career in corporate management. I have literally never heard of a child whose dream job is in corporate management. (Was yours?) If they already have passions and talents—or even interests—that they can imagine might be shaped into a lifelong career, of course they are dreaming of a future in which they get to devote themselves to them. Do you really want to discourage them in this? Does the wake-up call you’re thinking of require them to understand that this is a childish idea—that adulthood means putting their shoulders to the wheel and focusing their attention and energy on how to make the most money they possibly can?

Well, maybe it is. And this breaks my heart. I teach creative writing at a university and advise student artists across all arts disciplines, and every semester I talk to kids who are immensely gifted and hardworking whose parents have threatened to stop paying tuition if they don’t choose a “more practical major,” or who remind them in every telephone conversation that this playing around with writing short stories or acting or singing may be OK now but they had better start making plans for a good job post-graduation. “You can sing as a hobby.” “You can write in your spare time.” Some of these kids end up, post-graduation, putting a good bit of distance between themselves and their parents, or even cutting ties with them: It’s the only way they feel they can pursue their artistic careers without their own profound self-doubts being magnified by the reminder that they are wasting their time. My own father for years kept us this drumbeat with me, and although I loved him very much it drove a deep wedge between us that was not repaired until I was nearly 30, when seeing something I’d written between hard covers flipped a switch in him at last.

Another thing I must say: If you are miserable in your work and your husband is happy in his, and you are seething with resentment about this—which seems to me to come through loud and clear between the lines of your letter—I don’t understand what you mean when you say your marriage is a happy one. And I’m worried that your confidence that it will “remain so” is, by definition, misplaced.

But perhaps I am misunderstanding you: Perhaps you mean the two of you are happy in every way except this, and you expect that things will continue indefinitely in just this way—or alternatively, that you two long ago came to a frank agreement that you would divide things in this manner, in accordance with each of your abilities and desires. Perhaps the bitterness that threads through your letter is momentary—or intermittent. Or perhaps you have only lately become angry and resentful when it dawned on you, as your children both edged toward adolescence, that the arrangement you’ve made was inequitable. And that, thanks to your misrepresenting the material awards associated with your different paths, you have modeled for your children something other than what you wished to.

By the time I met my husband, I’d struggled as a writer for many years, eking out a subsistence income through freelance work and temporary jobs, but I’d finally landed securely in a job I liked and felt good about committing to for the long term—something I had honestly never imagined would happen. I was still dazzled by my unexpected good fortune (and by a starting salary I realize now was dismal, but at the time was more than three times what I’d made in my best year). My husband, an artist, had supported himself since his teens doing various kinds of manual labor. It had taken him 12 years to put himself through college, finding time to make paintings between building maintenance and landscaping jobs. When we married, I suggested that since I was lucky enough to have a job I liked that reliably paid the bills and provided us with health insurance, he should paint full-time. And just like that, we became a couple with at least a superficial similarity to you and your husband. I made (most of) the money. He got to do what he was born to do full-time.

I made that offer because I’d fallen in love with his paintings even before I fell in love with him; because it seemed to me that sharing my good fortune with him only made sense; because I knew how hard it was to make a living making art of any kind, and I didn’t want him to have to work at something else if he didn’t absolutely have to; and because I figured that my salary would provide enough money for us to live our lives, if modestly. Fast-forward three decades, and this has mostly worked out for us. Has it all been peaches and cream? Nah.

There have been plenty of times I’ve felt resentful: when my teaching job consumed all my time and energy and I had to squeeze my own writing between the demands of the job and the demands of raising our daughter, while he could make paintings every minute that he wasn’t busy parenting. We fought (a lot) about housekeeping. But we always managed to talk these things through, and we always ended up back in the same place—in a good way. That place was: I had a job I liked very much that paid enough for us to live our lives, and I believed as much as I ever had in the work he was doing and wanted him to keep doing it. He had good years and lean years. None of this was ever kept a secret from our child.

A busy local musician does not live a life of leisure. What looks to you like play is his work. I get that he doesn’t make much money at it. What I don’t get is how the two of you arrived at the place you’re at right now—with both of you feeling you need to lie to your children about this, and you trudging off to work every day silently (I am guessing silently?) simmering with suppressed rage. When did you and your husband make the decision that he would do the work he loves and you would sacrifice your happiness for all those nice things? Did you make the decision, or did it somehow just happen? How and when did the two of you decide how much money was enough money?

Although the question your letter asks is simply whether you’re setting your kids up for a harsh wake-up call when they find out that work that makes a person happy won’t necessarily pay for a big house, that’s not the question I’m answering. The one I’m answering is about whether this is fair: your husband working at something he enjoys and you slaving away at something that is at best tolerable. It’s not fair. Why are you living this way? Who’s making you? Who says that making a lot of money is worth more than your fulfillment, your joy—your life? What would happen if you took a breath, and looked around, and figured out how you would actually like to spend your days?

And before you leap to your feet to tell me how naïve I’m being, to point out that someone has to be the responsible grown-up, that your children would suffer, that you would suffer, if the family income dropped precipitously—let me just say, as quietly and nicely as I can, that you have only one life. And so do your daughters. How do you want to spend it? How do you want them to spend theirs?

—Michelle

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