Care and Feeding

If I Make Less Money, Should I Do More Child Care?

My spouse thinks so, but we both work full time. Is this fair?

Couple on a couch facing away from each other in an argument
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Antonio_Diaz/iStock/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 spouse and I each own our own businesses. One of our businesses is a pretty traditional professional services firm (think: accountant, architect, or lawyer), and the other one is a more creative business (think: artist, musician, or writer). We both love our jobs, but one of us makes more than $400,000 and one of us makes around $40,000. To do our jobs well, they both require about the same amount of time. That means each of us needs to work for 40–50 hours per week. We have two young kids. Our conflict is over who needs to be the primary caregiver during the 60 hours per week when we don’t have child care.

Currently, the spouse who makes less money is the primary caregiver for 45-plus of the 60 hours, and does most of the day-to-day cleaning (we have a housekeeper who comes once a week). The spouse who makes more money says this is a fair division of labor because (1) they are doing their fair share by contributing 10 times more money to the family budget, and (2) child care and housekeeping costs are greater than the amount that is being earned by the lower-earning spouse; therefore, the lower-earning spouse’s job does not contribute to the family’s well-being.

According to the higher-earning spouse, the lower-paying spouse’s job should be considered an intense and impressive hobby, like training for a triathlon, but it contributes nothing to the family’s well-being, so doing extra child care and cleaning is that partner’s main contribution to the family. According to the lower-earning spouse, they work just as hard as (if not harder than) the other one, and it is only a matter of luck that the higher-paying spouse makes more money, so they should split child care duties equally. This is the source of endless fighting, and we both are starting to resent each other a lot. Is there an objectively correct way for how we should be dividing child care duties?

—What’s Fair?

Dear What’s Fair,

Making 10 times more than one’s spouse doesn’t make one 10 times the professional or one-tenth the parent. If someone is fortunate enough to love and feel fulfilled in their job, that job can be a vital contribution to the well-being of the household. To the higher-earning spouse: There’s no senior or junior partner in a marriage! Would you want your loved ones viewing their relationships with and obligations to you in such demeaning, transactional terms? You could use some of that giant salary on more child care or cleaning services, but that won’t address your main problem, which is that you’re not showing your spouse (or your kids!) sufficient care and consideration. You’ve got some work to do here, and I don’t just mean around the house: Apologize, resolve to do more housework and child care, and don’t compare your spouse’s career to a hobby or say they’re not earning enough money to merit your involvement as a partner and co-parent.

To the lower-earning spouse: I’m sorry that your spouse is saying such hurtful things. I really don’t think there exists one universal, “objectively correct way” to divide the domestic labor—you can strive for 50/50, of course, but there are any number of reasons this might not be possible 100 percent of the time (illness, grief, one spouse genuinely needing to work 60 hours a week to the other person’s 40—which I know is not the case in your marriage; you mentioned you work about equal hours). I think it makes sense to think of various household tasks not as the specific purview of Person A or Person B, but rather as collective labor that must be done for the sake of the whole family. Whoever does what in any given week, you’re both responsible for and should be equally invested in meeting the needs of your kids and your household. The division should feel fair and workable for both of you, because you’re a team—that’s not happening right now, so the two of you need to talk and try to find a better balance if you can.

But the fair division of child care and housework is only one issue here, a symptom of a larger one. The higher-earning spouse’s insistence that the lower-earning one “make up” for lesser pay by “contributing” all or most of the domestic labor shows a fundamental lack of regard for their spouse’s time, needs, and well-being. It makes me wonder in what other ways they are failing to see and empathize with their spouse as a person. I think this has to be part of the conversation going forward. If you talk some more and it doesn’t lead to any breakthroughs, it’s possible that you would benefit from the help of a marriage counselor. Either way, the lower-earning spouse deserves more respect and more help around the house, and I hope that they get it.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m what I guess most people would think of as “That Single Friend”: early 30s; a couple of abusive relationships and many more disastrous flings and a lot of therapy behind me; I travel a lot; I don’t want kids; I’ve never really been into the idea of marriage. Relatively, I’m doing well these days, but I know that to my friends who are all coupled up, buying houses, getting married and/or having kids, I’m “That Friend.” Honestly, I’m generally not worried about it; I’m just happy to be alive and doing well, and will take and make 5 million Baba Yaga spinster jokes about myself.

But my very best friends, a straight married couple, are due to have their first child. And I’m concerned about two overlapping things. Firstly, this is the first couple I’m really close to who are having their baby while I can be around, and I don’t really know how to be supportive. Like, I can guess the basics—offer to help out where I can, be available, be emotionally supportive, understand that they won’t be around as much—but I don’t really know the specifics of what brand-new parents want or need from their friends. And secondly, I’m pretty scared that as That Single Friend who isn’t in a married couple and doesn’t have any experience with kids, I’m going to be the least knowledgeable and helpful, and that basically, I’m not the friend you prioritize after having a baby. I really love my friends and am so excited to meet their tiny new human (who, given their parents, is destined to be The Greatest Human the World Has Ever Seen). I genuinely want to be a good friend and show them that I’m, you know, worth keeping around. But I don’t really know how to do that. So, for us utterly clueless and inexperienced types: When your friends have their first baby, what are you supposed to, you know, DO?

—Baby-Friendly Baby Yaga

Dear Baby-Friendly Baby Yaga,

You’ve described exactly what brand-new parents want and need from their friends, in my experience: “offer to help out, be available, be emotionally supportive.” If you want specifics: Meals and treats are great. So is offering to help with a few basic household chores. You could also pick something off their registry or perhaps host a (virtual) baby shower. If you’re bubbling together, it’ll be nice if you’re OK hanging out at their place more often, until they’re comfortable carting the kid around (a much scarier prospect, during a pandemic). Since you’re close to these folks, you should also feel OK asking—and hopefully they will feel OK sharing—what they could personally use in terms of help once the baby arrives.

I don’t think I know anyone who classifies their friends primarily according to their relationship/kid status, or values one type over the other. You say these people are your “very best friends,” so you are (or at least should be!) well past the point of having to demonstrate your worthiness or baby knowledge in order to keep them. If this is a serious worry for you, it could be helpful to have a conversation with them about it, but from your letter I can’t tell if they’ve actually said or done anything to indicate you should be worried! I can’t help but wonder if you’re making a bigger deal out of relationship status than your friends would want you to? Unless you yourself are constantly referencing or “joking” about singledom, giving it that importance, I doubt very much that they think of you primarily as “That Single Friend.”

It’s very kind of you to want to be there for them during what will be a joyful but also wildly challenging time. Becoming a parent can change a person, it’s true, but they’ll still want and need their friends, no matter what. Try not to worry so much about proving anything to them, and just continue being the friend you want to be—if they’re the people you say they are, they won’t just disappear on you.

• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My brother and his wife took in a friend of their daughter when she was 16. (We can call the daughter Abby and the friend Jane.) Jane lived with them for three years and they were her legal guardians. My husband and I loved Jane as another niece and treated her accordingly with sleepovers, gifts, and a senior trip for Abby and Jane when they were graduating high school.

Shortly after that trip, my brother and his wife abruptly kicked Jane out due to a disagreement about a person she was dating. I reached out to Jane when I heard about this and told her that no matter what was going on with her and my brother and his wife, we loved her and would continue to be there for her. My sister-in-law contacted me, angry that I would speak to Jane. I responded that I was sorry if she felt hurt, but we have a relationship with Jane separate from them, and I wanted to make sure Jane was aware that the severing of one relationship didn’t mean the severing of all. (Side note: Both of my children are adopted, so we thought it was important to show them that this “adopted cousin” wasn’t just being forgotten.) At Jane and Abby’s graduation, no one from my family clapped for Jane. Not surprising, as I’ve been on the receiving end of my sister-in-law’s and brother’s wrath before (they didn’t speak to us for over a year).

Fast forward two years. This month I received a message from my sister-in-law saying she was upset because I never told her I kept in contact with Jane, who she spoke to recently. Am I wrong to think that it’s ridiculous to expect me to notify her any time I speak with Jane?

—Tired of Following Family Orders

Dear Tired,

Your sister-in-law is out of line. While I don’t know all the details of the falling-out she and your brother had with Jane, it seems deeply cruel of them to kick her out after she’d already lost one home. They had and have an obligation to her as her legal guardians, even if it does seem that she is well shot of them. It also can’t be good for Abby to witness just how quickly and irrevocably her parents’ affection and support can be withdrawn after a disagreement.

I don’t understand your SIL’s whole deal, actually, because she did know you were still speaking to Jane after she and your brother kicked her out—she called you in a snit because you’d kindly reached out to Jane. She wouldn’t even know that you and Jane are still in contact now if she hadn’t recently spoken with Jane herself.

Happily, and as I suspect you know already, you don’t answer to your sister-in-law (however much she may wish that you did). She and your brother can make their own petty calls about whom to speak to or clap for, but you and your husband also get to decide which family relationships to maintain, independent of them. Let her stew if she wants to; I’m glad Jane still has your warmth and steady presence in her life.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 18-month-old is going through a language explosion, and she’s picking up words that we don’t even remember saying. We’ve been pretty stressed (two jobs, no child care, no family help), and this was all very fun and a great distraction from our general angst until my toddler dropped her toy on the floor and said something that rhymes with “duck.” I thought she must have said “fork,” but then she dropped her toy and cheerfully said it again. I go between feeling awful about this and laughing. Not to throw her dad under the bus, but he’s pretty clumsy in the morning and he has a habit of swearing when he drops things. How big of a problem is this, and what do we do? Please tell me she’s not going to be “that kid” when we can finally send her off to preschool.

—That Kid’s Mom

Dear That Kid’s Mom,

Well do I remember the time my then-2-year-old got upset and yelled that same word at the top of her lungs. Not to throw myself under the bus, but it was totally my fault. Every parent has a story like this! It’s a rite of passage! (Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself to make myself feel better.) Honestly, this would only be a big problem if your 18-month-old became a habitual cusser, then went to day care and shared her exciting new vocabulary with the other kids. But as she’s currently at home with you, there’s no one else for her to shock or corrupt. Watch your language; remind her dad to watch his; don’t gasp or overreact when she does a swear (she may find any outsize reaction amusing, thereby reinforcing the behavior)—just calmly tell her not to say that word, and move on with your day. This will pass. You know, until she’s older, and using the words on purpose.

—Nicole

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