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Dear Care and Feeding,
My fiancé and I aren’t parents yet, but we plan to be within the next two to three years. I make a comfortable salary and have never wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, whereas my fiancé has always dreamed of being a husband and father and is eager to take on the role of primary caregiver. I mostly support this idea. He earns less than I do (full-time childcare may cost more than what he brings home). I’ve also made it clear that if he doesn’t end up liking this arrangement, we can change course.
The trouble is that I think there is a lot to plan for if he’s going to make this kind of transition, while he hasn’t given it much thought. I think part of the explanation for this is gendered, as I’m a woman in my late 20s who grew up reading articles about the split of household duties with a stay-at-home mom, the “mommy track,” and the difficulty of getting back into the workforce after a long gap, and he’s a man in his early 30s who had never thought about any of this until I mentioned it. When we talk about what life will look like once we have children and he’s at home with them, he says he’ll do the majority of the housework (is that actually realistic or fair?). He says he’ll provide educational enrichment to our kid(s). His goal overall would be that he could get back to work when the kid(s) are in school, and he has talked vaguely about becoming a teacher in his field. He says that while he’s the stay-at-home parent, he’ll do freelance projects to keep his work current, but he doesn’t even do those now, and he’ll be putting in more exhausting hours as a parent.
What are the steps we can both take now to help prepare for this transition and to help him prepare for reentering the workforce down the road? I want to be supportive, but I don’t want to come home to a dirty house every day, with a kid stuck on an iPad. And I don’t want to support the whole family financially forever either.
Dear Thinking Ahead,
You are clearly a planner, and I say that with awe, appreciation, and a soupçon of concern.
It’s good to plan ahead, and it’s smart of you to look at the big picture of the scenario your husband has proposed. But you can only plan so much. There are so many factors here that are unpredictable (and unpredictability tends to set a planner like you spinning). You need to be aware of the possibility that when an actual child is on the scene, you or your husband (or both of you) may feel very differently than you do right now—any parent can tell you that there were many aspects of parenthood that surprised the hell out of them. You may be less eager to get back to work than you assume you will be; your husband may discover very quickly that being at home all day isn’t for him. And even if, post-baby, you both feel exactly as you do right now, well, as you say, there’s a myriad of other things to be worked out.
Some of them you can experiment with: Can he, and will he, keep house if he’s at home with the kids? And if he does, will he keep things clean enough to suit you? And if he doesn’t, will you be able to let go of your expectations around this? (At some point, lots of us decide that a “clean house” is very low on our list of priorities, right along with folded and put-away laundry.) Maybe he’ll find that he can’t manage the house while also caring for the kids (it’s hard; the legions of women who have done this can attest to that). Only time will tell how any of this will play out. Will he do freelance work post-kids? Who knows. (I don’t think you can make a guess based on what he’s doing, or not doing, now, since there’s no real impetus for him to take on extra work right now.) Neither you nor he will know what his life will look like once you all get past the earliest months with your first infant, when—if he is the one at home and you go back to work—he will have his hands full. There is much that you will both have to play by ear.
Among the few things I can tell you for sure are these:
First: If you have no desire/intention to support your family indefinitely, be very clear about this with him before you embark on parenthood together. (I would, however, urge you to think about this assertion. If you find your work fulfilling and it turns out that he loves being a stay-at-home parent and is good at it—and you’re making enough money—why don’t you want to consider stepping into that role?) Second: If he is the parent at home all day with kids, don’t be the parent who makes all the rules about what happens at home. As with the how-clean-does-the-house-have-to-be business, you have got to let the person who’s actually in the trenches doing the stuff make their own decisions about how the stuff gets done. And if you truly fear that he will plop your future kids in front of a screen all day long, then you shouldn’t be going down this route in the first place. Third: Speaking of how-clean, if you’re not already splitting household duties equitably, start doing that now, with the aforementioned spirit of independence in mind. Fourth: Your husband is not a child, and it would be a good idea not to treat him like one. Since he isn’t concerned about reentering the workforce if he steps out of it for a while, your determination to plan for this seems to me a bit infantilizing. If you are afraid that once he steps out, he will never step back in (see the first item above), then you may need to tell him you don’t want him stepping out—you’d rather hire a nanny.
I suppose what I’m saying is that there’s a lot of thinking-through you need to do, and a substantial conversation (or several) with your husband that should be had. That this is what will help when you embark on parenthood. Way more than any planning will.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I are expecting our first child. We’re both in graduate school and have a pretty tight income right now. We have lots of flexibility with our schedules, but both have a lot of work to accomplish, and that work takes a lot of mental energy and focus. I feel heartless, but I’m pretty insistent about day care. Almost every mother I talk to tells me about how difficult it is to send their child to day care and how it’s best to care for your child yourself. But I need to write my doctoral dissertation, and I’m worried that won’t happen if I’m caring for an infant.
I’m also sensitive to equity in my relationship, and I worry that childcare is going to slide into more days for me as I’m hoping to breastfeed and that will take time and energy even on days when I’m off. My husband is wonderful, and I know neither of us would plan for that slip to happen, but I am afraid my work is going to get pushed to the side. What would you do?