Anna was a 28 year old CPA, well respected in her company, and on track for eventual promotions. She married Josh, a 29 year old rising attorney, working in the city. They enjoyed exchanging anecdotes and ideas from their respective professions, meeting for coffee at the trendy midtown shops, and took pride in each other’s accomplishments. Two years later, Zack is born. He has big blue eyes and strong set of overactive lungs. Anna and Josh are both besotted and exhausted. After extending her maternity leave to the maximum option for the company, Anna tells Josh that she still doesn’t feel ready to return to work, and is considering a leave of absence. Josh sees how demanding Zack is, and the toll it’s taken on Anna, and tells her: “Do what you need to do; I make enough money for us, for now.”
Zack is now almost 18 months old, and Josh is wondering if Anna will ever return to work. Whenever he brings it up, they end up in a fight. Josh and Anna are both getting resentful, and it’s starting to affect their relationship.
Working mom vs stay home mom is a subject that occupies a huge share of blog posts, articles, research, and opinion. There are scholarly articles, comics, jokes, tirades all asserting the merits and pitfalls of both options. Strong feelings abound in both camps. But another issue that seems to get less attention is the matter of a husband’s feelings and expectations once the first baby comes along.
There are a number of reasons why a woman might feel inclined to move away from her career to focus on a baby, or children, and a number of reasons why a husband may have concerns about this. I would like to explore both sides of the discussion, and perhaps shed some light on the issue, as it presents itself so often in my office, for couples like Anna and Josh:
Why a mom might want to stay home:
Concerns about the safety of leaving her child(ren) with a sitter
Desire to bond with the baby as the primary caregiver, especially if she has read/heard a lot of research about attachment theories
Feeling overwhelmed by the thought of rejoining the work force, while also caring for a family
Feeling that her identity and sense of purpose have been redefined by becoming a mother
Worry that she won’t be able to excel as either a mom or a professional, when distracted by the responsibilities of each
A belief that a child benefits psychologically from having a full time parent
A sense that her friends/mom/sisters are stay at homes moms and she’ll be missing out on the experience
Why a father/husband might prefer his wife to go back to work:
Financial concerns – losing her part of their income
Values: the idea that a strong work ethic is part of what he likes about her, and that he might not respect her as much without her professional persona
Fear that she will become bored, boring, needy, lonely, or sloppy
Feeling that she will be “doing nothing” all day, or shopping, while he works hard
Feeling that she is not pulling her weight, or that this is not “what he signed up for”
Worry that they will have nothing interesting to talk about anymore
Worry that she and the baby will bond in a way that excludes him
Jealousy about the perception that she will ostensibly have more freedom than he will
A sense that his friends’ wives/mom/sisters all maintained careers as moms, and that he’ll be embarrassed that his wife doesn’t
The first point to consider when trying to hash out this issue, is that most of the time, this is not a clear-cut question of “right or wrong” as much as a question of: what is going to work best for us. There are many couples who have a beautiful, functional lifestyle with two working parents, and many who achieve this with a full time parent. There is not a universal formula that fits every family. By the time the couple gets to counseling to discuss this, tensions often run high, and there are strong feelings in both directions. Each spouse is often convinced that s/he is correct, and that the other is being stubborn, closed-minded, irresponsible, selfish, or insensitive.
A wife may feel something like: “I had no idea how becoming a mother would change me. I can’t imagine spending my days at the office while a stranger cares for my child. I didn’t realize I would develop such a strong maternal instinct. Doesn’t he see the importance of parenthood?”
Or: “I know I planned to go back to work after six weeks, but my body is only just beginning to heal, I leak milk, and I’m not sleeping more than two hours in a row- I have no energy to compete, and I’m afraid to show up to the office and try to work in such a fragile state. I don’t think my husband understands how consuming motherhood is…”
While a husband might feel things like: “What happened to the confident, ambitious woman I fell in love with? One of the things I enjoyed most about her when we were dating was her focus, her motivation, her drive. Now I feel like she’s going soft, and I have the entire burden of earning- just as we have another mouth to feed, and our expenses are going up, and that was never the plan. I feel misled, and resentful, especially when she wants to spend money, or complains about caring for the baby. “
It’s important to realize that all of these feelings have merit. It’s completely understandable that a baby brings major change. A couple that had (hopefully) developed a comfortable rhythm and routine now has a whole new person with constant and demanding needs, to accommodate. In the majority of cases, this is not a natural, smooth adjustment. Even when both spouses are on the same page with regards to parenting and career plans, there are factors and challenges to be navigated, such as how to establish parenting roles and responsibilities, how involved grandparents will be, and how to make time to nurture the marriage.
Expectations can vary from one extreme to the other, and a whole spectrum in between. There are fathers who (still) believe their only mandatory job is to bring home a paycheck, and barely even hold the baby, while their wives tend the children and home. There are “stay at home dads” who become primary caregivers, while their wives are the breadwinners. There are modern couples who both work full time and then try to split domestic and childcare jobs 50/50. And of course, there are parents who work part-time. Most families do not have a pure formula like the examples above, but some combination thereof. And while compromise, mutual supportiveness, flexibility, and sharing are important values, the lack of clarity can generate conflict. Some useful questions to ask, when trying to navigate this decision are:
Can we afford to live on just one income? What would living that way entail?
Why does the wife want to be home with the baby? How would that look for her? Is working from home an option?
Why does the husband want her to work? What are his concerns?
Does she anticipate wanting to go back to work at a foreseeable time, or does she want to quit more permanently? Could they agree on looking at a hypothetical time frame?
Does the husband understand what a day of childcare involves? Does he appreciate his wife’s feelings and perspective? Has the cost of babysitting been factored into the equation?
Does the wife understand the financial strain her quitting her job will cause? Does she understand her husband’s concerns? Does she feel strongly that being home with the baby feels like the healthier choice for herself and for the baby?
Are they hoping to have more children within the next couple of years, and if so, how would that impact their decision?
Regardless of the outcome of this decision, how is each spouse willing to try and empathize and accommodate the feelings of the other with regard to this choice?
It’s relevant to note that until the last century, almost all mothers were “stay at home moms”; women didn’t really join the work force en masse, until about the time of WWI. Gender roles were more rigid, but also more clearly defined. Marriage was more of a utilitarian contract. Women needed men for provision and protection, and men needed women for childbearing and homemaking. Now that women make money too, thank you very much, and men have rolled up their sleeves in the kitchen and nursery, we all get a bit of everything, which, of course, is enlightened, but also nebulous. And so we need to leave room for different expectations, evolving roles, and fluctuating balance. There is not a cut and dry system that will work for all couples at this point in history, so each family needs to find its own equilibrium.
Mutual empathy, compassion, respectful communication, and open-mindedness will go a long way in these dialogues. Really listening, trying to understand in an accepting way how our spouse is feeling, and think in terms of solutions without bias, will help resolve this question. When all else fails, counseling: career, financial, or marriage counseling, are resources to access for help in developing a plan.