Moral Money: our reader wants to contribute financially but feels her options are limited
Dear Moral Money,
I have two daughters, aged two and four. I used to work on a freelance basis until my second daughter was born – she was premature and had a few difficulties, and we moved to France for 18 months when she was a few months old. As a result, I haven’t worked since.
During this time, my husband’s career has flown – he works long hours, and has partly been enabled to do this since he does absolutely nothing at home.
I’m in the fortunate position that I therefore don’t need to work, however I would really like to – for my own mental health, and to be a role model for my daughters. As we’re about to buy a bigger house, with bigger mortgage payments, I’d also like to feel like I’m contributing and taking some of the financial burden off my husband.
My husband says he supports me in whatever I want to do, but has made it clear that he wouldn’t be around to help out with the children – so I’d have to try and restrict my work to the few hours the children are at school or in nursery, and everything would be called off if one of them was ill. I’m also concerned about whether the freelance work I can secure would be able to reliably cover the nursery fees.
I’m just not sure what to do for the best.
It is a good start that you and your husband have discussed your desire to return to work, even if the result was that it’s up to you, as long as you don’t expect any help from your husband. What really strikes me about your situation is how depressingly common it is for fathers to be so fully committed to their careers, whether by choice or out of necessity, that they think abdication of parent and home commitments is an option, while for women this option does not generally exist.
I meet many fathers who would dearly love to have more time at home with family, but they feel their careers would stall if they didn’t deliver the face time and output of the long hours they work. I also meet others who find the solace of a hotel room on a supposed business trip preferable to the “always on duty” role of a parent.
I am unsure which category your husband might lean towards, but I think it’s important for you to know so you can position your negotiations on how the co-parenting responsibilities should be met in future.
A persistent and common difficulty arises here – many families (you are definitely not alone ) protect the career of the main earner with the best promotion prospects. Unfortunately, due to the gender pay gap, cultural stereotypes of man breadwinner and woman housewife, and ongoing prejudice in the workplace selection processes, it is usually the man’s career that gets protected.
Of course, the irony is that this perpetuates the employers’ experience that women in roles are more susceptible to compromised performance at work once they are parents, while men get promotions because they are seen as more dedicated than ever.
I think it is important to acknowledge openly that the situation above exists because it is really hard to justify the sacrifices, costs, criticism and guilt that families face when careers and parenting compete for our time and attention. It is a hard balancing act to get right.
However, the child-raising part of our lives is a full-time use of our availability as contributors to the world and society for maybe a quarter of the overall life experience. We have an existence pre-children, while we raise them and when they’re grown. The value of maintaining “ourselves” is sometimes overlooked when it comes down to the more practical measurements of who earns the most or has the best promotion prospects, and how much would childcare cost compared to earnings if going back to work part-time while the children are young.
You describe a very nice lifestyle for which you seem grateful. Although your comment about wanting to contribute confused me – it seems you have enabled your husband’s career and spent your time dedicated to home and family – that’s a very big contribution.
You mention trading up to a bigger house. Sometimes I wonder whether all the loveliness of an aspirational lifestyle can end up being a burden? The stage of our lives when we are climbing career ladders, raising children and growing into our lifestyle can feel like a competition with our peer group. Do you need a bigger house? Maybe if you relieved the financial pressure a bit you could start to consider the other things you mentioned: wellbeing and being a great role model for your daughters. If the mortgage wasn’t as big, could you afford some paid help to give you space to set up your freelance work without the imperative that it is profitable from day one?
I know my own journey trying to balance work and home proved only one thing for sure – you can’t have it all. Raising a family is resource hungry – physically, mentally, emotionally and financially – but it is arguably the most important and long lasting contribution we make to the world. Should it require us to be diminished ourselves? If we can celebrate the value in our role as a support act for our husbands and primary carer for our children, it is very rewarding. There are also plenty of opportunities to use your talents differently and deputise some of the childcare and home management obligations if that suits you better.