Tell Me About It: Having this choice can bring up very strong underlying ideas and values
PROBLEM: Myself and my wife met through work almost 20 years ago. She is much more of a high-flyer than I am – very bright and exceptionally skilled in the area we are both qualified in.
I am what one might call a plodder. I like work, but I don’t love it. I am okay at it but not brilliant. I have moved up one grade since I started. I don’t think it is that I am dull, I think it is that there are just other things in life that I prefer doing. We both really wanted children, and it took many years and several visits to fertility clinics before we had our son, two years ago.
We both decided a long time ago that if we had children that they would be looked after at home until after they completed preschool and went on to primary. We are not wealthy but have invested well and are fortunate that we are in a position to do this.
We decided that my wife would stay at home. She loved the experience of being with our little boy, but after six months she started to become restless, and we often discussed how much she missed work and the projects that she was missing out on. I wouldn’t say that she is depressed, but she is certainly not as vibrant and enthusiastic about life as she used to be. They have joined several parent-toddler groups, and, although the little fellow is always ready to go to them, she gets nothing out of meeting the other mums.
Recently I saw an advert for the job that she always wanted. She was initially reluctant, but I eventually convinced her to apply for it. She was interviewed, immediately offered the job and negotiated the best possible package. The company are obviously thinking long-term and realise that they have attracted real talent and are affording her some time to decide if she is willing to take up the post. We waited so long for this little guy to come along that she wants to afford him every opportunity and wants to give him the best and does not want him to go into childcare for long hours each day. She was very excited about the job offer as she misses work.
I on the other hand am very sure that I would not miss work for a few years and whilst rearing our son I could use the time to consider my skill set and decide on ways in which I could develop a more satisfying career. As her new salary would be much greater than mine, it would also make better financial sense for her to be working.
She is something of a traditionalist and says she finds the idea of a stay-at-home dad strange. She also says she worries that I will enjoy the fun bits too much and never want to return to work. I think she just doesn’t want to leave the little man with anyone else, even me. But she craves work, she needs the company of colleagues and we both agree that she wants to face the challenges that work will offer her.
How can I convince her that this could be a very good idea?
In many ways, you have the ideal situation – you can afford one partner to stay at home and that person wants to do this while the other partner can have a challenging and fulfilling career.
However, you are also facing some very ingrained traditional ideas of what heterosexual marriage and family looks like. One of the underlying assumptions of traditional marriage is that the woman has the choice of working part-time or taking time off in order to look after children and the husband will take on the role of the provider. While this assumption has long been impossible – most couples need two salaries to survive – having the choice brings up underlying ideas and values that can be surprisingly strong.
On the surface of things, it sounds as if your wife is having the best of all possible worlds: a satisfying and well-paid career, a stable family and a husband who is confident enough to take a break in his career to become the primary care-taker – but she is getting snagged on something and this needs to be taken out and discussed. If you both simply launch into this new arrangement without thorough discussion, you are likely to meet these underlying issues many times in small or large crisis situations. She worries that you might not return to work and this needs to be explored: is she worried that this will put too much pressure on her, that you will not be her man anymore, that her position of mother will be usurped, that your centre of gravity as a couple will pivot beyond recognition?
These are questions that are worthy of comprehensive and ongoing conversations and if you engage in them it will make your relationship stronger and deeper
You also have questions: about her ability to let go of being the primary parent, that she will try to do both and become very stressed, that she will be very unforgiving in her criticism of your parenting, that she might not believe in you enough to allow you to take on parenting and make mistakes.
These are questions that are worthy of comprehensive and ongoing conversations and if you engage in them it will make your relationship stronger and deeper. Both of your opinions and fears deserve investigation and attention before you move to the decision but do not stop there: keep these conversations open and perhaps go for coffee every Saturday morning and re-ask the same questions for quite some time to come. Remember couples do not need to agree on everything to be successful (according to psychologist John Gottman, 69 per cent of all couple arguments are never resolved in the course of a couple’s lifetime) but they do need to engage with contentious subjects with affection and attention.