Mr. Mom Might Be A Lean-In Woman’s Dream, But He Isn’t The Answer For Better Working Family Attitudes

shutterstock_145865855When my husband and I were getting married I casually brought up over sushi dinner that he might be the one staying home with the kids.  The look of shock, surprise and panic on his face was one that even 10 years later I remember with startling detail.  I thought he might just need some time to warm up to the idea, so I explained the rational merits.  I made far more money (at the time), with superstar status at my firm, but yet I felt strongly about our kids being raised only by family.  This wasn’t a power play or an alpha-move — it was good old common sense.

He expressed his general discomfort with the idea (I have my own career, I’ve never babysat, you’re the one who loves kids, I thought we were just ordering toro) but I didn’t find it convincing.  You’ll figure it out when it’s your own kids, I told him.  We agreed to revisit the subject when we were ready to start a family, but I was sure he would change his mind by that time.  Due to outside forces, the tides turned drastically in the next few years, and the industry I had been working in (real estate finance aka mortgage-backed securities) imploded while my husband’s business was on the rise.  Though I never got to test my theory of the stay-at-home dad, I wonder about it often.

When I saw the NY Times story Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers, I devoured the entire piece with hungry eyes.  I’m not sure what I expected to take away from the piece — something between pride for these women making it work, support for these men who reject traditional gender roles, and curiosity about the way things work for them.  But by the end, I was left with one overarching feeling: sadness.

Rather than changing the culture of the banks, which promote policies on flexible hours and work life balance, these women say that to succeed they must give in to its sometimes brutal terms, from 4:45 a.m. wake-ups onward through days of ceaseless competition.Ms. Black and others say that is the real gift of a stay-at-home spouse: avoiding domestic distractions and competing better against other bankers, many of them men with stay-at-home wives.
If Ms. Black gets a call on Tuesday afternoon asking her to attend an out-of-town dinner the next night, she can go. Ms. Jan de Beur took two trips a week on average last spring. Candida P. Wolff, the head of global government affairs for Citigroup, often travels about one and a half weeks each month.

Call me crazy, but this sounds entirely unappealing, even to someone as ambitious as I remain to my various careers.  The article did not focus specifically on how these women felt about their roles, but if they are happy, that’s wonderful.  But it seems clear to me that stay at home dads are not the answer for work life balance — which is really the direction we should be headed.

More than a revolution of stay-at-home fathers, what I want to see is an overall shift to work-life balance.  Wouldn’t it make more sense if both parents in every family could work and still enjoy the family they got together to make in the first place?  Shouldn’t we encourage policies that allow each partner to realize their own worth, to not lament their wasted education, and to feel appreciated for more than housework (which is often the “above and beyond” for full-time caregivers).  Is this really what women should be striving for?  Is this really what anyone with children (or maybe even without) strives for?  Lots of time away from home, away from their spouse and kids?

My husband and I have taken turns being the breadwinner throughout our marriage, but neither one of us has ever lost sight of our evolving career ambitions while making less money than the other.  What our children did for us though, was make us both realize how much we love the  family we’ve created and how we want to spend time with them as much as possible. That involves us extracting as much flexibility out of our own jobs as we possibly can.  Unlike one banker who ”told colleagues that she recently became irritated with her husband, who works part time, telling him, “I wish I had a wife,” I have never wished I had a wife.  Instead, I’m happy I have a partner.

(photo: Balazs Justin/Shutterstock)

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  • Kay_Sue

    This is really a good point. While I think it’s great that gender roles are becoming more fluid, it doesn’t reflect a shift in the workplace towards better work-life balance in more demanding careers. The point of having a stay at home spouse is–to some extent, and in my personal experience–so that you don’t have to worry about balancing work and home. Someone’s got your back on the homefront.

    Right now, I stay home. My husband can meet any demands at work, and has in the time I’ve been home been shifted to increasingly more difficult and time consuming (but with great overtime potential) areas of his work. Last week, he was working Monday with the only other gentleman that works his area…came in Tuesday to find out that this guy who had been perfectly healthy and worked a full 12 hour shift the day before had had a heart attack during the night and won’t be back until after the first of the year, if he is able to return at all. When I was working, this would have been a crisis–we would have had to work around my schedule, his schedule, and my family’s schedule. We would have to call in favors that we could (at this time of the year, I was routinely on six or seven day weeks, often 10 hours or more a day). We would have had to work with our employers, move shifts around, balance it. With me home, it just means that he’ll be popping his dinner in the microwave for the next month or so.

  • Andrea

    I have been saying this for years: it SUCKS that in order to thrive in a competitive world and have a family, the trade off is that one spouse needs to stay at home. Either that, or stay single and child-free.

    I agree with you one million percent that what we should be striving for is true work-life balance for EVERYONE. Not just moms, not just parents, but EVERY WORKING person.

  • Bethany Ramos

    I totally agree with you and feel like my husband and I have a one in a million kind of setup. We both get to work at home full time with the kids. I’m thanking God every single day for this arrangement. I went into parenting thinking that I would have to embrace a very wifely role because that’s what I saw with a lot of parents when I was young. My husband and I have been working really hard together to balance co-parenting, both working at home – so far, so good.

  • Life-Sized Mommy

    I work full-time while our husband stays home with the kids. While it works out much better for us than having to hire childcare ever did, you’re correct in that it still does nothing for our work-life balance. One of us is embarrassed when someone asks what he does for a living. One of us feels the guilt of having to leave a child who is begging you to stay home and play with him. The genders are reversed from what is typical, but it doesn’t make it suck any less.

    • Life-Sized Mommy

      *my husband
      I am not in a polygamous relationship; that’s just a typo.

  • NYBondLady

    A very interesting article; this topic has been explored more and more lately. But I don’t know really what the end-goal is. Better work-life balance? Yes, that is nice to achieve that, speaking as a working mom, but I myself (and many other women) quit my previous job (in mortgage backed securities, hi Carinn!), and found a new one that had a better balance. I think the right jobs are out there for working men and women. But to say that every job should come with work-life balance? I don’t think this is achievable nor do we want this. If you don’t want/have kids, then feel free to work as hard or long as you want.
    That being said, if you want to be CEO or Partner or president of the US, then I think it goes without saying that your home-life is going to be on the back burner for some or all of the time. Does anyone really believe that the women featured in this NYTimes article are suddenly going to stay home 1 day a week or roll into the office at 10am? No. It was their hard work and determination and going above and beyond that earned them their status. Goes for male or female.
    Recently, I was talking to a friend who has 2 little kids. She said to me ” I would LOVE to stay home with them.” Her husband has a good job so I said “Well, why don’t you?” Her response? “Well then I would be off [law] partner-track and we wouldn’t be able to afford our new house.” Well, Ok then.

  • jendra_berri

    If you’re in a high-powered position, odds are you’re not going to get work-life balance. If you make a lot of money and for that money you need to plug in hard and gruelling hours, balance is not likely to happen.
    I think this issue gets confused with women in the workforce because historically, men had these positions and were not expected to give much at home. Now that women are taking them, there’s still that cultural expectation of domestic and childcare contributions. So thus the worry that women can’t have it all.
    If a woman is working 70-hour weeks the way a man would’ve, then she’s about as able as he to enjoy a family life. Only there was never pressure on him to make it a priority. He was bringing home the bacon.
    I think, really, if you want work-life balance, you as a person pursue a career intensity/wage that offers that. You don’t angle for every promotion and project. You do a good job and leave that drive to others who have fewer ties to a home life.
    If a high-powered career is what you need to feel good, then go for it, but understand careers like that have a cost. There are only so many hours in a day.
    But if you’re really making that much money, hire some domestic help too (Even monthly housekeeping or a childcare once a week would make a difference), so that time together as a family can be really spent on togetherness and not on tasks or with a frazzled exhausted partner. That would create some balance.

  • Amanda Lee

    I fail to see why you thought you would get to decide that your husband would stay home and that he would change his mind? If he doesn’t want to stay home, he gets to not stay home. Same with you. Is there something I’m missing???

    • Carinn Jade

      It wasn’t a measure of reality, it was really just to say “I thought I had it all figured out” — as if that exists!!!

    • Amanda Lee

      Ok gotcha.. Thanks for explaining!

  • Liza Wyles

    I share your opinion, Carinn. I think we all need to stop trying to find loopholes in our work to wedge in pieces of life. “Work” and “life” are not mutually exclusive. While it may HELP if one partner can devote more time to caregiving, why do industries insist on such exclusive time commitment from the “breadwinning” partner? I think we must all strive to change the confines of industry to allow for everyone, parent or not, to have lives that fulfill them. It is proven that companies that offer more flexibility with commuting and scheduling have more productive, loyal employees who take fewer sick days. Let’s stop trying to find a way for lives to support our work; isn’t work supposed to support our lives? Those in white collar industries must set the pace…

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  • rrlo

    I love reading and thinking about this topic. There are no obvious or easy answers – as every situation is SO different. But we need to acknowledge that our careers lasts 30+ years and parenthood even more than that – and then relax a bit. None of us will get it right every single day – it is not humanly possible. Work-life balance is better viewed over a lifetime – as opposed to day by day.

  • MoD

    My husband I both work full-time. He’s been at the same job for years, and has no interest in moving forward. I, on the other hand, love my career and am always looking for the next promotion or move forward. As the demands on my time increase and I reach a certain salary point, he and I are both okay with him working less. Honestly, I hope that in ten years or so I’m making enough that he can just go pursue some other interest even if it doesn’t pay all that much, and can be home for our kid(s) when they come home from school. He’s supportive of the extra things I need to do for work now and I love it. Personally I would go a little nuts being a SAHM, I need a reason to get up and going every day. I was so demotivated the four months I stayed home with my son after he was born, and going back to work after that made me really appreciate my work. Luckily I have a job with pretty decent work/life balance though, I might feel different otherwise.