By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
My wife and I had our first baby in June. As the breadwinner, my wife just returned to work after 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Our savings are a bit low and she is now “asking for my blessing” to work part-time.
This is distressing to me for several reasons. We do fairly well, making about $200,000 between the two of us, but my wife makes about 60% of our income. If she went part time (she is proposing 30 hours per week) this would cost us about $30,000 a year.
Losing $30,000 a year will limit our ability to save for our child’s education, save for retirement, and take vacations. We currently have child care 100% covered between two sets of grandparents who are both eager to watch after their first grandchild.
We are both 31, but my wife just finished her professional degree in 2018, and thus has only been working for the last two years. She now holds a doctorate degree that came with a considerable opportunity cost.
Not only did she forgo working during these four years, she has about $160,000 in student loans and only the last two years of 401(k) contributions. Our previous plan was to utilize the public student loan-forgiveness program.
She currently meets all the criteria, but if she went part-time, she would no longer meet the criteria. After all our bills and utilities are added up (including my own $45,000 in student loans), we have about $6,000 in monthly expenses, not including food and entertainment.
The largest expense is our mortgage which is about $3,000 a month. We built a home in 2019. At my wife’s insistence (and my willing complicity) this home is in the best school district in the region, despite the home being 10% over our predetermined budget.
Before we signed, we had a frank conversation about the commitment. She expressed a desire to work part-time previously. I said her new home would limit her flexibility to work part-time until she had paid off her student loans. She was, of course, fine with this at the time.
While she was in school, I was working 50 hours to 60 hours per week in a stressful management position while getting my master’s degree online during the evenings. When we both graduated school and we both got jobs utilizing our degrees, I finally felt we could both enjoy our lives.
Up until now, this had been working out very well. I felt like we were living comfortably, while also ensuring we were saving money to hopefully retire at a reasonable age, and help our child avoid student loans. My wife generally leaves me to make all financial decisions.
I want her to be happy, and I don’t want her to resent me. Although I know we can technically afford it, I do not think it is financially prudent for her to go part-time. I can’t help but feel like I am getting the rug pulled out from underneath me. What do you advise?
Before I answer your letter in earnest, I have a confession. I saw the subject line of your email, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy. This man’s wife just gave birth, would like to take care of their baby,’ and then I actually read your letter. I receive so many letters from people who are, frankly, so deep inside their own resentment and unmet expectations that they often don’t see the other person’s viewpoint and/or their own stance from the outside. However, your letter is different.
You both agreed to a financial before you married, and I agree you should both stick to it — for now (I’ll come back to this later). You laid out your plans when you were working, and your wife was studying, and you made a joint decision to purchase a home together as 50/50 partners. Thirty hours per week is considered full-time under the public-loan forgiveness program if you meet your employer’s definition of full-time or work at least 30 hours per week, whichever is greater.
Of course, giving up a career and/or going part time is a burden and decision shouldered mostly by women. They become full- or -part-time care givers far more than their husbands. It is their careers that take the hit, and that is one of the many reasons there is gender pay inequity in the U.S. Men argue to keep their careers because they more often than not earn more than their wives, but they typically earn more precisely because of these structural inequities baked into the system.
I want to make this very clear: The work/life balance is unfairly skewed against women, even with progress in paid paternity leave at many companies. Working women still do most of the housework. This will take generations to work its way out of the family system. Corporate America is hardly much better: Women are paid less than men, and more likely than men to do “non-promotable tasks,” or tasks that are beneficial to the organization but that do not result in career advancement.
But the issue here, as you lay it out in your letter, is a domestic one. You worked and studied for a master’s degree, while your wife studied for her doctorate. You did this on the basis of a plan that you had agreed to together. That said, your wife also carried another human being for nine months, and gave birth to your child, something you will never have to do and will never be able to imagine in your wildest imagination. You should look at your finances, and agree to revisit your arrangement.
Marriage — hell, life! — is full of difficult compromises. Some concessions that seem unfair today, may not seem so unjust 10 or 50 years from now. It is a question of balancing the principle with the practicality, the knowns of a couple with a child with the unknowns of a couple before they have started a family, fiscal health with mental health. Having a child, raising a family and working hard at maintaining a marriage comes with untold physical and emotional consequences.
Twelve weeks after having a baby is not a long time. From a female friend who has been through it more than once: “I was like a lunatic for at least six months. See if she can negotiate part-time phasing into full-time over the next three to six months with her employer. That way she can ease herself back in gently, but not lose everything that she has worked so hard for, that is, an amazing career in the future. Also, 30 hours per week does not sound very part time to me.”
There is no bad actor in your letter, only two people trying to get through the next 18 years as best they can. I do think you should be careful about making any big changes to your financial plan. A final word of caution from my married friend who is a mother and chose to work full time. “Working part-time, especially when a new mother, is a mug’s game. She will end up doing full-time work for part-time pay, racked with new-mom guilt. The only person who will win is her employer.”
Another mother of a daughter had this slightly different take: “I had no idea how I was going to feel about work before I had her, and I was lucky that my plan turned out to roughly match reality. I’m back part-time after four and a half months because we need the money. I’m the bigger earner and our money provides the extra we need. I can’t imagine going back full-time. I’m working in the same apartment as my child, and it’s still hard not to be with her, even for a few hours a day.”
Talk about what you agreed, what you can afford and agree to revisit it in one, two and/or five years. Your wish — “I want her to be happy, and I don’t want her to resent me” — is understandable. You love each other. You want to do the best for your marriage, your family, but you also both need to have your needs heard and, hopefully, met. We don’t always have our needs met at the same time, especially those among us who are juggling life to raise a family. That is true for both of you.
You can survive on your wife’s plan. Seek out a middle ground before you take any drastic steps. You can both afford to have this conversation. It will be a challenge, and it is also a luxury.
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