Mystery unveiled: How marriages that are equal become unequal when there are kids

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It's 10pm and Donna and Richard are talking schedule. The question is: Who has to take the kids to daycare in the morning. Richard says he has a 10am meeting. Donna has a 9am meeting. She wins. He has to take the kids to daycare.

The kids are ages two and five. The older one will complain about going to daycare. He will want to stay home. He will demand to know why can't someone stay home with him. It's good that Richard will be dropping him off. The complaints kill Donna, but Richard will tell his son to suck it up and get in the car.

It's a small win for Donna, but she faces difficult work/family balancing questions, so small wins matter. This is not a column about how Donna worked out everything perfectly in the end, because she hasn't. But this isn't about the end — this column is about what it's like when the work/family balance first feels off-kilter. What to do about it so that you increase your chances of having a happy ending.

Donna and Richard both work at an entertainment company that you know, and they both have career paths with a steep upward slope. Richard thinks daycare is a fine way to cope with their busy lives. Donna thinks daycare is too long a day for their kids. But the problem is that both parents would rather work than stay home with their kids.

Donna tried to keep her fast-paced career after she gave birth, but she had to make adjustments. One of the first things to go was the long hours. Then the mentoring; She couldn't be a mom at work and at home. Then she convinced her boss that she should be a strategist rather than a day-to-day manager, so she got rid of management responsibilities for 15 people. She is still torn. Other mothers at her office tell her, “Go home. Be with your kids. I don't remember my son when he was young. Don't let that happen to you.”

Donna's husband has made adjustments too. He used to work 80-hour weeks. Now he works 50 hours. No one at work tells him to go home and be with his kids.

When Donna suggests that the kids would be happier with a parent instead of daycare, Richard says, “If you think someone should stay home, then stay home.” But he says she's being too hard on herself. “We're at home all weekend,” he assures her. I ask him why he doesn't want to stay home and he says, “I couldn't do it. I can't provide the structure daycare provides.”

[When they were first married, Donna announced she wanted to be the one with the high-powered career, and Richard was supportive. Now, though, with Donna's guilt creeping in, she has put family before career and Richard has put career before family. I put it this way to Richard and he says, “Well, yes, that's a crude way of saying it.” Then, ten minutes later, he says, “Kids have a way of making you see what your real priorities are.”]

I ask Donna and Richard why she is torn and he is not. She's not sure. She says they have different ideas of parenting. “He watches TV while he reads Goodnight Moon.” Richard says he thinks “it's a chemical, woman thing.” He has five sisters. Each of them ended up staying home with children even though that wasn't their plan.

One reason Donna has been able to rise through the organization is because she is good at presenting to the boss what needs doing in a way that gets her what she wants. Right now she wants to test out working part time, so she is maneuvering to get the type of responsibilities she can do from home. But these aren't the type of responsibilities that gain big promotions. So she doesn't tell her boss exactly what her plans are because she wants to leave room to put herself back on the fast track quickly if she wants that.

It's a careful dance she's doing, and she has enlisted lots of help. Donna has a friend at the company who she trusts enough talk candidly. And she has cultivated a mentor, outside the company, who has already done this dance and can provide guidance. She talks openly with her husband and her sisters-in-law, who have decided to stay home. But Donna's problem persists: she thinks a parent should be at home, and she doesn't want to be that parent.

“It's embarrassing,” she says. And then she asks me again to be sure not to use her real name. I am sure Donna is not alone; many parents would rather work than stay home with kids, but for the most part, it is women who experience guilt over this predicament. I have a feeling, though, that Donna is a step ahead of a lot of women because Donna is not saying she HAS to work, she is saying she WANTS to work.

There are no quick answers. There are couples where the man is willing to stay home with the children. There are couples who cut back on both careers to care for the children. But most couples have a man who doesn't want to cut back on his career, so it is the women who are weighing these decisions. Donna does not have answers, but she's taken a lot of steps to give herself breathing room to get to the answers. For those who are flailing — in the open or incognito — we can all learn a lot from Donna. She is unsure, but she is unsure in a dignified, unfrazzled way, and that may be the best we can hope for right now.

5 replies
  1. Kara
    Kara says:

    This is an interesting post, and it mirrors almost exactly what a married couple I am friends with is going through.

    I think that this is the most telling quote from the entire post – “But Donna's problem persists: she thinks a parent should be at home, and she doesn't want to be that parent.”

    Normally I would question why a high-powered couple, neither of whom actually wants to stay home and raise kids would have kids in the first place.

    Normally I would point out that the person who feels the most strongly about an issue – let’s say… crumbs on the cutting board – is going to end up being the one who has to man up and wipe the crumbs into the sink. Waiting for one’s partner (who has expressed an indifference toward bread crumbs) to suddenly develop a strong desire to clean up the crumbs is both an exercise in futility and a guaranteed path toward arguments and resentment.

    I would also suggest that the couple in question look into getting an au pair or a nanny. That way the kids can stay home and the parents don’t have to.

    What kind of resolution (if any) was there in this case? I am curious…

    • Kristina
      Kristina says:

      Thanks for the post Kara. I am facing the “crumb” dilemma and you put the situation into words so clearly. But yes, is there any resolution? I sometimes wonder how it feels to be the less-caring one. And then I wonder why we stay in relationships like this in the first place; even when they are friendships, although I can sympathize with marriage and kids being a huge obstacle. It reminds me of a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, “Mrs. Beast.” At the very end she says, “Let the less-loving one be me.” It’s so powerful to me. While it may be challenging as women to do this, it would be so awesome to be liberated from the role of assuming responsibility by default.

      I got an apartment with my boyfriend at a young age and I didn’t make my desires for equality with household duties clear in the beginning. Bad mistake because now I’m trippin’ over breadcrumbs. This post helped me see that this problem can and will grow if I let it.

  2. Joel
    Joel says:

    I’m young, and maybe I’m missing something…but why not just take turns? You take 2 years off, then he does a few years, etc.

  3. Emma Brownell
    Emma Brownell says:

    I find this topic fascinating – what happens to women when they partner up – especially when women partner with Type A men – who will not give up any part of their career (and this total ambition was probably part of what the woman found attractive to begin with).
    One of my good friends’ mothers managed to have it all – career and four children – I wrote about partners and success here,

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