Men with families feel more trapped than ever. Here’s how to fix that.

Here’s the problem men have today: They understand how bad it feels to be raised by a dad who is never around.

There’s a generation of boys who didn’t eat dinner with their dad. Only saw their dad on the weekend. Changed schools five times so their dad could relocate to get the best job, over and over again.

Those boys are grown up now, and they are dads. And they don’t want to be like their dad. They want something different.

We have unrealistic expectations for fathers.

So more men are leaving the workforce than ever before. But when men stay home, they are largely disrespected as incompetent breadwinners. And the men who choose work all the time are largely disrespected as incompetent parents. If they try to do a little of both, they are not particular standouts in either. (I’m struck by the art world’s depiction of this problem. For example, Nathan Sawaya‘s sculpture pictured above, and a comic strip from Zen Pencils that depicts the problem.)

Men were raised to be standouts. But no one told them that most good jobs require long hours and high risk which are choices most people don’t want to take.

The other challenge to being a standout breadwinner is that you almost always need a big city. Most people imagine themselves raising their kids in a metropolitan area. But the truth is that it costs a lot of money.

NYC, SF and LA require $150K/year in order to raise two kids in a middle-class life. Some people will disagree with me, but none of those disagreeing will have two kids over the age of six in one of those cities. This is true in the suburbs of places like Boston or Chicago as well. Sure, there are cheap suburbs, but there are not good schools in cheap suburbs.

Most men will not make enough money to afford living in the right kind of metropolitan area. The number of men who will make $150K after the age of 35 is tiny. First of all, if you want to be making $150K after 40 you need to be making it at age 35. Which means you need to be clearing $100K at age 30. (And places like Singapore, Tokyo, and Bermuda don’t count. Because you won’t be able to make that much back in the US. Your market is artificially inflated.)

We have unrealistic expectations for husbands.

So let’s say you are 35 and you’re ready to get married. You have a three choices:

1. You earn enough to support a family in a metropolitan area. (You need to reliably earn $150K for the next 15 years – unlikely.)

2. You split household labor because you are splitting breadwinner duties. (This typically goes very poorly because women are never happy with the division.)

3. You move to a small town where your career is limited but the cost of living is low. (Negotiate this before you get married.)

The problem is that men don’t like to hear that these are their choices. So men pretend that their salary will continue to rise in their 30s at the same pace it rose in their 20s.

But that approach fails because most women want to stay home with kids.

But let’s say that’s not true for you.

Let’s say you want two high-powered careers. You’ll need tons of childcare. Which means you’ll need to spend almost all your money on childcare. And your wife will struggle to maintain her pre-baby salary because she can’t stop thinking about kids when she’s at work. So you will be very stretched for cash. And stressed, and that’s not great because having a baby kills a marriage anyway, even without the added stress from neither spouse focusing on the baby. (This is why only 9% of mothers even attempt having a high-powered career.)

Now let’s say you have two scaled-back careers. Here’s the problem with that: It’s nearly impossible for people over 40 maintain employment with scaled-back careers. You can’t compete with someone in their early 30s who is going full throttle. They have the same experience as you but more ambition.

Here’s the biggest minefield: Men don’t like when their wives earn more than they do, and women don’t like outearning their husbands either. You can say you and your spouse are different, but the odds would be stacked against you. Because even if one of you is different, it would be really unlikely that both of you are different.

There is not a contemporary template that works for most men.

Here’s the bottom line for men: Few will be big earners. And few will be able to stay home with kids.

The midlife crisis for men is that they are sandwiched between social expectations that they be involved as fathers on one side, and the financial pressures from a disappearing middle class on the other. The only thing that’s different about the midlife crisis for men today and in the 1950s is that social expectations are higher and the expectation that they will have a 1950s midlife crises is lower.

The solution: Have really tough conversations very early in a marriage

Men are likely to feel successful if a marriage starts with assumptions that are realistic.

1. What you earn at age 35 is the top of your scale.

2. Most people cannot afford to raise kids in a city.

3. Two-income couples with equal focus on both careers is impossible.

4. Women who are breadwinners are not happy with being breadwinners long term.

Once you accept these realities you are likely to make better long-term decisions as a couple because there will be more reasonable expectations set on the men.

131 replies
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  1. Dana
    Dana says:

    Ha! 150k to live in NYC with kids. More like 500k.
    In a NJ suburb with good public schools you need at least 250k to survive.

    • Andrew
      Andrew says:

      No doubt…I think the $150k HAS to be a typo…Even in Philly that would be scraping by (given that you need independent schools if you aren’t unschooling)…

      And those tier 1 cities have terrible qualities of life for most, right Penelope? Long commutes etc.

      All of this, though, makes me wonder about the small business people making good money in the sticks running a plumbing supply company or restaurants or real estate…This whole post presumes corporate jobs are the only way to make over $100k/year.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Yeah, I know. I agree. I lived in NYC on $200K a year with two kids and I had nightmares constantly about living on the street. We ran out of money many times. And I felt like I was just a complete idiot about money until I realized that almost everyone I knew in my position — in NYC and SF — was having the same problem.

        The thing is that people who have never lived there think this is just absolute BS. They can’t imagine it. So every time I start talking about how much money you need to raise kids in a big city, the comments section is all about that – -people saying I don’t know what I’m talking about.

        So this time I said you could do it in on $150K to make a point — most people can’t do it — without inciting a riot of people telling me that I’m wrong. And it’s funny to me that when you read $150K you say that I’m wrong. You make me happy, actually. Thanks.


        • Mira
          Mira says:

          Well, I thank you for low-balling this time! The “$250K isn’t even middle class in the city” kind of talk makes me roll my eyes and tune out. My husband and I will probably never have that much money, and neither did our parents, but our work is in cities so we have to make it work with our kids somehow. When people talk as though you can’t physically survive on less than a six figure income, it just sounds insulting and ignorant to those who do. But $150K isn’t unimaginable riches to those of us more in the statistical middle.

          Education-wise, I know a good number of people who grew up in expensive cities in low- to middle-income, often immigrant families, including my husband and several friends from my college, which is consistently ranked #1 or 2 in the US. They’re now well educated and successful adults due to solid but affordable educational opportunities, including religious private schools with scholarships, fancy public schools like Stuyvesant or Boston Latin, and great financial aid packages in college. These aren’t opportunities available to every family, but parents who value education enough to shape their entire lives around access for their kids are the kind of parents who are most likely to help their kids get the resources they need, even with less money. And you homeschool, so you should know that better than anyone!

          • Andrew
            Andrew says:


            I completely ‘get’ your response (rolling your eyes)…the economics neatly tie into Penelope’s other favorite subject/blog…

            In Philly the ‘affordable’ independent schools are ~$13k/year. Two kids…no financial aid because you make a decent living…$26k before you’ve put food on the table etc. Upper-tier independents are >$20k. I think lots of families are leaning on grandparents…or both parents are law firm partners making $300k each…I don’t know how people do it.

            So take out independent schools and play the charters or magnets or whatever you have access too, and a family could change the dynamic…

        • Greg
          Greg says:

          You ran out of money with 2 kids and you, alone, were making 200k a year?

          Perhaps it’s my very modest upbringing, growing up in low-income areas of the Bronx, but I think that if you’re barely making it on 200k with 2 children, you’re very bad with money — you’re over-indulging. Either you’re really living above your means or someone’s robbing you everyday.

          My parents raised 3 children (including myself) on less than 70k a year for almost 2 decades. We lived a good life. I hate to sound harsh, but it sounds like you’ve taken the idea of a middle class lifestyle way beyond what you could handle.

          This entire article doesn’t rub me the right way. $150k with 2 kids is plenty if you’re willing to live like you aren’t Meryl Streep.

          What do I know, right? I’m just drawing reference to my upbringing and what I’m currently observing in my parents’ situation and other close relatives.

          Spend $2k a month on rent. That’s 24k a year.
          Add $200 a month on utilities. That’s $2,400 a year.
          Add $400 a month on food. That’s $4,800 a year.
          Add $800 a month on daily lunch/travel money for kids. That’s $9,600 a year.
          Add $500 a month on student loans. That’s $6,000 a year.
          Add $112 a month for an unlimited Metrocard. That’s $1,344 a year.
          Add $300 a month for a family phone plan. That’s $3,600 a year.

          That right there, without counting anything else, is $51,744 a year. What are you spending the rest of your money on if you’re living in the city? Entertainment? Okay, cool. But even after taxes, if you’re making $200k a year, what are you buying that’s causing you to go broke? Insurance? Your IRA? 401? What?

          My parents do a lot with very little, and I know a load of people who do a lot with almost nothing.

          I think that most of you have views that’re extremely distant from reality, albeit the good nature fueling your expressiveness.

          • Inga Freeman
            Inga Freeman says:

            I read comments and become totally distracted. I live in Latvia. We have two kids. Oldest study sound engineering in Southampton University UK but youngest 6 grade student in high school. Our income after taxes are about 55k $$ a year. We have a private house with 4 bedrooms, two cars Audi A6 2008 and Toyota Avensis 2010 and fuel prices in Europe Today are about 1.4 EUR per liter. Every year we go for holidays abroad e.g. last year Royal Caribbean Cruise Eastern Mediterranean on board RCC cruise ship Navigator of the Seas. Where do those who complain spending the rest of money. I do not think that in NY or LA bread cost 10 $$ ???

          • Jake
            Jake says:

            Your budget is missing some big ticket items. The costs for the following items will quickly eat up the remaining difference:

            A lot of income taxes on $200k of income. Depending upon deductions & exemptions. Expect around 1/3 will go to taxes (20% to Federal, 4% FICA, 6% State income, 2% City)
            Health insurance and/or health care costs. These will occur with children.
            Disability & Life insurance: These are a must for a family with a single source of income
            Before/after school care. Summer care. Babysitting for evenings & weekends.
            Extra expenses for school.
            Clothing: Children go through clothes quickly and professional wear is not cheap
            Dry cleaning of business clothes
            Taxi: A business professional can not survive on metro alone in NYC.
            Business social expenses (e.g. dinner, happy hour)
            Other out of pocket career expenses (e.g. professional memberships)

          • Tina
            Tina says:

            I currently live in NYC, and where do you find apts that can hold 2 parents and 2 kids for 2k/month? I don’t know which island you’re living in but can’t be that same one that I’m on.

          • LT
            LT says:

            Income, and property taxes as well as health insurance would be additional expenses. As someone whose household income is 230K a year, it works out to 1/3 to taxes, 1/3 for living expenses, and 1/3 for retirement savings. We don’t even have cable and take few vacations.

          • Audrey
            Audrey says:

            Where are you able to get an apartment in NYC for $2000 per month that is not a studio and is on a decent public school catchment? Unless you inherited a great rent stabilized apartment. And I don’t know when you were a kid but $70k was a decent amount of money 20 years ago and 30 years ago it was a fortune. I know families who make close to $200k or year, stay home most nights, don’t travel much and still struggle. And yes they put money into their 401k or they will be totally impoverished when they retire.

        • Greg
          Greg says:

          Are you serious?

          If you’re making $200k a year and, let’s say, you’re taking home half of that. If you take into account the base budget I posed in my previous post, you still have about 50k a year to play with. You can use that for clothing, a babysitter AND your (completely unnecessary) taxis (I work in midtown Manhattan in a corporate setting; if you feel you can’t get by without using a taxi, you’re drastically lazy and shouldn’t consider yourself middle-class, because you’re trying to live the high life.).

          All of you are full of it. The sense of entitlement is enormous. It’s not that you guys don’t make enough money to live here (New York City) or anywhere else where the cost of living is high. It’s that you guys don’t know how to work with what you have. What kind of clothes budget do you have? Why the social clubs? Why the taxis? You’re telling me you can’t get started early or schedule meetings so they don’t become extremely bunched up so that you don’t find yourself with less than 20 minutes to get from 54th and Lexington Avenue to Columbus Circle on foot or by train/bus?

          You’ve got to be kidding me. Your kids don’t need to have a $2k clothing budget each year. What are your kids doing that’s causing them to “go through clothes quickly?” What kind of suits are you buying that warrant your calling them “ain’t cheap?” What kind of professional wear are you buying? You must be buying $99 Ralph Lauren Polo shirts and $200 Thomas Pink shirts if professional clothing for you is that serious.

          All of you need to grow up. You don’t need to spoil yourselves all the time, nor do your kids need to be spoiled so much. If you’re really so screwed in terms of your $200k salary with respect to an NYC-like cost of living, you’re doing something terribly wrong.

          I’m extremely turned off now. I had a great life growing up and we had so much less to work with. Knowing that people are actually crying poor, claiming that they need money for happy hours, taxis and social clubs makes me feel like I don’t want to be a part of a higher-income society. That’s your struggle? THAT’S why $150k to $200k doesn’t stretch?

          Perhaps I’m just delusional.

          • Jake
            Jake says:


            What I was outlining was the basic reality – it was not living the high life versions.

            With 2 children; daycare & afterschool care can run over $20k a year in NYC. That’s not including evening or weekend babysitting.

            Kids outgrow clothing. During a growth spurt, something that was too large at the beginning of a school year is too small by the end of it.

            Taxis usage will happen. Not everyone can always schedule 30 minute blocks between meetings. Nor can they always be out of touch for 30 minutes between meetings. Afterschool programs and etc have specific rules regarding pick-up times for the end of the day or illness. Metro schedules do not always align with travel needs.

            Happy hours do not necessarily mean personal social time. Business discussion, networking, business celebrations & team functions can occur at these locations. This expense can include lunches, hostess gifts, gifts and similar expenses.

            Professional certifications and/or membership in professional associations are not social clubs. This is a career expense that many companies do not cover or only partially cover. Membership in 2 National Associations and the continueing ed for 2 certifications can average $2k+ a year.

            Healthcare & health insurance for a family will run $4k to $5k per year with an employeer policy. If you’re self-employed; then you either spend $1k+ per month or throw the dice.

            Disability insurance will usually run 1% to 3% of annual income. That’s another $2k to $6k per year to protect the single source of income.

            Then there is the 401k. At the very least contribute enough to get the company match which will require another 3% to 6% of one’s income.

            The money is going quick and we still need to pay for renter’s insurance, incidentals, household supplies, personal grooming before we can start spending like the rich.

          • Mary
            Mary says:

            Greg, not everyone wants to live in Bronx. And I’m not sure where in New York you found rent for $2000 unless it is a dump. You don’t take into consideration health insurance for a family, savings for kids college, etc. or are you saying happiness alone is enough? Even if you don’t spend anything on kids, like extra classes etc., kids cost a lot of money, mostly because of unexpected costs. And they eat a lot and outgrow their clothes pretty fast. You sound extremely immature.

        • Dave
          Dave says:

          Sorry to be the predictable reactionary, but it IS possible to raise 3 kids on $100K per year in a Boston suburb in a town with one of the best school systems in the state. I would agree that as you add income, it just gets spent, so I can understand how a family at $150 or $175K can feel just as stretched, but we find a way to make it work. Maybe I should write a book on how we do it, but, having made higher dual income in the past, before kids, I know how it works…there is this “band” of income between maybe $100K and $300K where the cost of earning more just offsets the increased earnings.

    • Peter
      Peter says:

      What kind of surviving are you talking about? Surviving death or the humiliation of a fake Louis Vuitton bag?

  2. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Oh my gosh!! So timely!! My husband and I are right in the middle of this and are pursuing alternative options to successfully support our family in the way we’ve envisioned.

  3. Steve Mielczarek
    Steve Mielczarek says:

    Reg, we feel it, we feel the pain. God
    knows we feel the pain. We wanted
    kids. We’d do anything to have kids. I
    mean anything. But there were cracks
    in our foundation. The kids just never
    came. We tried.
    Listen, maybe you can adopt. I want my
    $400 dollars.
    Reg, it’s not about Bobby. Is it? It’s
    about the money.
    It’s about Bobby.
    [Barbie gets up, again, standing at table.]
    What’s that smell?

  4. Rachel C.
    Rachel C. says:

    I think we are all screwed. I don’t think the pressure of unrealistic expectation is unique to men and fathers. These exact same thoughts and discussions are ones that I’ve had as a 30 year old woman and mom. What is it about humans today that there is the expectation of perfection in all aspects of your life. Get a good job, push push push up the ladder, don’t slack the young guns are at your heels, make a marriage work, raise amazing kids, don’t age, and try to look happy doing it. Seriously, it’s exhausting. I know I’m tired.

    But my question is, are these unrealistic expectations unique to our current times? I’m too young to know what life was like when work and home roles and gender roles were more distinct, but did that pressure exist in some form back then, and if not, why now?

    • MichaelG
      MichaelG says:

      I don’t remember my father ever getting too excited about the corporate rat race. Part of the reason is that neither he nor Mom graduated from college (they both had a year or two.)

      Their expectations were different. Dad got hired by IBM back when they took untrained people and made them computer repairmen (1957.) He stayed there from age 23 to age 55 and then retired.

      At his peak, he had a house in the suburbs, a vacation house, two cars, and a boat. He told me once he could not believe how lucky he’d been and how rich he felt.

      Mom was a housewife the whole time and raised three kids. As far as I know, her only real complaint with their life was that Dad didn’t talk much and teased her far too often. She never felt the lack of a job, and Dad was surprised when we kids later told them that Mom should get out of the house and work.

      I think what’s changed is feminism, frankly. Much as I admire intelligent women with real jobs, it messes up the whole family dynamic. The woman now feels she has to hold down the high-powered job or she’s betraying all that women have worked for. The guy feels he should be doing more at home with the kids even if he doesn’t want to. They are both worried about how their jobs compare to one another.

      They are also both worried about falling out of the “educated power couple” group. They absolutely don’t want to be in the “middle class, boring job, low ambition” group. That’s seen as low class, and doomed. The feeling is that between automation and globalization, all those “flyover country blue collar” types are going to suffer terribly. Don’t be in that group!

      And so you get all this stress. To ditch it all and try to live a nice life makes you a Hippy loser. But it’s culture, not economics that is forcing this attitude.

      • Mira
        Mira says:

        I think it isn’t just culture and not economics. When you say your parents think, “The feeling is that between automation and globalization, all those “flyover country blue collar” types are going to suffer terribly. Don’t be in that group!”…well, they’re not just imagining it, they’re interpreting what’s actually going on right now with income inequality.

        What’s happening: the middle income group and middle income jobs are really, really shrinking, so more and more people have to work crazy hours to try to get to the top just to make a living wage, since lower paid jobs are part time and poverty level. One middle income job no longer pays enough to raise a family in an expensive area (but even those jobs are more concentrated in expensive areas). And job security isn’t what it once was, so you can’t plan on a long career with one company, you have to remain competitive and be prepared to move on. We have to live *in* this system as individuals, and figure out how to raise families in a time of insecurity and wage stagnation, but it’s not just a cultural phenomenon and it’s not just the result of individual choices.

      • Shandra
        Shandra says:

        It wasn’t feminism, exactly. It was housing prices. Having two incomes contributed to housing prices going up but I bet if you look at your parents’ housing costs they were lower as a portion of income.

        • MichaelG
          MichaelG says:

          Their housing prices were a fraction of what you’d pay in NYC, both then and now. But the area they lived in is still cheap. There are lots of affordable suburbs still in this country. And a lot of people hate the idea of living there.

          I mentioned to a friend that the job market was better in Texas, and he just dismissed the whole state as a “cultural wasteland.” If that’s your attitude, you are locking yourself into high-priced areas.

          • Shandra
            Shandra says:

            Sure, but with two income earners it is tougher to find a low cost of living area with two good jobs that has decent schools. Also, I do wonder how the housing cost stacks up as a percentage of income. My dad’s house cost about twice the family income. Ours is more modest in a a less prestigious area of the same city and cost 4.2 times our income.

        • Diane
          Diane says:

          Exactly. Please everyone read Elizabeth Warren’s book “The Two Income Trap.” It explains exactly why the shift to a two income-earner standard created the crazy situation that we are currently in. Compound that with an erosion of good middle class jobs and here we are.

        • Michelle
          Michelle says:

          True. Elizabeth Warren lays out the phenomenon in The Two Income Trap.

          Generally speaking:

          Localized funding for public schools contributes to creating better schools in some areas. People who want to raise children want to live in the areas with the good public schools, so they compete for limited housing, which drives up the price of housing.

      • AJ
        AJ says:

        It’s true that families functioned better (or maybe more smoothly) with one CEO, but thank God for the feminist movement. My husband and I are not wired for traditional gender roles.

        I think that among the 35 and under set these are universal issues. We all want it all.

      • Jake
        Jake says:


        The costs in the US have changed. In 1957, an IBM employee would be experiencing some of the following:
        1) Social Security taxes of 2%. Now SS & Medicare are 7%.
        2) Health insurance paid by IBM. Now the average family is contributing over $4k per year. That’s 9% to 10% of the median family income.
        3) IBM would have supplied a pension. Now we have 401k’s that require 4% to 6% to contribution to get the full match.

        Those items alone are an extra 18% to 21% out of one’s income.

        How would have things been different if your dad’s gross income had been reduced by 20% or more.

        • Shandra
          Shandra says:

          Yes this. My spouse works for IBM. Radically different, especially the downloading of retirement risk.

  5. Mike
    Mike says:

    That’s not a comic by Bill Watterson, it’s a quote of his but the strip is drawn by the Zen Pencils guy, whose name I would give you if I want on my phone but you can look it up easily enough at that link :)

  6. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Great read – but why Singapore? I wonder how many other Americans in Singapore read this!

    But it’s true – our salaries are inflated here – and perhaps that’s part of why we stay.

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Singapore is a good illustration because salaries for expats there are significantly higher than other cities in Asia like, say, Bangkok or Beijing.

  7. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I think Singapore is actually one of the obvious solutions here, on a meta scale – Americans with the right qualifications and dispositions should think about seeking places outside the U.S. to raise families.

    It’s a big topic, I know, and it might not be the right thing for you to cover, but I feel that for at least some of the better-educated, soft-skill Millennial types, going international – especially to Asia – can be a smart move in terms of saving up some money and potentially finding affordable cities to raise children in. Would love to hear more from expats in Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul and beyond.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I coach a ton of people in Singapore and Tokyo because a ton of people are stuck there. It looks like such a great shortcut to the top, but it’s not.

      The problem with building a career in a place like Singapore is that expats stick together. So expats marry expats and then when there are kids, they don’t want to stay.

      Being single, or dual-earners with no kids is different. It’s all money all the time, and the perks to being an expat in one of these places are huge.

      But once there are kids, you realize that you are not really integrated into the community, and if you are, then your kids will be culturally different from you. And you will put up with local schooling in that country, and all the other local values that come with that.

      The idea of making a lot of money and getting inflated titles outside the US is fun. The idea of raising kids who never see their relatives and live in a small community of expats who are probably not staying long-term – that is not as fun.

      But people get stuck because their idea of who they are is that they are special and pretty rich and have friends like that. But when they go home, they are not special and not high-earning and it’s hard to go home after you have kids, but almost everyone wants to do it.


  8. MBL
    MBL says:

    I find it interesting that the LEGO guy, Nathan Sawaya, was a lawyer in New York who needed to express his creative side after work. His friends and family encouraged him to showcase his work and the day his website crashed from too many hits, he decided to “leave the law to go play with toys.” He was around 31 when he quit and 3 years later had his first solo show.

    However, from what I could find, he didn’t get married until last year when he was 39. She is a high performer so it could be interesting to see how it may play out if they have children.

    If anyone has a chance to see his work, I highly recommend it. He has some lighter work to balance the heavier stuff like “Hands”–the saddest piece that I saw. My homeschooled daughter and I were so lucky to be able to see it on vacation in NC during school hours. We tried to go over the weekend, but it was a zoo. When we did go, we practically had the place to ourselves so we could linger as long as we wanted. “Yellow”, shown above was my daughter’s favorite piece. I don’t know which would have been my husband’s favorite as he had to stay home to work to pay for the trip. Sigh.

    Strangely enough, I thought of PT’s sons while we were there.

  9. Jan
    Jan says:

    Spot on!

    We did have this discussion, 28 y ago.

    I very happily raised the kids.

    My husband ran his business.

    One income living is feasible, if togetherness means more than vacations every year. Which most business owners know already.

    Now the kids, in college and I help at our office as needed there now.

    I’m there for my husband now like he was there for me when raising our kids. He had his business to do and kids, pets & house was my business to do. It worked.

    I’d still like to smack the people who would say…’Oh I bet you were bored.’

    Yea right.

    Bored from those milestones.

    First steps, words, swim lessons, flute lessons, field trips, lunch mom, homeroom mom, emergency room visits of sprained fingers and stitches, day of new schools, track meets, graduations, college visits on and on…

    Bored, my ass.

    DH didn’t missed the milestones often but sometimes supporting your family takes second to supporting your employees.

    What a camera is for.

    It makes my husband’s thousands of work hours worth it to him to hear the kids reminisce of skating parties, school ski trips, and slumber parties, even the e/r.

    We just know we gave our best efforts for our kids.

    Would we do it all over again?… in a heart beat.

  10. SF Mom
    SF Mom says:

    We’ve been a single earning family for 2 years while I’ve been pursuing a startup in SF. We’re both early 30’s and have 2 kids in school – 3rd grade and preschool. It’s been hard (rent is the real killer!) but we’ve managed on $80k/year. We pay a ton for preschool (our 2nd biggest expense which goes away in the fall, hallelujah!) and we can’t afford for certain extras like gymnastics but there are some great public schools in SF. At any rate, I think one of the least valued and pursued option is multiple-family housing options. We rent our 3rd bedroom out to a close friend of mine and it’s been amazing having another adult around. It gives us the freedom to still go out on dates and to not feel trapped at home all the time.

    Oh – and one last plug because it’s made ALL the difference … free after school care at the Boys & Girls Club. We are incredibly lucky that the program exists and is full of committed staff & fantastic programs!

  11. Drew
    Drew says:

    Powerful stuff Penelope, of your usual high standard.

    With birth rates falling in many western countries, the situation you describe could well be driving it.

    Childcare, the cost of living and tough economic conditions are making life hell here in the UK.
    Marriages break up all the time, single parents are stigmatized in the media, usually by upper middle class hacks.
    The social and economic pressure is crushing the life out of most working and lower middle class parents.

    The goalposts changed five years ago in the UK. Work is now insecure, pay is going down, people are working longer hours or irregular hours or juggling jobs.

    I have been trying to balance my commitments to work and family for five years and it has made me miserable.
    Thanks for posting Penelope, I guess i need to stop being so hard on myself.

    Youth and money are wasted on the young eh?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Drew, I’m glad you brought up the topic of decreasing birthrates because I have a stash of about 50 links on this topic that I couldn’t fit into the post, and this is one of them: birth rates aren’t just going down as women get more power and men get less. In some cases, people just stop having sex.

      Japan’s birthrate has already plummeted and now they younger people have simply stopped having sex.


        • redrock
          redrock says:

          There are quite a lot of countries with decreasing birth rates, many western european countries have had 0% or negative birth rates for quite a while and none of them have lower rates of sexual encounters – just better, more conscientious use of birth control. I have to admit that I don’t quite believe these statistics for Japan either – the concept of dating is a very american concept it does not quite happen in the same way in other countries. Some have more formal ways to find partners, some have less formalized concepts of getting to know men/women. So the question about dating can easily be misconstrued – as in “no, I have not dated because this really does not exist here” – it is not equivalent to ” I have no interest in sex, or finding someone to be with”.

  12. Adam
    Adam says:

    Omg it is so true! I live in Poland but the principles standard here as well. I thought about this a lot since I’m the breadwinner and all I could come up with was nicely summed up by Penelope.
    And you are right about that talking part, because of the spouses do not talk it through in the beggining it is likely to end in a crash!

    Btw. Thanks for career advice from a few years back. I did take more risk back then and it ended badly but lead me to where I’m right now – happy and better off

  13. Nan
    Nan says:

    It sounds absolutely awful, but isn’t this exactly what mothers with serious careers have been trying (and ultimately failing) to deal with for more than a generation? Welcome to my world, guys.

  14. Steve Woodruff
    Steve Woodruff says:

    Plus, add this stress – the work environment is completely unstable, with rapid disruption the norm (not the exception). I often advise people with enough talent and experience to start their own business. While risky, it is perhaps less risky than staying in the corporate world nowadays. And, there is more potential to create a “portable” business that does not have to stay in an expensive metro area.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, I agree. Starting your own company is one of the best solutions to the problem. But it definitely falls into the high risk category that most people aren’t willing to do. Most people just don’t have the stomach for that sort of risk.

      On top of that, I coach so many people who want to start their own company, but they don’t have an idea. For most people coming up with a viable idea for a company is nearly impossible. It’s like, for most people creating a decent landscape painting is impossible.


      • Andrew
        Andrew says:

        What about non-sexy, non-startup companies? Like the guy from high school that became a contractor and just put $80k into landscaping his pool area? Or the family running a restaurant that does well…

        There are lots of unsexy “own your own business” families out there…So just an observation that you seem to focus on pure startup (the next Snapchat) or pure corporate (EVP of Whatever at $700k/year) with a smattering of freelancer/coaching…

        There are many people living good lives running old school small businesses. Maybe that’s a subject for a future blog…Maybe most of them were in the family and, if your family doesn’t already have something going, you’re screwed.

        I don’t know much about this world at all…I’ve done the poles as well (corporate and startup)…but I’m curious to understand more about this group. Not for myself (I’m never going to open a restaurant or become a contractor) but for millenials looking for alternatives…

        • Ivan road
          Ivan road says:

          Yes, yes to this. 99% of the money in the US is created by ‘plain old businesses’ that have been around for ages. You don’t need to be the next Quistic or Facebook or snapchat. That’s ‘winning the lottery’ thinking. Just run a better insurance agency or bagel shop or house painting business than the next guy. The pundits won’t admit it, but there is money in ‘regular stuff’ done well.

        • Kitty
          Kitty says:

          reminds me of a discussion years ago at a national school board event……a top school administrator was telling about being in a hotel workshop for several days with thousands of administrators and there came a building-wide plumbing crisis. About day two into the situation, he said, any one of them would have gladly given their salary to the first plumber able to fix the problem!

          I find this to be true these days. Being able to keep children fed and happy, bathrooms and beds clean, roofs from leaking, cars running, heating and electricity working, etc. – all those jobs are seen as less than worthy. Those workers used to hold a sort of honest respect. I don’t see that anymore. We all think we can do these things ourselves if we need to and I don’t think it’s true. We are just rarely tested. The man recently who kept his family alive and safe in the vehicle accident in the mountains – by building a fire and heating stones to change out in their vehicle overnight. Those kind of people are extremely valuable in our economy but we don’t recognize the skill set.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          The reason I do funded startups and not a smaller, fund-it-myself business is because it’s safer for me. If you fund a business on your own, you have nothing but yourself to rely on. Even more high risk than having a startup where the investors pay your salary.


  15. Caralyn
    Caralyn says:

    Part of the problem is us wanting so much disposable income. Our family has so much more than our parents did. We are also trying to keep up with the Joneses more. Why can’t we drive older, smaller vehicles? Why can’t we be frugal? Being a single income family isn’t that hard if you choose to live within your means. Unfortunately lots of people get their identity from jobs and the money they make means we want to live larger than we should be.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think a lot of people get bored living in cities where you can keep your cost of living down.

      Having moved from NYC to small-town Wisconsin, I can tell you, it’s not a question of trading material lifestyle for a frugal lifestyle. It’s a question of giving up a vibrant, dynamic, ambitious community of change-artists for a settled, complacent community of people staying in one place.

      That’s a tall order for a lot of people. Some can do it, but for a lot of people living in a big city is about mental stability. They would go nuts in a small town.


      • Isabelle
        Isabelle says:

        Not to mention the facts of raising your children in a place like lily-white, conservative-in-every-sense-of-the-word, rural WI (where both my husband and I grew up) vs. raising them in a diverse, thinking, thriving urban community (where we are raising our kid.) The difference is unreal. The costs are, too, but I’d rather he have diverse experiences than more square feet to throw his toys around.

        • Evet
          Evet says:

          I agree, I moved to a small town to be able to afford a child. Leaving San Diego to a small town in Texas has been hard. Its a total cultural wasteland and the people lack innovation, drive, intelligence and overall curiosity. However, I am a staunch believer in sacrifice and in making some concessions for the better good. However, in order to work – you have to surround yourself with similar people and venture our. Create the environment you need and seek and stick to a plan and back-up plan. One can always return to big city living, just start saving and engage.

      • Marie(INFP)
        Marie(INFP) says:

        Amen, Sistah. Just finished reading New York magazine’s “Reasons to Love New York” issue and you’d be hard-pressed to find 20% of the reasons anywhere outside NYC. And I’m from Chicago. It’s mind-boggling how much culture and art is here, and mostly free. Once you’re hooked, it’s easier to give up Crystal Meth, which explains why us New Yorkers live and spend like high-brow junkies. And yes, it’s impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t lived here.

  16. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    Hi there. Good post as always. The next question is: what do you do when you are already in your 40s, at the top of your income, and you have not yet had the hard conversation? Now you’re stuck in a rut with a husband who is going through a midlife crisis and likely you are going through one as well. What do you do next?

    I think a lot of women are stuck right here, next to me. We all had our children a little later in life so that we could be good income earners, and now we have husbands who are at the top of their income game. We sacrifice more and more of ourselves by trying to please both our bosses and our husbands, while maintaining household and family. And because we did not have mothers who went through this dilemma, we do not have could mentor to show us how to navigate this territory. So, what next?

  17. William
    William says:

    From the perspective of a recently widowed husband who spent eight solid years as a stay at home parent for two children since they were in diapers, your analyses is accurate.

    It is interesting that for myself, although the dynamics are much more complicated, that it was my wife who suggested the idea of being a “stay at home” and that was in 2002 when it was much less prevalent and also that I had an active career at the time.

    Due to my wife’s new Ph.D. it made sense but at the same time I resisted the initial offer. Because of her death, the time in did in the home is invaluable but there were still serious ramifications for being the stay at home parent.

    It is a tough line for men to walk – between empowering and disempowering themselves. It is true that as much as some women want their husbands – men – to be as more involved fathers – in the situation that men are full time – a woman’s vantage on a man can and often times does change.

    Having gone through what I have, I would not encourage men to abandon a career in order to remain at home with the children so the wife can advance her career, income, and then upon positioning herself, go about the process of making sure you are as miserable as possible as she expresses her new found financial freedom and with it a sense of entitlement with every aspect of her life.

    I am def, a bit seasoned coming off of a funeral three months ago after a eight months of caring for a pancreatic cancer patient and a fourteen year marriage, however, men would be wise to think twice about taking on the role as a full time primary care giver.

    As much as some women say it is great and so forth, men might want to consider this : women worked hard to get out of the role as primary care giver for children due to the lack of financial power and freedom so why would men want to put themselves in position that would disempower themselves ?

    Why would women advocate a position that they themselves and others have rejected ? And consider the gender dynamics that get twisted and bent and it gets real dicey.

    Due to the woman I married death, the time in the home was and is invaluable to me and certainly believe fathers have to go out of their way to establish and build relationships with their children, but the marriage dynamics of a man staying at home and caring for children is very, very risky and from I have seen first hand, on so many levels, it does not work so well as some might like to lead you to believe.

    Happy New Year.

  18. Mira
    Mira says:

    It would be nice if there were a category in between “scaled back” and “high-powered” careers – maybe “predictable” or “standard 40 hour full-time that pays enough for childcare”? I suppose that’s the dream for an age gone by!

    Another possibility is to try to have one or both people with a full time but flexible schedule, so that even if you don’t have lots of free time, you can deal with kid stuff with less outside childcare. I’ve seen people work this way with jobs as ministers, college professors, regular professional jobs that allow telecommuting (e.g. computer programming and some federal government work), or self-employed contractors and freelancers (which, granted, is less secure, but way more portable). Granted the college professors and freelancers work really, really late nights after their kids go to bed, but at least they do manage to be present and involved parents.

  19. Alexis
    Alexis says:

    We’re the classic – live in a small low-cost (well relatively, I’m not sure if there are any truly low-cost places left) location (Vermont) with Dad shouldering the high-powered career while I left the high-powered career to be home with the kids. So effectively we’re living the choices you astutely point out in your article.

    All tradeoffs are hard. I struggle with the lack of prestige, cash, and intellectual stimulation that comes with being a SAHM. Many of my Mom friends have gone back to work and they’re stressed, exhausted, and generally feel guilty. Neither option is great – for me “broke and bored” feels like a better option than “stressed and exhausted. “

  20. Tina
    Tina says:

    As the old saying goes, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. If you’re relating to the trends referred to in the article, then do your research and have conversations accordingly. But if you don’t fit the mold, then forge your own path. You can choose quality of life if you’re willing to be creative and put a plan in place, even if it takes a year or 3 or 5. My husband has been corporate and I’ve been self employed. We worked together to shift our positions to be mobile and then sold our house and stuff and started traveling with our kids. This isn’t the best solution for everyone (most of my clients are small business owners who provide services looking to create time and money freedom but not necessarily be fully mobile), but if you’re the type of person who can be a high income earner, I’d be willing to bet you’ve got the brain power to create good options for yourself or at least get supported from people who have “been there, done that.”

  21. Tamara B
    Tamara B says:

    This is such a great article. I live just outside San Francisco in an affluent suburb where a decent ranch style house now goes for 900K. We moved out of San Francisco for the schools. This was at the bottom of the market. We bought a fixer upper that no one wanted, put 30% down and now have an extremely low mortgage payment. We don’t fight over money and purchase our cars with cash not financing. We don’t need a BMW or Land Rover to keep up with our neighbors.

    I am 36 and make 100K at a financial institution just a few miles away from my home. It works because working in the city would be a hassle and for me living close to the baby’s daycare makes sense. My husband is self employed and makes about 150K per year. We are comfortable and we do not live beyond our means. I also have a start up on the side that recently moved into profitability and dream of the day when I can leave my corporate job and manage my company full time, but for now the tax breaks I get from having a start up on the side are fabulous.

    I could definitely reach the 150K level because I’m well connected at my job and know that soon my skills will be in demand at other institutions, but for now my job is great. I have work life balance, can work from home if needed and don’t have to put in incredible hours. I’m happy where I am and don’t want to move into management.

    What I have learned is that in order to make $$ you have to manage your career with precision,be smart, pragmatic and leverage your strengths. If you are a woman of color, I recommend getting a high powered mentor who does not look like you. My c-suite white male mentor was instrumental in helping me negotiate a significant increase in salary plus bonus when I moved out of his group. But I started doing grunt work then started delivering quality work that got him accolades from his boss and now will forever have his professional support. It took 2.5 years. I did this because I was always honest about my strengths and weaknesses and preferred to take on the projects that demonstrated my strengths. My point here is that if you don’t have the support from the higher ups, change companies until you find a manager who supports your growth and development. Make your time there count. Just be strategic about when you plan your move.

    Could I be a stay at home mom? No, I could not and my husband does not want to take care of me. It stresses him out. I’m also not terribly domesticated so being home would not work. I hate cleaning and cooking and would resent being home without any intellectual stimulation. So unfortunately this was not an option for me. I also like having financial independence; I financed my start up on my own. I like spending money without having to tell him. It works for us and we are both happy.

    While raising children when both parent have careers, it helps to have a very supportive husband. He gets up at night when the baby cries, spends one weekday a week watching the baby (the perks of being self employed). He does much more than his father did, but I still do about 15-20% more of the care giving. But, he reminds me that he saves us a lot of money by fixing things himself because he’s very handy. There are sill gendered roles that are up for discussion, like the fact that he just assumes he can leave the house when we are both home without ensuring that I’m able to watch the baby. When I need to leave the home, I try to give my hubby significant notice out of courtesy so he can prepare for watching our baby. Overall, I’m happy with my situation. I just can’t wait for the day that I can leave my cubicle and run my business full time. That would be the ultimate freedom.

    • Diane
      Diane says:

      Love this! I relate very much to your strategy. Living close to work / working from home, minimizing spending on the automobile fleet (we have one 10+ year old car), choosing a smaller home, not getting sucked into the consumerist trap – these are all things that my husband and I are currently doing to minimize financial stress, in spite of living in the crazy expensive Washington DC metro area.

      Incidentally, I out-earn him and always have, always will. I was annoyed about it for a while but then I got over it – he went to a top 20 law school but is not cut out to be biglaw. It helps that he does 95% of the cooking, is so handy that he completely re-built our kitchen and all of the bathrooms in our house (learned how by watching YouTube videos), and is a great Dad. I’m not saying our life is perfect but I’m agreeing that if you are strategic and honest about everyone’s strengths/weaknesses, you can come up with a system that makes it work.

  22. Larry Hochman
    Larry Hochman says:

    Penelope, I agree with the general premise of this article. And this is likely the way it’ll be for most families.

    But you make a lot of assumptions that are based on choices people do not need to make. You keep talking about the job market. Ironic, since you are an entrepreneur. I think it’s fair to say most of the people who really break through to the kind of lifestyle they want set aside the rules of the game and make their own.

    Being self-employed and always on the look out for wants (NOT needs) in the marketplace will always be lucrative, as long as you can get the skills to fill them. In that same way, allowing for flexibility in roles will increase the quality of life. Yes, men as a general rule may not love the idea of their wives outearning them. But 50 years ago men didn’t love the idea of their wives doing anything other than raising kids. Things change. And that trend won’t stop.

  23. Kate
    Kate says:

    My husband and I are raising our two in the Middle of No Where, Colorado, on one income of 38k. We cloth diaper, cook all of own food, and its still hard. But we love our kids, we love each other, and we are making it work. The city will never be an option for us.

    • Tatyana
      Tatyana says:

      Kate, thank you for your comment. Most of the replies here are concerned with incomes hovering around $100 at the least.
      But what about career & life choices of couples who make a median household income? Is it 47K now? My husband and I both have to work while raising our daughter to make $47K. No daycare or preschool for us for two reasons: one, its unaffordable, two, we would rather have our daughter home if we can help it. So we deal with it, sacrifice career growth for more flexible work schedule in some instances, and sleep in others. We had to designate a “worker” and “home back up” roles for some stability but it takes tremendous communication skills and presence in the marriage to adjust the roles if circumstances change or opportunities arise.
      I am bothered by lack of discussion of our income bracket. But I am even more bothered by my own stuck perception of my own socio-economic status. Reading blogs like Penelope’s I feel poor, watching TV I feel poor, going to doctor I feel poor (although I suspect most of us feel that way while dealing with hospitals). But when I share my self-assessment as “poor” with friends who earn 150K-200K they say I am lost in delusion and only those who live in section 8 housing and have no car are poor. I would like to see more discussion about it and not just road- mapping life choices for people who are making 150K.

      • Kate
        Kate says:

        I completely agree. I don’t really understand being “poor” when you make $100 K, but then I also dont understand each member of a family owning their own car, or having a TV in every room, or buying clothes “just because”. I live just within my means. If my husband and I didn’t have student loans and a car payment, we would be doing great! But we aren’t, and we have no savings. We use state insurance to cover our child’s health needs, and I am without health insurance altogether. But somehow, we make it. I’m not saying I want a different life, but sometimes I wouldn’t mind a little buffer between paychecks. We will continue our path, though, and I will be a stay at home mother for my child, because I can care for him better than anyone else. That is my road of choice.

        • Rochelle
          Rochelle says:

          Must really say that most of the people reading and writing on this blog are not the average earners in this country. Earnings are relative based on where you live. Also must point out that those people earning 47k a year are not poor and they ought not feel that way. Poor is very, very, very hard and often times poor means you have no hope.
          What we are all feeling in this world, at what ever level of income, is that change is coming hard and fast and is so utterly different than it has been it is hard to cope. Only the ultra-wealthy are immune.

  24. Benjamin Atkinson
    Benjamin Atkinson says:

    Yes, ma’am.

    I topped out at $120k on the north side of Chicago and my wife and I were scraping by with 2 kids.

    I bought a biz, ran it into the ground and was forced to move to a small town.

    I think we’re less-stressed now with a much smaller income and 4 kids.

    I’ve given up on growing a salary. (The gig I have will never reach 6 figures.) Instead, we’re becoming a family of entrepreneurs. We’ve got a couple of business projects in the works, we plan to sell produce/honey at the local farmers’ market.

    I think this has helped our children. My kids seem to understand money much better than I did, as a child. All in all, I’d say we’re a stronger/closer family, now that we have less money.

    Thanks for this post, Penelope.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great comment, Ben, because you remind me of something I don’t write about a lot: The kids’ perceptions of money. There are so many things we think the kids need – costly things – that I think kids can do without if we explain tradeoffs. Explaining tradeoffs is really hard to do as a parent – it feels like failing. But I think kids get it and of course kids would rather have a happy family life than an expensive vacation.

      A lot of times when I am worrying about money I tell myself it’s because of the kids — what will the kids do?!?!? – but really it’s my unwillingness to face the kids and tell them I’m not going to earn enough money for something they want.


  25. Derek
    Derek says:

    Tough decisions to make for those who really want kids.
    I feel for men (and women) that want kids and are realistically not able to afford them(either from lack of money or most importantly I think- time)

    I realized early on that I was not interested in being rich, but wanted to be comfortable and enjoy my life.
    After spending my 20’s exploring/thinking- the route I took, was work a job I didn’t really care for but paid decently for 3 years, lived in my old chevy suburban for that time and spend as little as possible.

    This set me up financially to have all necessities paid for in cash when I finally met a girl who was interested in me (and not an outward show of supposed wealth) I also had enough for a good down payment on a cozy little house and remains our only debt since we married 7 years ago.

    The option for kids never really appealed to me but I went through all the pros and cons(thoroughly) like I do with every major decision and that study confirmed my choice. I made no secret about it to my (future) wife, and shared my thoughts and reasonings exhaustively.

    A big factor being what this article covers, but there are so many other factors working against modern day families we both agreed we would enjoy our friends and families kids and then head home to our cozy little house.

    Not having kids allows us to have part time jobs that aren’t high power or impressive to people that judge a person by that kind of thing but allow us freedom to explore, to volunteer, to have the time and energy to deal with a life curveball and to really enjoy each other and our friends

    I’m glad to see more articles like this popping up that really encourage people to not look at kids as simply the next thing one must do, but really consider all aspects of that (huge) life choice.

    My thoughts on life aren’t always aligned with what this site is selling but it is thought provoking and I do enjoy that, cheers!

  26. working mom
    working mom says:

    I am a single working mom and live in Munich, Germany, which is one of the most expensive cities in Germany, if not the most expansive
    and everything Penelope wrote is also true to Germany
    I have never thought of this when I was young – but with having children reality kicks in fast
    Thanks Penelope –

  27. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I like that you talk about small towns as an option (that’s what we did.)

    Small towns have their own risk trade offs. I’d be interested in a post on what to expect if you go that route, and how to game it.

    (Everyone likes to be told their own story.)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, it’s kind of the story I tell on my blog, right? I moved from NYC to Madison, WI, and I was shocked by how much denial people in small towns live in so that they can tell themselves they are not missing out. So I left. And now I live in a rural area and four years later I’m still in culture shock every single day.


      • Francis
        Francis says:

        Penelope: Not to nitpick, but you don’t live in Madison. You live an hour away in Darlington. Madison is not a small town, Darlington is. Madison is another planet from Darlington. You can have a vital intellectual and artistic life in Madison — there’s plenty going on there. In the small towns around it — not so much.

        Also: Huge numbers of families live on $45K or less. Sometimes a lot less. Do you ever read

  28. Teo Harrisson
    Teo Harrisson says:

    Early on, my wife and I, both with engineering degrees, recognized that one of us needed to stay at home to raise our kids. This is how we made a decision to start an income-replacement business that my wife would run mostly from home while I would pursue a more standard career. This was back when we were in our late twenties and our first kid was born. Now nineteen years later we can say it worked! We have three kids, one in his second year of engineering college and two other in private school. My wife has been able to maintain and grow the same business she started back then to consistently generate a respectable 6 figure income . On the other hand, I have been able to generate a similar level of income by pursuing a career in consulting at the beginning and then settling on local Atlanta assignments and finally being employed by a local company. We also started to invest in rental properties about 15 years ago. That investment now represents 10% of our total income which we use to pay 50% of our kids’ yearly education cost. Net, we have found the combination of running a business with a more flexible schedule in order to be closer to the kids and the other one pursuing a more standard career a good combination. Just a word of warning. Running a business and being the primary raising kids is not for all out there. I tell my wife I couldn’t have done what she has done. She is incredible!

  29. Kathy @ SMART Living
    Kathy @ SMART Living says:

    Hi Penelope! This is the first article I’ve read on your website so I wasn’t sure what to expect. While I would agree that fathers (and mothers too) are likely feeling a great deal of stress when raising a family–I was a little surprised to see that you left out a huge question that they should be asking themselves before marriage. Do we really want to have kids? Your article assumes that everyone wants them and leaves out the fact that not everyone is cut out for the job. While I honor those that want to devote the time, money and energy to do so– the choice to have children really should be a well thought out choice–not a forgone conclusion. The world does not really need any kids that aren’t wanted or are well cared for–and people do not need to believe that the only way to a happy and fulfilled life is to work their fingers to the bone having them. Please consider adding this option to anyone who feels trapped in a lifestyle they didn’t realize they signed up for.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      For people my age and in my socio-economic class, it’s pretty well-understood that you can choose not to have kids.

      In fact, having kids (especially during prime child-bearing years) is considered stupid and low class.

      For some reason, the smart choice is to focus all your energy on getting an education and a great career and put off having a family until it’s nearly impossible to conceive without medical intervention.

      And for those ten years older than me, IVF is like the new designer handbag.

  30. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I’m reading for the 2nd time, and finally clicking on the links, and I had to pause and tell you I love the comic strip. That’s my favorite cartoon guy…

  31. CP
    CP says:

    Any robust career these days requires an insane amount of dedication, both in effort and time. Both men and women are screwed in this regard. Women who want a career and a family are expected to be executive dynamos + domestic goddess + mary poppins + sex kitten. I don’t see how men have it worse. As Penelope stated, men today have grown up knowing they don’t want to be absentee dads and so now they feel this same burden of trying to “do it all.”

  32. emmphx
    emmphx says:

    So I think it’s important that people see that there are exceptions possible with every rule…I’m 56, husband is 55 and we raised two kids (25 yr old in her last year of law school, 24 yr old getting his MBA–has an accountancy degree.) I (mom) have always been primary breadwinner; husband works for small company he partly owns. We are both engineers in high tech–you do not ‘opt out’ of engineering and expect to get back. My earning power is still going up, contrary to your 35 yr old rule. The main sacrifices we made is that I decided to be ‘just an engineer’ and he decided to not take the fast track. I did not travel at all for my work as he had to. He did all the cooking, still does. My kids post on Facebook when I make my yearly Christmas-baking foray into the kitchen. We had weekly cleaning help until the kids left for college, now it’s biweekly. For childcare, we flexed our hours to minimize the time spent there. For a while in the Bush I years, my husband was a stay at home dad due to a layoff; after that, I worked 80% hours for a few years– our son had special needs (speech problems, ADHD.) My employer has always paid for sick child care in home, so that option was always there and used a handful of times. We live in a major Southwestern Metro area, in a city, own a home.

  33. Inga Freeman
    Inga Freeman says:

    I read comments and become totally distracted. I live in Latvia. We have two kids. Oldest study sound engineering in Southampton University UK but youngest 6 grade student in high school. Our income after taxes are about 55k $$ a year. We have a private house with 4 bedrooms, two cars Audi A6 2008 and Toyota Avensis 2010 and fuel prices in Europe Today are about 1.4 EUR per liter. Every year we go for holidays abroad e.g. last year Royal Caribbean Cruise Eastern Mediterranean on board RCC cruise ship Navigator of the Seas. Where do those who complain spending the rest of money. I do not think that in NY or LA bread cost 10 $$ ???

    • Tina
      Tina says:

      Hello Inga,

      I’m glad you posted your comment. Did you have to pay for your child’s University education? How about health care? I am curious how much percentage in taxes you pay as well to compare with the US. I have friends in Canada who have great quality of life and pay higher taxes but get more services paid for from the government.

      My husband and I have two children and sold our house and are living in different places around the world to give our kids new experiences but it also makes it less expensive to live we have found.

      Thanks for sharing!

    • Tatyana
      Tatyana says:

      It is very difficult comparing US fixed expenses with those in europe, especially European countries that built on top of Soviet Union systems.

      For example, my brother is nuclear engineer in Ukraine making $24K after taxes. He does not want for anything. He just came back from a middle of the year european vacation and he will go on 4-week summer vacation as usual. His wife does not need to work, although she chooses to work in local bank making only $3K a year. They have free medical, retirement fund. They did have to pay for their son’s college tuition partly because my nephews had very low grades and could not qualify for state sponsored tuition. But the tuition is about $1200 a year. Many families in post-soviet union countries “inherited” their flats and houses from the government and were not burdened with the cost of buying housing. It is changing now.

      In comparison, my husband and I make twice the income of my brother yet we have to make tough choices almost every time. Antibiotics for bronchitis or just cough syrup and save a few hundreds 2-day getaway fund and list goes on.

      I’m not complaining as I choose o live in USA and actually like it very much.
      But it is almost impossible to explain to my brother the need to work 60-70 hours a week in my own practice/business and not being able to feel financially secure at all times.

  34. Jack
    Jack says:

    People without kids rarely if ever get it. Being a parent is awesome and the best thing I have done but if you don’t have kids you have so many more choices.

    Housing, education, healthcare, childcare all take a significant chunk of cash and time not to mention concern.

    I remember thinking about how far $150k should go and what we should be able to do but if you live in a bigger city it doesn’t always go as far as you think it should.

    What you take home after taxes and after all of the other expenses leaves a much smaller pile.

    It is not impossible to live on it, but you aren’t going to be rolling in cash either, at least not in one of the cities you mentioned.

  35. Matt
    Matt says:

    This Should be required reading in High school.

    Brought tears to my mid-life eyes, a female who understands a male who can’t express

    himself as well about not being able to fix something..(too long ?) ….oy vey

    1. What you earn at age 35 is the top of your scale……somewhat true

    2. Most people cannot afford to raise kids in a city……very true

    3. Two-income couples with equal focus on both careers is impossible…. whole lot of yellin’

    4. Women who are breadwinners are not happy with being breadwinners long term….or short term…and the consequence is felt by the whole family. not many happy campers.

  36. Coach Oz
    Coach Oz says:

    Thank you very much Penelope. This is a very good follow up on your other article about Women choosing a husband and having a career. Unfortunately with it becoming harder and harder to support a family, sounds like men don’t really have that much options.

    Coach Oz

  37. Renee
    Renee says:

    Sometimes I read a post and it’s like you’ve been listening to conversations in my living room, this is one of those posts. Keep the trend spotting coming so we can be prepared for what’s next. Reading your blog feels like reading tomorrow’s newspaper today!

  38. A
    A says:

    I think the American age of golden opportunity peaked in the 50’s and 60’s. I see what my grandfather was able to accomplish in his life time and although I know he was worked hard (as a real estate agent in the 60’s) I can’t help but feel that it was so much easier for him.
    Although I’d love believe that I will retire with a 2 million dollar home and first class trips to Europe I think that goal will be much harder for me to manifest.
    I finally got my first professional job this year after graduating with my B.A in 2009, MPA in 2012. My husband is a manufacturing engineer and earns about 65k a year, we tried to live off that in Los Angeles and found it nearly impossible.
    I’m currently making 42k a year and I have a 21 month old daughter. Therefore I’m spending more than 50% of what I make just getting to work. When I get home I have 2-3 hours of housework to do. Something feels very wrong and broken about this life.
    I’m 27 and sometimes I feel like I may have just done too much too fast. I can’t find many others my age in my situation (being married, a mom and a home owner).
    I worked so hard to build this life and I feel like it is impossible to maintain. My husband does help out a little around the house and does most the cooking but he works longer hours than I do so the bulk falls on me.
    Most of the time my house is a disgusting mess because I’d rather come home and play with my daughter than clean.
    I don’t think I will have any more children, I don’t think its possible, not now at least.
    Having children is important, maybe the world doesn’t need more people, but the world needs more younger people or the world economy will collapse.
    And when women wait til 40 and get IVF, some of those babies don’t turn out so great. I don’t think we want a future generation that is mentally and physically inferior.

  39. Jen
    Jen says:

    This is so interesting and, I think, also relevant for people without kids. Everyone has to decide what they want their lives to look like – what to prioritize. Of course having kids requires more time, more money, but as someone without kids this is still interesting to me. I can relate to it for my own life choices, but also from a cultural perspective and wanting to be a good citizen and neighbor to families of all forms.

    Which brings me to the question that I always raise when reading things like this; what about same-sex couples with kids? How do the rules change? How don’t they?

  40. Brett
    Brett says:

    Ok so I actually lost the point of the article while reading all the comments. Sorry about that, but I have to say that I am amazed at how many people seem almost offended by it. Maybe I am reading this all wrong but it sure looks like people are almost attacking Penelope for her article. So what if she made a few typo’s with the numbers. Who cares where she lives. She is just trying to give some insight or just her opinion on a situation. Tell me if I am wrong.

  41. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Although most people don’t understand this concept, it is possible to live on a budget, even if you live in a high cost of living area, and if you have a variable income.

    That being said, it still might not be tenable to live in a high cost of living area for under $150K

    All the proposed budgets actually leave out the number one money-sucker for most Americans, which is debt (especially student debt)

    I think most people could live and save for retirement on $150K ($90K after taxes) if they didn’t have to write about $20K to the bank each year. After rent ($30K), childcare ($35K for two children in high cost of living area), and debt ($20K) that leaves $15K for all other living expenses. That’s definitely a tight, if do-able budget. Earning less than $150K will be rough.

    Low cost of living cities do exist, in the South, Southeast and Midwest (all areas that I’ve lived) its pretty easy for a family with one kid (like mine) to live off of $80K, you might need $100K to live easily in a lower cost of living city with two kids.

  42. Nathaniel
    Nathaniel says:

    This sounds scarily plausible, and this may be me in 5-6 years. I don’t expect I will ever crack inflation-adjusted $100k in my lifetime because I know I’m not able to make the sacrifices in other areas of my life to achieve it (unless I have some fantastic luck, which is a bad thing to count on). Where does that leave me, though? It sounds like my ONLY option is to plan to move somewhere that I can be a single breadwinner because a future wife will want to throttle back at some point.

    I live in Boston, and am lucky enough to own my own small townhouse with easy access to both the highway and the subway. The mortgage payments are manageable (and were even manageable when I bought it on my first salary, which was $29k fresh out of college – I bought when the real estate market cratered and refinanced when interest rates were at their lowest ebb). Although I’d love to upgrade when I get married, it could realistically hold a family of three long-term. Is that enough of a windfall to make this work?

    • Andrew
      Andrew says:

      This is one of the best conversations any 20-something should be part of…Penelope should run a course on the economic trajectories…the 5 or so models for most college-educated people (there are always outliers…what I made at 35 was less than at 23 and now (45) I make considerably more than Penelope’s rules would suggest).

      So great that you’re reading this…and here’s my one HUGE suggestion…don’t leave your townhouse.

      I don’t know Boston…and don’t know how desirable your neighborhood is (in the sense of amenities, parks, walking, coffee shops…not yuppie crap)…I don’t know the school situation…and whether there are kids in your area…

      But keeping housing costs low, and riding 20+ years of appreciation, is a linchpin that I somewhat missed out on…we kept upgrading our house. And while we have studio space, a yard, privacy, quiet…we still fantasize about a small place in the city. Especially after a week of frozen pipes, snow blowing, backed up toilets, and boiler repairs.

      I think its worth spending money on everyday stuff – nice kitchen, nice bathroom…But the basic house/space can be economized on to really make a long-term impact.

      A colleague of mine at work lives steps from the beach in San Diego with her husband and young son…900 sqft condo. They love being that close to the water. Great choice…and I hope they hang onto the space and continue to keep their wintery clothes in storage!

      • Nathaniel
        Nathaniel says:

        Thanks Andrew!

        My townhouse is 2-bed 1-bath and is just under 1000 sqft, with a brand new kitchen that I just finished putting in. I have off-street parking but no yard, deck, or other outdoor space. It’s in a pretty good location – in a neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying and likely to become more desirable over time. The neighborhood is mixed – families, empty nesters, young professionals. The Boston Public Schools are reasonably good (Boston Latin School is one of the best public high schools in the country), and property taxes are very low. I have family living less than 10 minutes from me. Overall I think I have a great strategic position in life.

        The X-factor I see is, would a future wife necessarily want to throttle back? I’m dating an ambitious MBA who has a bigger career than I do, and who hopes to run her own business eventually. I’m happy to be the supportive spouse whose career takes the back seat. Probably I need to better understand the circumstances under which women with bigger careers than their husbands tend to be unhappy, and see if there’s a way to better navigate it.

        • Ashley
          Ashley says:


          Kudos to you re: the smart housing choice.

          I wanted to comment regarding the ambitious MBA-student you are dating now who wants to run her own business. I am a very ambitious woman who always wanted to run her own business. I opted out of an MBA in favor of a more technical Masters program (which I am completing now). I was so ambitious that I broke the “glass wall” in my corporate job at 24 (it’s when you move from a staff to a line position). I have always wanted to be married and have children, though, so my goal was to work like crazy during my 20’s and get a business started around 30. Then I would start thinking about getting married and having children.

          Well I am 29 now and I just left my cushy corporate type job last summer (at 28) to actually start developing a business… and you know what happened a few months in – I realized that what I wanted was control over my life and to be creative in my endeavors, not to take the weight of the world on my shoulders and spend 12-16 hours a day slaving a way on something that I know I was working too hard to accomplish. I also realized that I am a hard worker, but I am not about making money. I don’t want to be a pauper, but I don’t want the pressure that comes with that responsibility. I want like a part-time business that’s mine and can cover incidentals, but isn’t what my future family will rely upon to survive (housing, food, etc). That’s not what I thought when I was in my early 20’s.

          So what this means is that now that I am actually looking for a man to settle down with, I am looking at men that can support a family. I already know that once I have a kid, I DO NOT want to be forced to work full-time. So I am working on developing altering my business plans to be more like a lifestyle business. I’ve also decided to pursue more flexible employment options with Tech StartUps in my community, rather than doing my own Tech StartUp.

          The problem I have experienced is that men see what I have accomplished and how hard I am working now and ASSUME that this is somehow going to continue when I take on the additional responsibilities of being a wife and hopefully mother. Because I have had significant work experience I understand the pressures of the working world and I have learned how to live within my means. When I say that I evaluate men based on their ability to provide for a family, it’s based on a reasonable life.

          I am noticing a trend amongst my female friends who also climbed the corporate ladder at an early age. We are burning out by the time we are 30, but I think we are also becoming more appreciate of men and their role. I am totally different towards men now than when I was in my early 20’s.

          • Laura
            Laura says:

            Ashley, good for you for figuring this stuff out early on!
            You are a younger version of me, to some extent (I am now 45, married, with two kids in middle school). In my 20s I was so career focused. I turned down two marriage proposals, thereby ending relationships with great guys, because I was going to have that career. I consider myself a feminist but I was woefully unprepared for what the real world held in store because no one was talking about it truthfully.
            I earned a master’s degree and achieved a great career record and then after some time I realized that the career gerbil wheel was just that. I looked at the people a step above me – men and women – and none of them were happy. All were stressed and insecure about their jobs. When I figured out that I didn’t want to continue on like this for the rest of my life, that, there was SO much else out there that I wanted to experience and to be, I was left feeling that the rug had been pulled out from under me. I had NEVER thought i would ever want a family, children, responsibilities, etc. but it turned out I really wanted a family by the time I was in my early thirties. I had no idea what one did when you didn’t have a corporate job/some career path laid out in front of you. Anxiety ensued.

            Fast forward, I met a really great guy who makes a great income, values family and is wonderful to spend time with. I have not gone back to work since having my first child (I now have two), but guess what? Opportunities abound. really. I started a small business and it’s been going for the last 8 years. If you are at all entrepreneurial, and you obviously are, then you can create the life you want. My husband has done it and so have I. We have a house in the SF metro area, two kids in private school (ouch) and don’t drive clunkers. It may take some time (though it seems that you have ideas already).
            Having a husband who is supportive and earns well buys you flexibility in your life and you may find a time when that’s more valuable to you then cash or career accolades. Good for you for understanding what you want before getting yourself stuck in a corner.

    • Jack
      Jack says:

      How is the layout of the townhouse? (e.g. Will it be safe for a crawling baby?; Will the nursery be on same floor?) That can affect the decision.

      My family was not able to do it due to the design of the house. The layout of our place was horrible for a kid. We were going to need to drop a pile cash to remodel it. We did not have the money so we sold & move.

      On the other hand, my sister & her husband did not have the same layout issues. They were in situation similar to yours and they were able to do exactly what you described

      • Nathaniel
        Nathaniel says:

        I bought it intending for it to be a bachelor pad, so I didn’t give any thought to its suitability for family living, but I think it would work. The townhouse is two stories, with the living room and kitchen on one floor and the bedrooms and bathroom on the second floor, connected by a staircase with two square landings. The bedroom doors face each other. It might not be safe for a crawler to be scaling or descending the stairs solo, but I suppose you could gate the top and bottom easily.

  43. Erin
    Erin says:

    This post really depressed me. I do agree that it’s hard for men AND women in this day and age to commit to both work and family. But it’s doable, and there are plenty of people out there who are making it work as two-income households with kids and they’re fairly happy doing so. It’s not perfect but no situation ever is, whether you work or stay home.

    We have two young kids with a third on the way and we both work full-time. We fall under #2 above, with sharing the household duties and the breadwinning and so far, it seems to work pretty well for us. I can only hope that will continue! We’ll turn 32 this year, so the idea that we’ll max out at 35 scares me greatly – I guess I’m naive to think that our salaries will keep increasing as they always have. But I guess it makes sense that it’ll slow down a bit.

    I don’t necessarily need a ‘high-powered’ career, and neither does my husband – we both just want to do work that fulfills us, allows us to pay the bills and allows us the flexibility and time to be with our family. I think that *can* be achieved and I think more and more companies today are recognizing the importance of flexibility and work/life balance.

  44. Career Bliss
    Career Bliss says:

    Great post. I couldn’t agree with you more that being a standout breadwinner requires making a choice between that and being a standout family man. It’s very hard to find balance and accomplish both.

  45. sarah
    sarah says:

    Totally agree! So many choices and compromises must be made. We make just shy of 70,000 in a small city, one hour from a large city. Small cities are the way to go! No fancy vacations for us, but plenty of weekend trips camping, plenty of Saturdays at the movies, and all the sports/dance/after school activities a child could want, definitely make up for it. We make do with one car and no cable and are strict with our grocery budget. It makes for a pretty good life in a great neighborhood with good schools. This is definitely more than what I had growing up!

    • Mira
      Mira says:

      Yes! Small cities are the way to go. I live in one now and love it, hoping that the next (upcoming, unavoidable, unpredictable) move takes me to another. Or if not, that there can be another soon after that!

      Not sure they solve the issue of work hours for parents, but everything else is great.

      • rb
        rb says:

        Before my first husband and I were able to buy a house in the SF Bay Area (we bought in Berkeley, actually) we thought we’d never be able to afford it. I looked into small cities and almost did it.

        But I grew up in a smaller city and I was worried about the lack of diversity and the small town close-mindedness compared to a larger city. It’s a trade-off for sure, and I still wonder about it.

        Also, the small city we were looking at did not have any better crime stats on a per capita basis than SF/LA/NY/Chicago. I found this true of a lot of second-tier cities.

  46. Jim
    Jim says:

    It is possible to acknowledge the reality of biology and social expectations and still chart a course for your marriage and family that works for you even if it goes against the grain. Being conscious of of external (non-personal) forces and having confidence in yourself and the choices you make on behalf of YOUR family can prevent these forces from exercising tyrannical power over your life.

    It is your life, after all. Decide for yourself how you want to live it. Or let someone else do it for you. The conflict will still be there no matter which choice you make.

  47. rb
    rb says:

    I agree with you about the $150K (and even that seems absurdly low here in SF) but I think you tend to underestimate the number of people who have decent jobs and work regular hours most of the time. Not every industry is high tech, and not every earner of a respectable salary dwells in the C-suite.

    • rb
      rb says:

      Oh – and not every family raises their kids with the goal of making them little CEOs either. I’ll settle for happy and healthy.

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