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.

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  1. Jon
    Jon says:

    Aw shucks, I came here thinking I’d glean something valuable. Instead I found what I thought was amounting to a parody column until I got over my LOLz and sadly realized Penelope is trying to be serious.

    I do appreciate Penelope’s sense of honesty and thinking outside of the box at times, but unfortunately she is trying to offer advice to a host of readers that are just common folk, which she is not (just ask her). This would have been far better off as a guest column from someone who is more realistic and knows more on the subject.

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    It’s about priorities. I live in Orange County, CA with three kids, and my take home pay is $50k/yr. My wife stays home with the kids, who are just getting to school age. We’ll put them in public school (that we’re already paying for) or homeschool them, to keep costs down and education level high. We live in a small place, drive older cars and buy a lot of used items. Our kids have learned the joy and pleasure of being outside in nature and other cheap entertainment, like the library.

    But it’s priorities at this point. Do I take a higher powered job, to make more money, skip into a higher tax bracket and incur additional expenses (like needing to dry clean suits every week or taking taxis, or entertaining clients on my own dime)? My kids will have more, we’ll live a more materialistic life, but I’ll work longer hours and feel more financial pressure and see the kids less.

    Or, I can take my smaller pay, and spend more quality time with the family, knowing that the important thing isn’t the car I drive to the office full of Mercedes and BMWs, or my small rental without an ocean view. The important thing is my family, which is why I got married and had kids. If the most important thing in my life was work and pay, I wouldn’t have brought other people with me.

  3. Kris J
    Kris J says:

    In our family, I make more than my husband and we’re totally OK with it and that’s because we’re both doing what we love. He’s a police officer and I’m a business exec. He doesn’t make a 6 figure income, but he’s doing what he was born to do. And we operate under a shared budget and responsiblity – so it doesn’t matter who makes more.

  4. John T
    John T says:

    I definitely agree it can be hard to find a balance between my family and my job. But it is possible to find that balance and it is the best feeling ever.

  5. don
    don says:

    Well said. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we cannot please everybody so let them be. The important thing is to become the greatest parent, the greatest father to our children. Yes it is not easy and it’s even harder to men who haven’t had a good example from their own parents but the trouble is always worth it.

  6. Texasdragonslayer
    Texasdragonslayer says:

    Let me start by saying that I have just started reading your articles Penelope, I love them! My wife has a major crush on you and talks about your articles all the time. I just want to add my 2 cents, for whatever it’s worth. I notice Houston wasn’t mentioned as one of the cities in your post. As the 4th largest city in the nation I think it should be considered. I grew up middle class in the “quiet” corner of Connecticut, neither of my parents having a college education. I moved to the north suburb of Houston, Texas about 6 years ago. I work as a Chrysler auto technician, which is about as blue collar as you can get, and my family is doing fine on my income of 100k a year. Between my wife and I (we are both remarried)) we have 7 children. My 3 live with their mom in Ohio, my wife’s 4 live with us full time. Her ex pays NO child support and I pay child support for my 3. I am supporting (essentially) 2 families with my meager income, a 240K house and all the bills that go with it. It is awfully tight around here sometimes but we do make it work. My wife has started working from home this year to help ease my stress and it is amazing! She homeschools our youngest girl while the next oldest boy goes to Catholic school (paid for by grandma). The oldest 2 boys go to public high school. Surviving the big city can be done making less than 150k a year. Although, if I can squeak out another 50k a year I would do the happy dance naked all over town!

  7. Rob C
    Rob C says:

    Perhaps Penelope has statistics to back it up, but it’s hard for me to believe that most men these days reach their peak salary at 35. If this was 20 years ago or more I would agree, but not today. It used to be that people began their careers right out of college and stayed in a straight career path in the same field so that by the time they were 35 they had 15 years in the same profession and made partner or became an executive and hit that peak salary. But starting with my generation (Generation X) all of that started to change.

    Instead of climbing the career ladder in their 20’s many in this generation spent their 20’s in various jobs either as a result of the many corporate layoffs or because they were trying to find what they really wanted to do. Most of my friends (and myself) wound up in different careers than what we studied in school. As a result, we didn’t really get going in our careers until our 30’s and are just now starting to hit our peak in our mid-40’s. They say that 40 is the new 30 and in this case I think it’s absolutely true!

  8. Chana
    Chana says:

    I feel like I have already been at every one of those stations discussed here. Raised in a small town (SMALL !- 62 people) where we all- Mom, Dad, kids, worked (family ranch). Seismic cultural shift to one of the most liberal colleges in the country- in a mid-size city with great cultural assets, lived abroad – England- both in London and in small town. and now nearly 2 decades in NY metro area. Both in the city and in leafy suburbs.
    Through all this we have raised 9 kids. Would do it over in a heartbeat.
    Reading comments here it sounds like people are trying to find the answer to the wrong question. Approaching the puzzle of their lives like it was analytic deduction- What would be the ideal combination of big-money generation/ relationship-deepening / cultural stimulation? As if life were a science and not an art.
    First of all the “cultural diversity” hailed here is a chimera. Of course there’s no diversity in a tiny Dakota town. But neither is there much real cultural diversity in a radically left-leaning university- just lots of people with different backgrounds and of different colors who believe exactly the same things and actually live remarkably similar lives. I suspect that “millenial” types (I do so want to know what self-loving secrets that tag harbors.) are not looking for diversity in their cities, they are looking to be around other enlightened “millenial” types like themselves.
    Nine kids means we have always struggled to make enough money to get by. My husband and I both work – hard- because we need the money. And I worked some hours even when my children were small because if I didn’t I would go stir-crazy at home. We have muddled through- we are still muddling through. But how well we are faring in the workplace has never been central. The life we put together with each other, our kids, and our main interests is where it’s at. Course sometimes it’s nail-biting. It’s always HARD work, but it’s also never occurred to me that we are leading anything but the highest quality life. Of course, I doubt whether many of your readers would share my values- most wouldn’t.
    But I still ask, explain to me please, what is with all this time spent setting up the game so that it will pay off in the end? What end? Where? How? Does it? Will it? And all the while, one is living a life he/she doesn’t and couldn’t love?
    I don’t get it.

  9. Madison Dad
    Madison Dad says:


    Long time reader and fan with a first time post since this really spoke to me. I’m one of those kids with an absent Dad who approaches parenting by generally doing the opposite of what I saw growing up.

    I guess we’re also an anomoly as a two career couple, relatively equal salaries ($150+K each), living in Madison now after Silicon Valley and Chicago stops. Early 50s, married 29 years with four kids (24 down to 14), one nanny max while the kids were younger, never more than $600 per week.

    My career advice would be to make and work a plan as a couple. Life won’t go according to plan. But, at least you’ll have something to laugh at. We expected two kids but, after our second was born with cerebral palsy, opted to have two more. Planned to be retired about now, instead will be working another five years, etc.

    One other piece of advice, don’t be a CEO if you want any semblance of balance. Instead, be one of their direct reports (CFO, CMO, VPs, etc.). You get half the reward for half of the effort and, I’m sure, less than half of the stress. And, live somewhere that fits your family and allows you to live how you’d like. Be in charge of your own life and know yourself (and your partner).

    Thanks, Dad, for the learning opportunities you gave me. And thanks, Penelope for this forum. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to your investor pitch and reading your blog and it is hard to decide which is more fun.

  10. ML
    ML says:

    But there are exceptions he will never admit. He will still marry you, have a family and stay, if:

    – He comes from money, so it’s not an issue.
    – You come from money, so it’s a step up for him.
    – His family pressured him to settle down, produce grandchildren
    – All of his friends are now married and he feels left out.
    – You are a trophy: very young, very attractive, famous parents, etc.
    – He can no longer compete with younger, wealthier men in the singles scene.
    – He actually wants to be a father, and you are a means to that end.
    – He believes it will help his career to appear as a family man
    – He is considering running for office
    – He wants a caretaker, someone who can cook, do laundry, care for kids from a previous marriage
    – He made an impulse purchase, didn’t think it through.
    – He needs a cover for his gay lifestyle
    – You have a house, he needs a place to stay for a while.

  11. Disappointed Romantic
    Disappointed Romantic says:

    American competitiveness backfires when it comes to education.
    We need “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success”(Alain de Botton)

    Just spending money on schools does not help.
    Quantity does not replace quality.

    …The US leads in spending by a LOT – $809.6B per year.
    The next largest spender is Japan at $160.5B.
    That translates to $7,743 per student in the US
    Finland spends only $10B per year
    (and is the fifth largest spender per student)
    but has a 100% literacy rate and
    the highest rank of math and science scores.”

    Would I pay even more taxes to see my child not only better educated but happier?
    Sure, I would.

    But this will never happen in the US — too big, too diverse,
    too obstinate, too materialistic.

    America is 60 times bigger than Finland. But it is not 60 times better.

    If you look at countries with high math scores –
    most of them are small, mono ethnic, mono cultural and with many traits of socialism.

    Just imagine an American presidential candidate with such an agenda :)

  12. Peter Simonetti
    Peter Simonetti says:

    I agree that men often find themselves in a no-win situation, between career and family. I’m especially sensitive to this as a single parent. While I make a decent living, I know that my income and career have suffered because I can’t put the time, or even the concerted focus, into a job because I have two children (both with Asperger’s/ADHD) to take care of as well. And I refuse to delegate all of that responsibility to caregivers.

    So, my life involves a lot of mediocrity. I have a mediocre job in which I participate in mediocre work. And my kids get a mediocre family experience because they have to hang-out with a sitter every afternoon instead of a parent. Sure, none of this is horrible. But it’s a little like death by a thousand cuts.

    I guess I’m most surprised, though, to hear that other father’s are having the same issue. I thought that this was mostly just my own bad time management. ;)

  13. Baby Lull
    Baby Lull says:

    I’ve been very fortunate in that my wife is a career woman who works downtown and I can work from home in between dropping and picking up our kids. Now more than ever there are opportunities to start a home based business. But I will admit its very tough on your marriage the first year so have the realistic discussion before hand.

  14. Gabby
    Gabby says:

    A very good friend of mine is a teacher in a very rough Chicago suburb (it’s not uncommon for cops to come and arrest a first grader). Because this school district has so many low-income families and troubled situations, they get a ton of grant/federal money. This district is able to hire and keep excellent teachers (like my friend and her teacher friends), and they always have all the most modern technical tools. She loves it, and once in a while she feels that she makes a difference. Parents from the wealthier, neighboring districts are fighting to put their kids in this district and none of the teachers want to deal with them.

  15. Tom
    Tom says:

    $150k a year . OMG that’s a joke. I can’t even walk out the door on Long Island in suffolk county without spending $500 a day . I look at a $100 bill and pretend its a $20 bill. I work 100+ hours a week and my wife works full time , no kids and we keep getting squashed with increasing bills. My electric bill shouldn’t be higher than my property taxes on Long Island , thanks PSEG for those inflated bills that went from $155 a month to $600 a month (Flat out theft) Theirs no middle class anymore and Health insurance is a joke. My loser junkie friends from highschool pay zero into health insurance & have zero copays ok maybe $1.
    That’s why most people stay unemployed , collect from the government and sell drugs while we pay ALL of the bills for everyone. I’m getting sick of seeing unemployed losers driving BMW’s with our money plus the drugs that they sell while their doing nothing else. Gas is $4 a gallon in NY state , highest anywhere. We’re sadly living in the scariest financial times since the great depresssion & the system is not allowing itself to heal cause you know who just keeps printing the dollar which is honestly worthless. Propaganda has us all fooled but now its getting so stupid people are staring the actually wake up a little. 2 pages for the bank bail out. Look how many pages most other bills required for such stupid issues . 2 pages and no rules for what those banks had to do with that money . They paid themselves for destroying our ecomomy instead of trying to help fix it. It now costs me $ to have a savings account, seriously come on everyone WAKE UP. I can keep going but I dont have time cause I have to make money

  16. Pam (Wildcat Fan)
    Pam (Wildcat Fan) says:

    I hope to not get beat up for reviving a 7 month old article. Further, I have not seen where anyone has addressed the subtopics, of the article, the suggestions that there are unrealistics expectations for husbands and unrealistic expectations for fathers.
    Those statements are false, so not true. Why would you write about this, when I know that you are aware of the real worl within a marriage?
    Well, Penelope, it would have been helpful if you had also mentioned the truth about how our society has unrealistic expectations for women, for wives. You see this in the media, everyday Penelope. Need I elaborate in my next comment?
    Notice how the internet is consumed with so called “Biblical” women articles that place all the responsibilities for relationships on the woman, while they speak of men as if they are idols or gods? The scoldings, lectures, and blame that women get for men’s sins ae unbelievable. Penelope, you as a woman should be aware of this.
    Still on the topic, yes women do think about home and their kids when they are out in the workforce. ?This is because we realistically place all the responsibilities on her and so she has to constantly keep her mind in planning mode. Like a fine fabric, ther are so many intricate areas at work, and men Penelope, will not or can not do what needs to be done. This s so discouraging, with so much despair for women.
    Now tell us again Penelope, why you wrote this article to suggest that society places unrealistic expectations on men.
    A selfish, cold, distant, spoiled, lazy man is not a leader. Women are the ones who lose out in marriage, not men.

  17. Anna White
    Anna White says:

    I currently live in the far southwest side of Chicago. I have a career which grosses me 75k/yr. I bought my house for $98,500 when the average price was over $150k because my husband and I looked long and hard for something that could be afforded on one income. I am raising three children on this income, paying two mortgages and own a car and a motorcycle. If it wasn’t for this last round of credit card debt, I would have an extra $500/month to keep or spend. And that’s because I am contributing to a 401k. To earn $150k a year would definitely cover every expense that I have! Its possible to get by on much much less than that.

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