Understand Your Finances
Why my husband became a stay-at-home parent
Having a female breadwinner opened up new options for this family.
When I got married 10 years ago, I had no inkling that I'd one day serve as the primary breadwinner for my family. Jeff, my fiancé, had a good job, a savings account, and no debt. I, on the other hand, had just graduated law school with $200,000 in debt and uncertain job prospects as the recession loomed near. If my husband had been looking for an easy financial future, he could have done better.
Four months after the wedding, I received my first student loan repayment bill. The minimum payment was three times what we paid in rent on the northwest side of Chicago. When we talked about our future, and our mutual desire to have a baby, I felt like we were at the bottom of a hole. A hole I had dug for the both of us.
Balancing babies and budgets
Over the next five years, we put off parenthood and worked to shed the debt. Meanwhile, I lost my job twice. The economy was in crisis, and the legal market was no different. But with each setback, we managed to recover and redouble our efforts.
By our five-year anniversary, we were almost debt-free and ready to take the leap into parenthood. I was 30 years old and working as a government attorney. We still didn't have much savings, but my job had a generous—by American standards—12 weeks of paid maternity leave. I stopped obsessing over interest rates and loan amortization schedules and dove into researching day cares and car seats.
We welcomed our son, Will, a year later. He was big and beautiful with a face just like Jeff's. We spent his first month of life in a blissed-out fog. The three of us filled hour after hour cocooned in bed—Jeff holding me holding Will.
And then, after four weeks of parental leave, he had to go back to work.
Work gets in the way of family
When I returned to work, Will was three months old. I liked my job and enjoying being around coworkers.
But Jeff was commuting over an hour each way to work so I was handling day care drop-off and pick-up by myself. Getting the baby out of the house in the morning was a feat. Diapering and dressing and bottles and coffee and my laptop and my phone and coats and mittens and carriers and keys and my wallet. It was just too much. I was cooked by the time I dropped Will at day care and boarded my train to work each morning.
As Will's sleep schedule regularized, it became clear that Jeff was only going to get to see him for 30 minutes each day at bedtime. With so little time together, Jeff worried that their attachment was waning.
That's when the conversations started. As we cleaned the kitchen each night we talked about how to fix our life. Maybe we could sell the little house we loved and could travel west to be with family? Maybe we should travel even farther? Korea, United Arab Emirates—weren't they always looking for Americans to teach English?
We considered whether life would be easier if I was a stay-at-home mom. Maybe I could start my own firm and represent clients part time? But I liked my job and didn't feel ready to go out on my own. Didn't it make sense for me to keep working since we had both worked so hard to pay down my law school debt? Also, although my take-home pay amounted to only a little more than Jeff's, my job provided good health insurance for all of us plus a pension. Wouldn't those things be really expensive to replace?
Finding a way to quit the nine-to-five
For the next three months, we ran every scenario we could think of through our budget in Excel. It was a discouraging exercise. Even with day care expenses deleted, we needed both incomes to stay out of the red. We scrutinized every line item—gym memberships, smartphone plans, the car rental membership—trying to get back to zero.
Eventually, we hit on something with potential. If we reduced our child care expenses from $1,900 per month to $800 per month (by going from full-time care to just two days per week) and slashed each of our flexible budget categories (food, shopping, etc.) by 25 percent, we could create the margin we needed for Jeff to transition from his full-time job to part-time freelance work, a decision that would also position him to pursue his true ambitions as a journalist. We made the transition when Will was seven months old, and now—three years later—we haven't looked back.
We welcomed another baby in 2017, and Jeff is now splitting his days, working in the morning (with help from a babysitter) and hanging out with the kids in the afternoon. Sometimes we toy with the idea of having Jeff return to full-time work. Like, when a client invited him to apply for an editorial position or when our boiler broke and we were looking at a $6,000 repair bill. But when I think back on those early days and imagine day care drop-offs and all the other hassle, I know the extra money can wait.
Finding peace in work-life balance
Even with two kids, our routine works better now. Jeff helps me get the kids ready in the morning, giving me the space and time I need to prepare for the day. When I arrive home at 5:30 p.m., Jeff has already figured out a plan for dinner, leaving me free to connect with the kids.
Rolling play dough with Will, performing puppet shows, listening to the wild tales of his three-year-old imagination—these are luxuries I can enjoy because of our choice. Since we made the transition, Jeff has taken on a lot of the mental load that I used to carry. He makes doctor appointments, knows what size shoes the kids wear, and remembers to bring oranges to the preschool holiday party.
There are still things I take the lead on—for instance, I wake up with the baby at night and still do the kids' laundry. But overall, we try to split things so we each get about equal downtime. Striking the right division of labor hasn't always been easy. When it became clear Jeff should be in charge of groceries, for example, there was a lot he had to figure out. He didn't know about meal planning or to look at the grocery-store circulars for sales. But we continue to work on making our setup work for us.
I'm lucky to have great friends: young parents like myself, who are happy to get together for pizza in cluttered homes. I'm also blessed to have a job that allows us to make this kind of choice. I realize many families can't afford to have a part-time, stay-at-home parent. Most of all, I'm lucky to have my husband, a man who's almost preternaturally unconcerned with other people's opinions. If it works for us, he says, that's all that matters. He's right: and so far, it works.
Illustration: Assa Ariyoshi | Sarah F. Terman is a Chase News contributor.