Monday, March 21, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Switching to a Single Income

A new correspondent whose wife, a teacher, is about to become a stay-at-home Mom writes:

I have queried the Internet, and there really is no good, definitive advice article on the topic of "how to maintain a healthy marriage when transitioning from a dual income home to a single income". We are aware that having a stay-at-home-mother will ease a lot of stress and make life easier, but life assures us that every situation will have its obstacles. I am very curious on what your obstacles were, as well as your wife's.

I hate to disappoint, but I don’t have that definitive advice in me. Every marriage is different. That said, I have some thoughts to share based on our experience, and I’ve included some comments from The Wife as well. As always, your mileage may vary.

- Money as quantity. There’s the issue of going without a salary, of course, and there’s a longer term issue of going without adding to retirement savings. One of the drivers for us moving to the stay-at-home Mom model was the realization that once The Girl came along, TW’s entire paycheck would go to daycare. It didn’t make sense to us. (In writing that, I’m very aware of being American. Folks in countries with reasonable parental leave and daycare policies probably have no idea what I’m talking about here.) That said, though, we’ve found that attempting to re-enter the workforce after several years away is much harder than we had expected, even with a graduate degree. Recessions happen when they happen.

- Money as control. One sanity-saver for us -- and every couple is different -- has been a tripartite division of checking accounts: hers, mine, and ours. My paycheck is directly deposited into three accounts, each with its own sphere of responsibility. “Our” account pays for house payments, car payments, utilities, groceries, insurance, kids’ clothes, and just about anything else that’s clearly intended to benefit the entire family. “Her” account is under her undisputed control, and goes for her clothing and whatever else she sees fit. “My” account is under my undisputed control, and works the same way. The idea is to prevent either of us from having to ask the other for permission for stuff that adults shouldn’t have to ask permission for. An economist might argue, with technical accuracy, that these boundaries are artificial and contrived, but who wants to be married to an economist? Good fences make good neighbors, and clear boundaries make for adults who feel like adults. That’s worth a little paperwork.

- Isolation. The stay-at-home parent, well, stays at home. It can lead to real isolation from the adult world. She’ll need to make a conscious effort to get involved in daytime activities in which she can meet other Moms. (In my observation, stay-at-home Dads are far less common, and the few who do exist are often unwelcome in the circles of Moms.) That’ll benefit both of you in any number of ways. She won’t go stir-crazy. You won’t have to carry the burden of being her sole connection to the adult world.

- “Make life easier” Well, yes and no. It makes certain kinds of logistics easier. Dual-career parents of young children quickly learn that a sick kid throws the daycare routine into chaos, since you can’t take a sick kid to daycare. Having an adult at home helps with that. As the kid grows into the school years, having a stay-at-home parent helps with all the random holidays, half-days, school vacation weeks, and summers. But don’t be too quick to assume that she’s just always there. Public schools are so starved for help, at this point, that any parent with time will be dragooned into ‘volunteering’ until they break.

- Remember it’s not 1950. Thinking of job-plus-home as ‘our’ work that just happens to be divided a particular way can be helpful. It’s also true. I’ve turned down job interviews in locations where TW didn’t want to be, and have never regretted doing it. And don’t do the piggish-male thing of foisting all the childcare onto her. When you watch the kids, you aren’t ‘babysitting’ -- they’re your kids! Change diapers, play Candyland, give baths, spend time routinely. You know that awful headache you get after a hard day at work when the kids are being difficult and you’re in charge of bathtime and bedtime? She gets that, too.

I asked TW for her perspective; what follows is from her.

- Find other stay-at-home parents in the area with same-aged kids. ASAP. There are some national groups that exist solely for this reason, so you can find local chapters. If you can't find a local group, go to a park and try to meet other parents, sign up for Gymboree classes, take turns hosting playdates. I know probably everyone has already given you this advice, but there’s a reason for it and I can’t stress it enough. Just....find....other.....parents. You need to get out and be with other adults. It's good socialization for you - and your baby.

- Along the same lines, get out of the house once a day even if it's to go for a walk or to buy milk (bring the baby along, of course). There were some days where I was even more chatty than the cashier at the grocery store whom I'm sure wished I would just shut up and pay.

- If you can't get out of the house, make it a point to talk to another adult besides your husband every day. You can’t always depend on him for socialization. It’s too much pressure.

- Don’t rub it in. I mean the fact that one stays home and the other goes out into the world. I can’t remember how many times I wanted to throttle DD when he came home from work and said, “We all went out to Friday’s for lunch today.” Meanwhile, my hair was a mess, I hadn’t showered, and I had breast milk down the front of my shirt.

- Yes, you will now be responsible for more of the household chores, but doing a little each day really helps. I like to be organized, so making a chore schedule worked for me. Vacuum downstairs and launder towels on Monday, clean kitchen on Tuesdays, clean bathrooms on Wednesdays, etc., etc. Once the chore for each day was finished I could concentrate on other things. If on Sunday I noticed that the kitchen floor was dirty, I didn't run to get the Swiffer. The day to clean the kitchen was Tuesday and it could wait until then. Friday was (and still is) my day for myself. By then the chores are done and the house is clean. I put on a little makeup, my nice jeans and run errands, take the kids to the library, etc. This may not work for you exactly, but you get the idea. You can't do it all in one day.

- But save some chores for your spouse. Besides being good for both of you, it's a good example for your kids. I truly believe that your parents set an example for you of how a marriage should and shouldn’t be. For instance, I had a friend who married an “Italian prince” (can I say that?). Anyway, this guy went from his mom’s house to a house with his wife and expected her to do everything for him just like his mom did. And you know what? She did. He didn’t lift one finger except to cut the grass and that was just so the neighbors would think what a wonderful family man he was. But the bigger problem is that their son is growing up to be just like his dad and will probably look for a woman who will treat him the same way. Even worse, their daughter will most likely look for another “prince”. I am lucky that my wonderful mother-in-law taught DD early on how to take care of himself, and the fact that he had been on his own for a long time when I met him helped, too. He already knew how to do laundry, vacuum, go grocery shopping, etc. because he had to. Yes, his idea of “clean” is a little different from mine, but I can still count on him. TB and TG see their dad loading/unloading the dishwasher, doing his own laundry and cooking on the weekends (our rule: one cooks and the other cleans up). I like to think that seeing some division of labor will be a good role model for their own relationships (way, way into the future). TB will learn not to expect a wife to do everything for him and TG will learn not to do everything for a husband. Both will look for a partner who will split things equally.

- Just a thought: since your wife is a teacher perhaps she could tutor 2-3 days a week at home? It will help keep her mind sharp and enable her to continue to do what she was trained for. Then when she is ready to go back to work she won't have a big blank spot on her resume.

- Finally, I know I can always count on DD to have my back everytime. He is my superhero.

Again, every situation is different, but I hope you’re able to glean something useful from our experiences.. I’d also like to hear from any of my wise and worldly readers who’ve learned some of those “I wish I had known then...” lessons.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.