Credit Image: Kourtlyn Lott on Flickr
Not to give too much detail, but my wife Carol and I are in our early 30s and have been married for three and one half years. When we met and started dating, Carol had just become an attorney, and I was working at a bank. It was very apparent to both of us that her career offered the most financial upside. Plus, she was much more into her job than I was into mine. For those reasons, and for others, we decided and when we got married that she would be the main breadwinner in the family. Both of us wanted to start a family, and soon, but we left the details of that until events unfolded.
And events unfolded very quickly. Shortly after we got married, Carol became pregnant, and we began to determine how we would deal with our respective roles as wage earners and childcare providers. Fortunately, both of us had very generous parental leave policies at our jobs. We decided to stagger the leave periods, so that Carol stayed home with the baby when she was born, and I took over three months later once Carol had returned to work. Thanks to my stay at home, I became aware of how much I really enjoyed being at home with our baby. Both Carol and I prefer that at least one parent stay home or stay home part time; against the backdrop of my leave, we discussed what I should do. Eventually, we decided that I would go back to work part time. Again, fortunately, the bank where I worked was very flexible in that regard. So, just before our daughter turned six months, I took a big gulp and notified the bank that I would be coming back on a part-time basis.
The bank is less than a five minutes' drive from our house, so the part-time arrangement was doubly good – for the period when I had lunch, I usually came home, and was always very close by. At work, however, I did notice what I suppose that most women in my situation notice: that their career track has been derailed, and that full-time employees are given assignments that provide greater opportunities for advancement. I resented this a little bit, but I understood it, and I did not complain.
After I'd been back at the bank for about six months, we learned that Carol was pregnant again. Once again, Carol and I reviewed our options, and Carol took parental leave when our son was born, while I took my leave after her leave ended. Of course, during the period of her parental leave, I was still only working part time, so we got the joy of spending a great deal of time together with both of our children.
At the end of my leave, we again were faced with a decision as to what I should do. After many discussions and much trepidation, I finally took the huge leap and decided that I would stay home full-time. I gave notice to the bank, ending my career there.
That was six months ago. It wasn't more than a couple months after that that we found out that Carol was expecting again, in late August. This time, I'm already here, so that Carol's parental leave will involve both of us being at home for the full three months. That should be fantastic. In the meantime, Carol's law career has flourished, thanks in part to the fact that the firm is progressive but mostly due to the fact that Carol is an excellent lawyer. Also, I will take a little bit of credit. Both of us agree that, had Carol been obligated to do a lot of the things that do at home, she would have a much more difficult time at work and would probably not be advancing the way she is.
So, at least as I see things, there are two morals to the story.
- First a, it greatly facilitates arrangements if workplaces have generous parental leave policies. I am not sure whether and to what extent the laws should be amended to make paid leave for a fixed time mandatory, but it certainly made a difference in our case.
- Second, we need to get away from the notion that the default childcare and domestic care provider of a couple is the woman. Perhaps Carol and I have taken it to the opposite extreme, but our experience illustrates that, in many ways, the traditional model for a male breadwinner applies equally to a female breadwinner: both need a supportive spouse at home. I am not saying that this should apply for all couples, but there should be as much openness and opportunity for men to stay at home and be supportive as there is for women; vice versa with respect to breadwinner status – it should be as open to women as to men.
Despite the best intentions, that is still not the case. For example, Carol and I both experience criticism that would not be directed at a person of the opposite sex in our respective roles. Carol gets unfair and unwarranted criticism for being at work while she has little children at home, while I get criticized for "not working" and living off of my wife.
One day, perhaps, we will live in a world where these distinctions do not matter. In the meantime, we are struggling to get there, and the progress is uneven.
'Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington
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