A woman and child are reading together.

Two incomes may not be better than one

Or, why some well-educated feminists stay home.

[The messy truth about gender roles in my family.]

When my husband made partner at his law firm in 2009, they hosted a small but sweet dinner for him, along with the other new partners and their spouses.  I had been a stay-at-home mom for a few months since our first child was born, and I had been doing almost all the night-duty since my husband had returned to work about a week after the baby was born.

Perhaps I was not really in the proper condition for a night out with professionals.

When a founding partner of the firm told me that he was proud of the firm’s willingness to be flexible with work schedules for female partners, I had a hard time with the nod-and-smile that may have been the best response from me at the time.  Instead, I said:

“Until you start offering the same flexibility to men in your firm, you are not really doing women any favors.  You are making it so that it has to be the woman who steps back. Until men can work part-time and take paternity leave, women will have to do it every time.”

Yikes.  Sorry, baby.

We didn’t mean for this to happen

When we got married, neither of us had a vision for our family of strictly traditional gender roles. Since I had started work right after college, and he had gone to law school, I had more money saved than he had when we met at age 25.  When we were dating, I took note of the way he cleaned his house and the way he talked about household chores.  He told me that laundry had been primarily his dad’s responsibility when he was growing up.  Check.

I knew that his earning potential exceeded mine by a long shot, but I really didn’t yet understand what that would mean for our family.

Slowly, our roles became more and more traditional. In the first few years of marriage, we shopped at a farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, planning meals and cooking together throughout the week.  Over time, the grocery shopping and cooking fell into my lap.  I picked up his dry cleaning and prescriptions, got his oil changed, and the got emissions tested on his car once a year.  I also did the bill paying and the investing for us.  I did pretty much everything.

When our kids were born, I took full responsibility for their care.  He didn’t come to doctor appointments or teacher conferences.  He was gone before they woke up in the morning and usually arrived home to find his children fed, bathed, and ready for bed.

I don’t say this as a criticism of my husband.  He has worked so much that it couldn’t be any other way.  It just became our unplanned reality. I mostly loved it.  I fell in love immediately with motherhood and I wanted to be with my kids.  It would have been nice to have more balance, but I would not have traded places with my husband even if I could have. It wasn’t easy for him either.

Now that our children are older, we are trying to shift the mix.  I returned to work when our youngest was in pre-K. My husband is still our primary earner, but he has intentionally reduced his hours. I am working hard to help build our business and I hope to be able to make his income unnecessary in the next ten years.  I am still the default parent, but he has attended a few doctor appointments and teacher conferences now, and when our two kids have baseball games on the same night, he is able to go to one of them.

When Claire Cain Miller’s article  Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy.’ was published in the New York Times last week, I wanted to underline and highlight every paragraph.  She explains so well why this happened in my family and in so many others.

All-or-nothing jobs: someone has to watch the kids

Practicing law is one of those professions that can demand every moment of your time. With technology now ubiquitous, being unreachable or unavailable will probably lead your client to find someone who is reachable and available.  There is no real part-time in many professions, and boundaries on time are almost non-existent.  Those who are willing to work all the time will succeed.  They will make partner, earn bonuses, keep their jobs.  Those who are not willing will not.

Of course, when there are children involved, the only way to be available to work all the time is to have someone else take care of the children and the chores.

That much I guess I knew.

What I hadn’t really thought of was that my role as the stay-at-home parent in the early years probably added to our bottom line beyond saving on the cost of childcare. Being able to maximize his earning potential by removing family-related restrictions on his schedule may have boosted our income and savings even more than if I had been working too.

Miller explains that while workers’ overall hourly rate was once lower when they worked more hours, now there is a premium paid to those willing to work around the clock.  Here are three key quotes from her article:

“Because of rising inequality, if you put in the extra hours, if you’re around for the Sunday evening discussion, you’ll get a lot more,” said Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard who is writing a book on the topic. To maximize the family’s income but still keep the children alive, it’s logical for one parent to take an intensive job and the other to take a less demanding one, she said. “It just so happens that in most couples, if there’s a woman and a man, the woman takes the back seat.”

This is not about educated women opting out of work (they are the least likely to stop working after having children, even if they move to less demanding jobs). It’s about how the nature of work has changed in ways that push couples who have equal career potential to take on unequal roles.

Women don’t step back from work because they have rich husbands, she said. They have rich husbands because they step back from work.

There are other ways

Her article confirms my feeling that gender equality in careers is still challenged, but it also affirms that my role in our family has had a financial value in addition to an emotional value. Our traditional gender roles have been frustrating to me at times, and have challenged my sense of self-worth, so I appreciate the change in perspective that the above quotes allow me.

On the other hand, many of my clients have dealt with these realities in different ways, and these approaches offer their own costs and benefits.


The most obvious solution, and possibly the most financially beneficial if both parents have very high earning potential, is to hire some help.  It may be necessary to hire someone who can work very long hours to help before and after school.  It works best if the person can take on some of the mental burden of household management in addition to doing the legwork.  This means reading the notes home from school and the birthday party invitations and shopping for the gifts or the necessary supplies without being asked.  It means noticing what is running low in the pantry and picking it up at the store.  This type of help will cost more than daycare, but it will allow both parents to be as available as they need to be at work to maximize their career growth.

While they aren’t there to meet the bus or drive kids around in the afternoons, my clients who choose this solution are very connected with their kids and involved in their lives.  They may not be at every practice, but they make the games.  They may not cook every meal, but they are there for the stories at bed time. They tend to prioritize family time over social and volunteer commitments, and it works well for them.

Both parents cut back

If two parents both have high earning potential, they may be able to afford to both work part-time and still meet the family needs.  If Miller’s article is correct, this may be the most expensive option in terms of cumulative income.  Both parents may experience a more-than proportional limitation on their earnings, and there may still be some childcare cost.  On the other hand, this solution offers other emotional and health benefits.  Being able to work less means more time, not just for the family, but also for self-care like exercising and hobbies.  Sharing household chores more equally can reduce marital stress.  If you can do that and still meet your financial goals, that can be very attractive.

No universal solution

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for balancing careers and families.  No matter how a family handles it, there will be highs and lows.  I make no judgment on any approach.  There are many non-financial reasons why a person chooses to work, such as a vocation or for personal fulfillment.  There may be times when a person chooses to work even though the income is not significant or is not needed.  Our goal with financial planning is to help our clients achieve their goals.  No client has ever come to us with a goal of making and saving as much money as possible at all costs.  There are always trade-offs to consider, and personal satisfaction depends on much more than income. What we try to do is help families understand their options and the financial implications of each one.

Material discussed is meant for informational purposes only, and it is not to be construed as investment, tax or legal advice. Please note that individual situations may vary. Therefore, this information should be relied upon when coordinated with individual professional advice.