The demands of both work and parenting are rising. While working hours globally are falling (partially due to aging populations), those employed full-time are often working more. In the U.S., for example, full-time employees are working 47 hours per week, and four in 10 people work more than 50. And the bifurcation of those working both more and less is growing — with marked increases in those working “extreme” hours, particularly in high-skill professions. In addition, according to the World Bank, women now constitute 40%–50% of the workforce in many countries around the world, meaning work outside the home is impacting men and women more equally.
But we are also parenting more. Researchers at UC Irvine found that parents in 11 countries spend nearly twice as much time with their kids as they did 50 years ago, with moms spending almost an hour more each day than in 1965 and dads spending nearly an hour each day with kids (as compared with 15 minutes in 1965). Pew has found that dads now see parenting as being just as central to their identities as moms do (though moms still parent more), and households with kids are now 66% dual-income, versus 49% in 1970. It is no surprise, given these time commitments, that 50%–60% of parents find work-life balance difficult.
When we decided to start a family years ago, our lives were very different. We slept in. We had more free time. We had different jobs and different working hours. Our financial situation was simpler. Our decision to become parents has been worth every trade-off, but it changed nearly everything in our working and personal lives. We’ve seen other couples experience the same shifts, through Jackie’s prior work as a marriage counselor and John’s experience as an executive. And based on that personal and professional experience, we encourage working couples who are new to parenting or are considering becoming parents to start the conversation by asking five questions.
What does each person actually want? Men and women now often have more freedom to choose work inside or outside the home. As previously noted, an increasing number of women work outside the home, and according to recent surveys, a small but growing number of men are choosing to raise children full-time. But cultural norms still place immense pressure on a couple. When we had our first child, Jackie originally planned to return to work following a short maternity leave, but ultimately she decided to take an extended period of time to stay home with our children. This was a perfectly valid choice and the one she ultimately wanted to make — but nonetheless she felt enormous pressure to return to work. Conversely, many women would love to pursue their careers but feel pressure to stay at home with children. And men still are often assumed to be better suited to working outside the home, rather than to staying home to raise a family.
Depending on your social circles, there can be overwhelming pressure to prioritize either work or family — navigating an ambitious career or creating flexibility to spend more time with kids. There is no right answer to these questions, but there is a right answer for you and your family. And the answer starts with honesty and openness with yourself and each other. What do each of you really want? Ask the question frequently, as the answer may change over time.
What are the financial ne and constraints? Few of us are free from financial constraints. They are the reality within which we operate. When working parents have kids, a sober evaluation of finances — how much money you want, how much you need, and how much you have — is a foundation for interpreting the constraints under which each family operates. Some people do not have a choice to navigate two-career households, because of child care ne or health issues, for example, while some must choose the dual-career path due to financial demands. In the U.S. each child costs approximately $230,000 to raise — $12,350 to $14,000 per year — and according to care.com, day care costs more than $10,000 per year, on average, while the average cost of a nanny is more than $28,000 per year. The costs of rearing children are real and meaningful. Each family’s financial situation is different, but a clear-eyed evaluation of that situation is critical in order for working parents to properly evaluate the choices they make.
What roles will each person play? Prior to having kids (or early on), it is helpful to be clear about who will be responsible for what, while noting that you’ll likely also need to be flexible and step in for one another when necessary. Simple division of labor can make day-to-day decisions less stressful. Who pays the bills? Who takes out the trash or does the dishes? Who is responsible for dropping off or picking up the kids from school? Who will stay home from work if the child is sick? Research has shown that frankly working out household division of labor (particularly if that division is fair) can help eliminate the tendency of “partners to express displeasure toward one another as they completed their chores,” and while couples always need to be open to flexibility and helping one another, outlining a mutually understood view of household roles can be extraordinarily helpful in minimizing conflict.
Who’s losing when? Jobs sometimes require moves. Financial ne sometimes require jobs that are not fun. Be honest about who is losing in decisions that require tough choices, and make sure it’s not the same person every time. Relationships require compromise. Decision by decision, one person may have to be prioritized over the other, but over a happy life together, one person cannot lose or win every time. For example, we have witnessed one partner in a relationship receiving a great job offer that requires a move, which may be fine, but when it happens again and again, the partner forced to adapt each time can quickly feel taken advantage of. If one partner feels that they always have to make the trade-offs, they should speak up. And each partner in the relationship must be open to listening to the concerns of the other.
How can we stay close to each other? While juggling work and kids, it can be easy to neglect your spouse or partner. And if the relationship is failing or festering, both work and kids become infinitely more difficult. It is important to keep your relationship and each individual’s mental, physical, and spiritual health prioritized over all else — including over kids and jobs. What will prioritizing your relationship look like, realistically, in the chaos of work and kids? How often will you go on dates? Can you carve out time for meaningful conversation each day? This may mean allotting money for a babysitter for one night per week, spending a day away from work to reconnect with your partner, or finding time to share a long lunch together. Perhaps the most important thing to “solve for” in the complex work-and-family dynamic is one another, and discussing in advance the rules of the road for sustaining your relationship can be essential as the burdens of work and parenting pile up.
Parenting can be remarkably rewarding. The decision to become a parent is not for everyone. But for partners considering the balance of work and parenting — as we have experienced time and time again, both in a marriage counselor capacity and in our personal experience — openly discussing the ways to make that complex dynamic work will lead to happier and healthier relationships and careers. If you and your partner are considering having children or are thinking through your current balance of work and parenting, we encourage you to ask these five conversations of each another before you embark on the journey.