White Coat Underground

How did we get here?

My wife is an accomplished professional. She loves her profession, and she’s damned good at it. But she is officially “unemployed”, and it kills her every time she has to put that down on a form. So how is it that she came to be unemployed?

When we met, MrsPal and I were both working full time—more than full time, actually. I’d have to say she was actually working quite a bit harder than I was. After we were engaged, an opportunity arose for her to cut back on her grueling schedule, but to do it she would have to quit her job entirely. For a variety of reasons, that is what she chose to do.

She became pregnant shortly after we were married, and it was not a pregnancy that would have mixed well with work. Over the years, by default, I have become the primary wage-earner in the family, and she has become the primary at-home parent and manager of the household (i.e. the one who does everything). Various conversations online and off have led me to wonder exactly how we came to this particular pattern.

We met fairly early in my career. I had spent the better part of my life in training, and MrsPal was already a veteran teacher. At that point, we could have made a conscious decision to appoint one of us the primary wage earner. We didn’t. We allowed ourselves to carry on working our usual pace, but I know she was wondering how to balance her home life and career. I was not subjected to as much of a conundrum as it was always assumed that as a doctor I would keep doctoring. As a society, we have decided to compensate teachers (about 75% of whom are women) far less than doctors, so there were significant practical concerns. We also don’t value pregnancy and early parenting enough to allow people to do it without significant risk to their job.

As my readers know, I love writing about fatherhood, but my ability to be a father depends entirely on my wife’s decision to stay at home and work her ass off.  Sure, we could have chosen for her to keep her job, but that would have meant a huge sacrifice in income.  And at the time we established this pattern, it wouldn’t have really crossed my mind.  Now, though, I think about it quite often.  Like many couples, we argue about the division of labor in our household.  It’s a difficult problem,  trying to make both partners feel their work is equally valued in spite of cultural norms.  I don’t have the answer, but it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a problem; a problem of society, and a problem of individuals such as myself who allow their spouses to feel less than well-compensated for their work.

I’ll admit to some discomfort writing about an issue that involves me so personally, and that indicts me as part of the problem.  But someone’s got to, right? And thank you, MrsPal, for being a great partner.  I’ll keep trying to be one as well.

Comments

  1. #1 Dianne
    June 15, 2010

    First, the disclaimers: I don’t think that there is any right way to raise children or split chores in partnerships or marriages. And I DON’T mean this as a criticism of you or Ms Pal or anyone else.

    However, it does seem that-by apparent coincidence-it’s generally the woman who ends up quitting her job. Usually there’s a good reason or reasonable excuse for it: the man has a better paying job or more invested in his career. The woman prefers to stay home. The pregnancy is hard and the pregnant woman has to quit anyway and then might as well stay off while the baby is young. And so on. Individually, they tend to sound like reasonable decisions for the particular family involved. But why, collectively, do men always seem to have the higher paying job? Or the more fun or high status job? Why does it always seem to be the woman who simply prefers to stay home?

    Personally, I have a higher paying job and a job with a higher potential income than my partner. He did not quit work when our daughter was born. Neither did I. Instead we both made compromises–and we cheated: his mother spent a lot of time babysitting the youngster, especially when she was a baby. Then we were lucky (by which I mean “wealthy”) enough to have a good preschool to send the then 2-year old to…and so on. I suspect that that happens fairly often when the woman is the partner with the better paying job: alternatives are found and no one quits. I have no data to back this assertion and could be wrong so consider it speculation and only speculation.

  2. #2 James Pannozzi
    June 15, 2010

    Courageous and well said!

    Even with his crazy anti-Homeopathy ideas, you can’t help liking this guy.

    As for your wife being “unemployed” perhaps it is time a reform is made of the Bureau of Laboured (sic, intentional of course) Statisics (sic, also intentional)
    regarding their estimation of what “employment” is and also their preposterous ideas about who to include and exclude from the “unemployment statistics” particularly vis a vis the “long term” unemployed, those forced to work one or several part time jobs and those forced to change “careers”.

    Part of the problem in health care, in politics and in every aspect of our lives is the government maintenance of FICTIONS as opposed to how things really are.

  3. #3 becca
    June 15, 2010

    @Pal- yes, somebody does have to. Thank you for writing.

    @Dianne- yeah, I know what you mean. Whenever I run into an male in science who has kids (particularly those with stay at home wives) I always ask why he didn’t stay home with them. A few blink in surprise, but most have answers very similar to Pal’s (I guess that’s a good sign about *awareness* of the issues). And as strongly as I was shaped by my dad being the stay at home parent, I quite wonder where my family would have been if it hadn’t been for various medical/employability issues my father had. We’re we a family who made unusual choices because of our values, or did our values follow as after-the-fact rationalizations? We’re very good at rationalizations in my family, but also recognize that ‘just because a rationalization is useful doesn’t mean it’s not true’.

  4. #4 k8
    June 15, 2010

    My brother and sister in law have a 10 month old. And when my sister in law’s maternity leave was over, she just couldn’t go back. Financially, they are better off if my brother works and she stays home (also a teacher) but my brother informs me that sometimes he cries on the way to work because he’s so jealous of her “getting to” stay at home with their son. It breaks my heart that anyone has to make that decision.

  5. #5 Lexi
    June 15, 2010

    I like Dianne’s point above. I became a stay at home mom for a whole slew of reasons that seem logical: I had to go back to work after 7 weeks of maternity leave (which no one should have to do), daycare was too expensive, my husband worked a lot, so he had no time, and he made more money than me anyway.

    It wasn’t until recently that I realized that this wasn’t really a sudden thing. This was just the way our relationship had always been heading. I met my husband right after I finished college, and was working an entry level lab tech job. I put off grad school, for a whole bunch of reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, but which boiled down to making a choice between having kids and having a career, or you know, balancing a family and a career. The thing is, men never have to think about balancing their families with their careers; women have to do the balancing. The reason we are more likely to make sacrifices for our families is because this is what is expected of us.

    I really think the only way to make it work is for both parents to be willing to balance family and career. It seems like many men are now taking on more household and parenting responsibilities. This is a trend that needs to continue if women are going to continue having successful careers.

  6. #6 Donna B.
    June 15, 2010

    Nicely put, Pal. I suspect my children are closer to your age than I am and I see this tension in their marriages. It’s playing out differently with each couple, of course.

    The oldest, daughter’s earnings and potential much lower than her husband’s. The middle, earnings and potential almost identical. The youngest, daughter’s earnings currently double husband’s, potential more equal.

    The oldest now stays home with the children because the quality of child care they want their children to have would have cost almost as much as she could earn (and still perhaps not meet their standard).

    The middle couple probably used some kind of statistical analysis to determine who would stay at home with the children, after they both decided that one of them should. (I’m not kidding. There was a spreadsheet with feedings, pees, poops, weight, etc. for their firstborn. I know because I was chastised for not filling in a few cells. I am also amused that no such thing exists for the 2nd child.) There’s more to their story, but physiology was probably the tipping point in several of their decisions.

    What the youngest couple will do is unknown, though I suspect I’ll find out soon. One of the spare bedrooms was recently designated a nursery though I’m assured there is no pregnancy. Yet.

    Youngest daughter is fortunate to work for a company that has good policies in place for all parents, including ample parental leave, shared positions, and tasks that can sometimes be done from home. It’s not surprising that women hold a significant number of the upper management positions there, is it?

    What stinks is that youngest favorite son-in-law works for such a crappy company. I hope that when he has a child he’s allowed time off to be there for the birth. The moral of that is that crappy companies and bosses are crappy for both men and women.

    Though education and career choices factor into these situations to an extent, it’s significant (to me, at least) that youngest son-in-law is the only one with an advanced degree, while the two younger daughters both hold one. There’s 15 years between oldest and youngest daughters and I think that makes a huge difference also.

  7. #7 LadyDay
    June 15, 2010

    PalMD, you and your wife seem to have taken the same road most of my male colleagues and their wives have taken. There is nothing wrong with this if both parties are happy. Some women really LOVE to be at home – I have a few girl friends like that. They want to be with their growing children, and I can’t say that if/whenever my husband and I have kids (we’re not trying right now, and may not for a while), I’m not going to be jealous of the fact that they have more time with their kids than I’ll ever have. BUT, it is absolutely great that you acknowledge that you may not always be adequately acknowledging your wife for her work at home. It’s incredibly sweet of you to consider her feelings and a great example to other men/primary breadwinners out there.

  8. #8 lwwalker
    June 15, 2010

    PalMD: thanks for your post. I appreciate your posts on parenthood, marriage and medicine (as well as your exemplary anti-woo work). I’m a MD/PhD trainee with a wife, a son and a soon-to-arrive daughter.

    My family will have to navigate many of the issues you described. As a trainee, my very talented wife out-earns me, but that will likely change in the future. I deeply enjoy the family-friendly flexible hours my current PhD work allows, but I know that will change too.

    Our challenge will be to find our own way to develop our careers, raise the kids, pay the bills, and keep the dishes done. How exactly we’ll find this solution, I’m not yet sure.

    In any case, it’s valuable for trainees like me to have role models like PalMD in the field that place this sort of value on parenthood and family life. Unfortunately, I still get the squinty-eye from some of my older colleagues when they find out I have a family. I can only imagine the additional challenges that face my female counterparts.

    Keep up the good work, and I’ll continue to enjoy reading!

  9. #9 Rosioma
    June 15, 2010

    Yet another sensitive and intelligent father/husband/professional-guy in yet another generation discovers that the personal is political and financial. It all comes down to money – if you don’t have it, remaining at work while your children are young is a requirement, not an option. And having an older relative care for your child while you work is the way most of us make ends meet. And it also comes down to politics – several first world countries manage to find it in their hearts and national budgets to finance infant and child care centers, mommies’ helpers, extended leaves of absence that do not threaten future employability, pediatricians who make house calls. All without fear of being branded (gasp) socialist. We have a long ways to go.
    That said, each family must find its own path to happiness, and it sounds like you are working on that, MrsPal and DrPal. Your children will eventually appreciate it.

  10. #10 ctechie
    June 15, 2010

    Pal- thank you for bringing this issue that most marriages face after children are brought into the family out into the open. I’d like to take it one step further.

    To the women who responded that kept working in the ‘employed’ box for the Bureau of Labour, this arrangement, too, has complexities and negotiations that cause strife in a marriage. Some husbands don’t appreciate that their wives ‘work their asses off’ (as PAL so eloquently put it) in the work place for their company and bosses & at home for their husband and family.

    Just like Pal and MRS PAL, these couples may fight about the division of labor and how to make each feel that all they provide to the household is valued equally.

    Whether you work for money, a corporation, the family or whomever- the disagreement over self-value is the same.

  11. #11 Dr. O
    June 15, 2010

    Very well said, PalMD.

    It’s funny, but I’m possibly about to put my husband in a similar situation to your wife. I’m 5 months pregnant and looking for faculty positions around the country. My husband has a very good job, making quite a bit more than I do as a postdoc – although that wasn’t the case when we met a few years ago. If/when I get a faculty position, he’ll almost certainly be forced to quit his job to follow me. And, with the market the way it is, it may be a while before he finds a good job making anything close to what he makes now.

    The interesting part is that I feel an enormous amount of guilt over this situation. Not because of the money, although the extra income will be missed. But because I feel like I’m taking something away from him, forcing him into the stay-at-home-dad job for the sake of my own career, even if only temporarily. While this wasn’t an issue when we met, I can’t help but feel I should now think of changing my plans for him. Of course, since I’ve spent my entire postdoc on the finding-a-TT-faculty-position-in-academia path, changing plans without moving would be very difficult for me, and I could find myself jobless in the end. All of this makes me feel like I’m either going to end up 1) a really bad wife, or 2) a really bad feminist.

  12. #12 ScientistMother
    June 15, 2010

    thanks PalMD!

  13. #13 science-based humanist
    June 15, 2010

    I love these soft-hearted and hard-headed posts, PAL. Here’s how my husband and I try to deal with these compromises – we try to take the long view. Today, you get to focus on your career and I pick up the slack with the kids; tomorrow, we switch. Not literally, but you get the point. Of course, this assumes that we’re together for the long term. Fingers crossed. The other thing is that we think about our family – including job decisions – as a joint project. Yes, personal/professional fulfillment is important but it’s only part of the puzzle. I had kids relatively late in life and one of them is on the spectrum, so when I was working at a big law firm and not seeing the family much, though my husband was at home, I hated being out of touch with the kids. I am lucky, I think, that I gradually came to see my “career” as a “way to use my skills as a lawyer in a stimulating work environment and earn a decent paycheck.” But how would I have felt if this result was forced upon me by a more ambitious husband, when I still longed to climb the ladder? I would have been very resentful. Yes, feminism is about choice and I feel like was able to make mine.

  14. #14 Diane-with-one-N
    June 15, 2010

    Thanks for this. So many conflicting thoughts for me. It sucks that we women have to choose most of the time. And then it often divides us, and others presume to judge us on our choice. some people feel free telling me they’re so happy I made the choice I did, which I suppose is nice, but I always come away thinking “Who are you to judge me in any way about my decision??”

  15. #15 BB
    June 16, 2010

    This woman chose to continue working, while putting family first. Spouse did likewise. So what if we don’t have high-flying science careers? We’re still published scientists, we’ve given talks at conferences, taught courses. The kids didn’t feel short-changed and we got to see them grow into lovely adults. I tell people my children are my proudest accomplishments.

  16. #16 mk
    June 16, 2010

    Thanks for the post. When me and my husband met, we were in the similar career stage (both post-docs), but over the years and after 2 kids, I am a full time mom whereas he is climbing ladder in the tough academic path. I enjoy my time with kids, but there are times I wish I could go back and change our life little bit, to allow me also to have a science career which I loved so much.

  17. #17 mxh
    June 16, 2010

    Yeah, we’ve had to deal with this in our household also. The eventual goal is for both of us to work part time, but for now, with me not even done with med school now, I’ll be full time for a while, while Mrs. mxh will be part time and daycare will be our other part time help. It’s pretty tough.

  18. #18 Tsu Dho Nimh
    June 16, 2010

    I love writing about fatherhood, but my ability to be a father depends entirely on my wife’s decision to stay at home and work her ass off.

    Father’s Day quote of the year! I give you 10 internets and a cookie for that.

  19. #19 Cloud
    June 16, 2010

    @BB- your comment made me smile. I, too, chose to continue working. In fact, it was pretty clear to me during my first maternity leave that if I didn’t go back to work I was going to need some professional psychiatric help. My sense of self was unraveling. Some women are happiest as stay at home moms. Some women are happiest as working moms. And some women don’t want to be moms. All are equally valid choices.

    I make more than my husband, so if someone was going to quit and stay home, finances would have pointed to him. He chose to keep working, and we manage just fine. Maybe our careers could be higher-flying. I don’t know- neither of us has really changed tracks since having kids. And no, I don’t feel that we’re short-changing our kids in any way. They are without a doubt the most important things my life, but that doesn’t mean they have to be the only things. All in all, I am very happy with my life- sure, there are things I’d improve if I were in charge of the universe, but I feel pretty lucky given what I’ve seen of the alternatives.

    @PalMD, I suspect that if your wife does decide to go back to work at some point, you and she will find ways to make it work. Lots of people do, but we’re not the ones that get written about in the media, because “Couple is happy as dual career parents- news at 11!” doesn’t really work.

    My gut tells me that this is a financial issue tangled up with societal norms. For individual families, it may be properly framed as a financial decision. However we, as a society, are kind of goofy about working moms, and have not put the things in place that would take the financial piece out of the puzzle- like, for instance, paid maternity and paternity leave and high quality child care subsidized (on a sliding scale, of course) to be accessible to everyone. I know from the time I spend reading “mommyblogs” that there are plenty of stay at home mothers out there who would rather be working, who feel the same unraveling I felt during my maternity leave, but who can’t make their family finances work out to allow them to go back to work. And that is a real shame.

  20. #20 Bill in NC
    June 16, 2010

    A problem with no earned income at least in the U.S. is no qualifying for Social Security disability benefits.

    After her divorce, mom lived on alimony.

    But when she was diagnosed with dementia in her late 40s, she could not qualify for SSDI, so no early access to Medicare (available 24 months after disability, for some medical conditions it is available immediately)

    Obviously she was too young to access SS retirement income (based on her ex-husband’s record)

    It was a very expensive 10 year illness given she had to pay out of pocket for everything…

    You only need 2 credits/year (IIRC, that’s under $2500 in earned income) to keep SS disability eligibility.

  21. For me it’s not only about the compensation, but also about the societal derision. I hate when people ask me what I do (for a living). I never know how to answer. If I lead with “I stay home,” many people assume that I’m lazy and don’t have anything interesting/current/intelligent to say. They drift off to more exciting prospects. If I lead with anthropology, or other jobs I’ve held, then the stay home mom part is a bit more acceptable. As if it’s okay with them that I do this now, because I have earned the right to do so, and I’ve demonstrated my ability to string a few big words together.

    It’s also the (societal) lack of awareness that stay home parents do work our asses off. Happily there are perks, and one is that I get to ride bikes with my children to the coffee roaster on the way to the playground.

    Thanks for writing about this.

  22. #22 Chris
    June 17, 2010

    Sometimes life throws you a curve ball (please read at least up to my answer to that doctor). The one thing about having a disabled oldest child is that I did not pressure my younger kids academically. They did not get to go to the super duper uber prep preschool I had originally planned for my oldest, but to one that emphasized playing and getting along. They are doing quite well. My oldest is still a major concern even though he is twenty one years old.