Dear Mrs. Riches:
My wife and I have two wonderful children, ages 5 and 7. The youngest is headed off to kindergarten this fall and will be gone all day for the first time. My wife is a stay-at-home mom and will have significantly more free time when this happens. I had always assumed that she'd return to work because it's been a real strain on our budget to rely on one income -- so much so that I have worked another job at nights and on weekends for the past seven years. But recently, when I mentioned it, she acted like I'd lost my mind and accused me of being insensitive. I have been very supportive until this point but I am losing my patience. Mrs. Riches, is it wrong for me to push for this?
-- Bringing Home the Bacon
Dear Bringing Home the Bacon:
When I read your first three sentences, I was all ready to develop an answer about how much value a stay-at-home spouse brings to the partnership and to remind you to appreciate your wife's contributions. (For the record, Salary.com estimates that stay-at-home parents would earn an average of $131,471 annually, should they receive a paycheck.)
All of that is true, of course, but then I read your fourth sentence; that's the one in which you describe that you've worked an extra job since the birth of your oldest child to make ends meet. That tells me entirely new information about you -- that you valued your wife's contributions to the family enough to work a second job to make it possible and that you have demonstrated that commitment for a long time. So this is not a question of you devaluing her work at home.
What is less clear is how much you and your wife communicate about such important matters as finances, vocational plans, and life goals. It sounds as if you simply assumed things would change, while she assumed they would stay the same; no one ever checked to see if the assumptions were correct. If there were marriage police, the two of you would be given a citation for taking indecent liberties.
I think it is unfair of your wife to turn this issue into an indictment of your level of support, however. Clearly, you have paid some dues, as has she in her work with raising your children. So now I'm left wondering why she does not want to return to work on your prospective timetable. Have you begun to figure that out?
A bunch of possible reasons pop into my head -- that she: is fearful of a return to work (does she worry she is underqualified after a hiatus of seven years?); feels she has earned some time "off" since she's been the at-home parent; thinks your regular salary is sufficient to support the family; is unaware of how much you dislike your extra job; wants to make sure she can stay involved with your children's educations; is afraid she will end up with a job and all of the same responsibilities at home; and the list of guesses goes on. Find out if it's any of these reasons or something else entirely. You won't know how to address your wife's objections until you know what's fueling them.
When it comes right down to it, however, I don't think it's unfair of you to expect her to share the burden at this point. But perhaps there is room for compromise with regards to how she contributes to the household's financial well-being. My suggestion is that the two of you determine how much you can reasonably live on and how much "extra" (beyond your regular salary) it will take to make that goal. When you come up with the amount, you can begin to strategize. Perhaps she could earn enough with a part-time job that will still allow her plenty of time to interact with the kids. Perhaps she can find work she can do at home. Once you know your goal as a family, you'll be better able to divide up the responsibilities in a way that meets everyone's needs. Best of luck in navigating this tricky issue.
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Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. To get your money and relationship questions answered, send her an email .