It sounds like a straightforward and practical arrangement: Dad works outside the home full time and Mom stays home to take care of the children. Many couples who make this decision for their families agree — in theory, at least — that each parent has a challenging and important job. But even among egalitarian parents, resentment and frustration often stem from an all-too-common scenario: Dad worked all day and wants to come home and just relax, while Mom has been waiting roughly nine hours for the opportunity to pass her often screaming and spittle-covered child to someone else for a few minutes so she can have a break. It’s what everyone wanted but somehow, sometimes, no one is happy.
“When they come to me, it’s normally because dad feels like mom is not doing enough, and he should be able to come home and relax and not be an engaged parent, or mom doesn’t want to stay home anymore because it’s not as rewarding or satisfying as she presumed,” says Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Staten Island, New York.
Every couple is different. But the key to making a marriage work when one parent is a stay-at-home mom and one parent goes to work, is expectation management and empathy. Importantly, stay at home moms often need their husbands to understand how difficult it is to lose your identity; husbands need their wives to understand the pressure they’re under to provide for their family and how isolated from their new kids they feel. Working to make both sides known is crucial to making things, well, work.
Once the tradition and norm, today, mothers’ decisions to stay home with the kids might merely be due to personal preference or because she was raised to think that’s what mothers should do. The reason might be financial: If her salary doesn’t cover or barely covers the cost of childcare while both parents work, it often makes more economic sense for her to stay home. This is particularly so when research suggests that new dads earn more, according to a 2018 study, and mothers are often paid less, another found.
Although the arrangement is no longer a given, many women still consider ditching work to care for their children full time to be living the dream. Less than one-third (28 percent) of married moms said they consider full-time work ideal for them, according to a 2019 survey by the Institute for Family Studies. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that the percentage of mothers who chose to stay home and not work had increased for the first time in decades: Whereas in 1999, 23 percent of mothers stayed home with the kids, that figure had risen to 29 percent by 2012. In a report published in 2018, Pew found that the number of stay-at-home moms had dropped only a bit at 27 percent by 2016. For the most part, society generally supports this traditional arrangement. Just five years ago, 60 percent of people polled said that kids were better off if mothers stayed home rather than worked.
Statistically, married, college-educated mothers are less likely to quit working and stay home with the kids, but many educated women abandon promising careers to take care of their children. A Chicago mother of one with another child on the way, Jennifer Storelli loved her first job after earning her journalism degree at Northwestern University but says, “Honestly, I always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. My mom also was a stay-at-home mom, and I loved having her around when I was a kid.”
Even when women love the idea of staying home with their children, however, the arrangement creates strain in a marriage. For one thing, there’s an undeniable change in the power dynamic when one person holds the pursestrings.
Cindy, who asked that we not use her last name, describes her ex-husband and the father of her 13-year-old son as an incredibly involved and loving parent, but says that nonetheless, there were occasional problems related to money.
“There were a couple of instances where he claimed I was a spoiled stay-at-home mom trying to keep up with the other stay-at-home moms,” says Cindy, who lives in Marina del Rey, California. “For instance, once we were looking for a car and I suggested a Mercedes, and he went off the deep end about what the fuck was I thinking and that I was spoiled.”
Many dads, sometimes because they’re dealing with their own new pressures and stresses as the sole breadwinner, don’t always grasp how complicated, conflicted and unexpected women’s feelings might be about being home alone all day with a baby, which Cindy describes as “heaven and hell.”
“Some days seemed endless,” Cindy says. “Many days, I cried and was lonely as hell, and overwhelmed. Even though I had what every mom hopes for — the ability to stay home with my baby and a husband who made it happen — I was so exhausted and had no family in town and my friends (none of whom had kids) kind of disappeared on me.”
This makes sense, afterall. New parenthood is all about transition. Mothers who quit working to stay home with children aren’t just adjusting to motherhood, they’re adjusting to a completely different type of work, one with little feedback and no easy measure of success compared to their experience in the workplace.
“I think [my husband] has a hard time understanding how draining it is to be constantly fulfilling others’ needs without any recognition or having anyone offering to support me in meeting my own needs,” says Elizabeth, a mother of a 6- and a 3-and-a-half-year old in Boston. “I didn’t realize how important it was to my psyche to have people offer praise until it completely disappeared, and I was working harder than ever.”
Some of the stress stay-at-home moms deal with stems from the more obvious, and exhausting, responsibilities of caring for children.
“I try and realize these are precious moments and I’m going to miss them when he is older, but when my son wipes his snot all over the new shirt I’m wearing or when he takes 1,000 hours to get from the door to the car, and then pees his pants when I finally buckle him, it’s very hard,” says Stephanie Powers, a mother of a 3-year-old in Tampa, Florida.
A nagging pressure that they should be grateful for even the more disgusting aspects of full-time motherhood is something many women express when talking about staying home with their kids. They also more explicitly mention feeling guilty. Because many people believe kids are better off when moms stay home, if mothers work full time, they’re accused of harming their children’s development and emotional well-being by leaving them with other caretakers. If moms do stay home, they’re sometimes criticized by others, in person or online, for being lazy or anti-feminist. They’re sometimes accused of not being good role models for kids growing up in a society that puts a greater value on careers than it does on homemaking. Stay-at-home moms feel guilty for being exhausted and worry they’re not keeping the house neat enough or taking good enough care of the kids, even when their husbands aren’t complaining.
“[My husband, Alec] realizes I have the harder job, but he thinks I stress too much about all of the messes and should just chill out and not worry about living in a toy/paint/yogurt-covered mess,” Powers says.
She and Alec don’t spend a lot of time together because when he’s home at night or on the weekends, she’s in desperate need of a break. Alec helps make it work by letting her sleep in on Saturday mornings and taking care of their son a night or two a week so she can go out and see friends.
“Children thrive when a healthy stay-at-home parent is there, but it can be lonely and isolating,” says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Southern California and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together. “So stay-at-home parents should make a point of getting together with other parents.”
Socializing away from home helps moms maintain an identity outside of the family, which is not only important for their mental health, but makes the transition later from full-time motherhood to autonomy easier, Henry says. It nevertheless can be hard for some mothers, because, she says, “Motherhood is so narrowly defined that for a lot of women, time away from your kids and doing something for yourself feels selfish or wrong.”
It isn’t just mom who needs understanding and empathy during the transition to parenthood, however. Dads do, too. Being the sole provider for not just your wife but your child often comes with incredible pressure and stress that your wife might not think about or understand. In addition to making an effort to understand what their working husbands are going through, it’s helpful for stay-at-home moms to make dads feel included and important to the baby’s development.
“I always make sure to share with him the little helpful tips I’d discover about our daughter so he could help with our routines,” Storelli says. “For example, she went through a phase when she thought the word ‘chewy’ was hilarious. I made sure to tell him so that he could spark some laughs, too.”
Storelli also sends her husband pictures of their daughter during the workday so he can feel like he’s part of her development and makes sure to mention all the times their daughter asks about him during the day, so he knows he’s missed.
But many couples with a new baby are so busy trying to figure out how to be parents that they don’t have the time and energy to monitor how their relationship is changing. It isn’t easy to find the time and can feel hard to justify focusing on yourselves instead of your child. It’s crucial, however, to make checking in with each other a priority to make sure you both feel heard and understood and like you’re both putting effort into the relationship.
“Staying at home with children does not have to negatively impact the relationship at all, especially when it’s what both parties want,” says Devon Jorge, MSW, a psychotherapist in Kitchener, Canada. “Where marriages can go wrong is when the decision is not explored deeply enough and there are assumptions and expectations made on both ends on what this will look like for their family.”
On top of making each parent’s workload equitable, couples should be prepared to have what can be tough conversations about their sex life and whether they need to set up a financial safety net for the nonworking parent, who will be stuck with no money and outdated work experience if they were to split. Many men are offended at the suggestion that they might not provide for their families if they were to divorce their wives, but people change when they’re no longer happy, are hurt or feel they deserve vengeance, Henry says. A separate bank account or investment in only her name might help alleviate anxiety about feeling financially dependent on her husband and give her peace of mind that she won’t be destitute in the event of a divorce.
A harmonious relationship won’t look the same for every couple in which Mom stays home with the kids. What’s important is to come to some agreement about roles and expectations, whatever those look like, Henry says.
“It could be deciding how can you pitch in and she gets a break, or getting a babysitter and going out separately or together,” Henry says. “You need to decide together what’s necessary for the needs of everyone in the family and how you can both contribute to making that a reality.”
There are certain personality traits that can make couples’ conflict resolution easier, says Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, and the author of The Self-Aware Parent. Parents able to move out of their comfort zones and who don’t need to be “right” at all costs are better able to change, she says. The ability to verbalize feelings and needs, a capacity for self-examination and willingness to own up to mistakes as well as a sense of humor all make weathering parenting storms easier.
With some work, couples can get better at those things, but a really important component in making the stay-at-home mom, working dad partnership work is respect, Tessina says.
“If they feel like a team that’s working together to give their family the best life possible, they’ll probably do well,” Tessina says. “But if the working parent doesn’t respect the stay-at-home parent or isn’t willing to cooperate, there will be problems.”
Elizabeth says she doesn’t feel like she and her husband knew what they were in for when they decided to have kids and that she has had doubts about whether being a stay-at-home mom was the right decision for her.
“I think we each had idealized visions of how the other person would be, and we’ve both had to shift those quite a bit,” she says. “It is a very, very trying gig. However, I think the strain of balancing a full-time career and motherhood would’ve been harder for me than it has been to stay at home. As hard as it has been to be with them all the time, being away from them is even harder. It’s quite the paradox. And an emotional juggernaut.”
Parenting and marriage aren’t easy, adds Jason B., the father of a first-grade girl in Overland Park, Kansas, who works full time so his wife can stay home with their daughter.
“We argue at times and get mad at each other. Lack of sleep and free time can make anyone angry, and fuses can run short,” he says. “But that’s where you have to have patience and forgiveness. The key is focusing on making a decision to always be there for the other person. Give them time to cool off and take time to cool off, and approach them once you are level-headed. And remember first and foremost that love brought you together and love will keep you there.”