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My Family Is Now the Typical American Family of Four. And It Sucks.

After five years of being a stay-at-home mom, my wife recently went back to work. The transition reminded us how great we had it.

I knew before my wife and I got married that she aspired to be a stay-at-home mother and housewife. Sure, it seemed like an odd goal for a smart-as-hell, modern 32-year-old woman, but she stressed to me that, since she was a little girl, she’d dreamed raising kids and managing a household would be her prime occupation. I was game to see her dream come true. After all, at the time, she was helping support my dream of being a writer, which, particularly in the beginning, wasn’t exactly lucrative. 

Eventually, we did both realize our dreams — me writing professionally and supporting the family while she kept up our home and took point on raising our kids. And we happily maintained the dream for a full five years. But now, due to circumstances beyond our control, my wife has returned to work and we live the life of a typical American family of four. I’m here to tell you: It sucks.

When my wife and I were in our early 30s, dreams were just dreams. We didn’t have kids. Our time away from our jobs was ours alone. We filled it with rock shows, dive bars, travel, and sex. Then, three years after our marriage, the sex part culminated in its natural outcome. We had our first child. Life became immediately more complicated. Luckily, I found a gig that paid well and my wife had a job that allowed her to take our bundle of joy to work. We managed, but we were not exactly achieving our dreams.

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It wasn’t until two years later, when we had our second child, that I finally found work that could support us both. It wasn’t writing, but I was making money. And it meant I could finally support my wife’s goal of being a stay-at-home-mom. So, we bought a house in Ohio and became a single-income family.

Both my wife and I will admit to naivety in the first year of living the dream. Before taking the reigns as a modern homemaker, she’d convinced me that she would greet me every day at the door with a kiss and a cocktail — dinner ready and waiting. That never happened. We quickly discovered being a stay-at-home-mom and raising two children was grueling work. I didn’t come home to a pipe, slippers, and the evening paper; I came home to roll up my sleeves and help. 

Eventually, we drew the lines around our respective domestic roles. We found an equilibrium that allowed both of us to feel good and stable. And it was fantastic. My wife could devote her time and energy to our home and our children. We didn’t have to pay for childcare. She taught our boys to garden. She taught them to cook. She helped them fall in love with books and reading. She helped them feel secure and loved.

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I could focus on my work. And when I was home, I could focus on my boys instead of bills and cleaning. I could be a father to them and play until bedtime. Our weekends were slow and relaxed because the bulk of our responsibilities had been taken care of during the week by my wife, while I worked to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.

We had, in effect, found a kind of parenting paradise. My wife felt supported by my care and my income. And I felt supported by her tremendous work at home. Our children saw their parents as a stable constant in their lives. We were living in an Eden of neo-traditionalism and it was practically perfect.

Were there still bad times? Sure. Kids are kids. Parents don’t always agree. But the issues we experienced were passing storms. Nothing more.

Until they weren’t.

It became increasingly clear that the life we loved was not sustainable. Not due to any emotional or relationship problems. Rather, it was financially unsustainable. We were soon aware that we were digging a hole of debt that would become unmanageable. If we had indeed been in Eden, the tree of knowledge had been pulped and sent to us in the form of bills. Something had to change.  

We were reluctant to end our five-year streak. We both dawdled on making a decision. Ultimately, however, my wife reluctantly dusted off her resume. She was hired within a month.

We’ve left our Eden behind. Now we have to worry about how to pay for childcare. We have to figure out what to do with our kids after school. Next summer, we’ll need to develop a new plan and sink money into a camp or summer program.

Yes, we’ll have the funds to do those things, but I feel we’re losing so much. Now we must jam being a family into the few free hours around work and bedtime. And many of those hours are taken up by frantically doing tasks my wife once did at her leisure. Now we are shoulder to shoulder at the sink washing dishes, making lunches, cooking dinner. The weekends are filled with laundry and meal planning and grocery shopping to prepare for the week. We have to hurry up and have fun and simultaneously force ourselves to slow down so we can actually see each other and check in:

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I think so. You?”

I get that this is the reality for most American families of four. But when you’ve seen Eden, everything else pales in comparison. Don’t get me wrong. My wife and I have put on a brave face. We’re going to be able to pay down our debt and start saving for retirement and those things are absolutely crucial. Plus, she reports it’s nice to be seen as someone other than mom. Although she misses the boys desperately.

Still, having two parents working feels like a lousy way to raise children and, as a dad, I feel a twinge of guilt that I’m unable to keep my wife home. But I also understand we’ve had to come back to the real world. We’ll make the best of it, like everyone else in America does. But our dreams are still out there. We’ll get back to Eden someday. I hope.