No one has to lean back

photo-424As I’ve been traveling to a somewhat ridiculous number of places these past six weeks, I’ve gotten used to certain questions. People often ask how I came to the topic of time management (I really wish I had a better story). People ask if I discovered anything in my research for I Know How She Does It that surprised me (not on the big stuff. But I’ll throw some random tidbit out there to keep the conversation going).

One question that has surprised me, though, was “Now does your husband stay home with your kids?”

The first time I got that, I was flabbergasted. Then I got it again, and I realized I should think about why I was being asked this. I suspect this question stems from a new, and yet still traditional narrative that’s gaining currency in the conversation on work and life. My husband and I clearly have a lot of children. People are asking me this question when they’ve seen me speak somewhere that’s not Philadelphia. I must be traveling a lot. Traveling a lot seems to mean you’re “leaning in,” as it were, and the common narrative is that when you have young kids, someone needs to lean back for a while. This narrative gains traction now that a number of high-powered women are publicly giving credit to their leaned-back husbands as the secret of their success.

I think it’s great that those couples have figured out arrangements that work for them. Sometimes I do think it would be nice if I wasn’t using precious mental space remembering which kids needed notes about staying after school for activities, or going home in a different carpool for playdates.

But I don’t think anyone needs to lean back. I think it’s quite possible for two people to care about their careers a great deal, and also care about their families.

The first step to making it work is seizing whatever control you can of your time. I run my own business, so that’s a given, and in my husband’s case, it’s a combination of seniority and carefully choosing working situations. Long hours can be fine. It’s long, unexpected hours that throw a wrench into the works. I honestly believe that 50 hours you choose feels a lot less stressful than 40 (or possibly even 35) that have to occur at a certain time and place

Then you try to alternate the extra hours. One of the attendees at an event last week told me that she and her husband alternate who works late during the week. Monday through Thursday, they’re either solo parenting or working, and then Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are family days. It’s not a bad split. Neither party becomes the person who’s always racing out of work at 5 p.m. for daycare pick up or relieving the nanny. Both still appear to be the kind of person who’s willing to work late or go to happy hour. In our case, I often work on the weekends while my husband takes the kids, since I’m more likely to cover weekday evenings or events that ABSOLUTELY MUST BE ATTENDED and inevitably seem to happen during the work day.

(Side note: My 8-year-old told me I had to volunteer with the book fair this year. Elementary school events are somewhat stressful for me because the two boys are highly attuned to fairness, and if I go do something for one, I have to do it for the other, which means all things are twofers. But, magically enough, their two classes are scheduled to attend the book fair at the exact same time. Yay!)

Third, you get a lot of help. This can be expensive, but if you have two people leaning into their careers, there may be some extra cash floating around. A key point here is that if each of your 50 hours aren’t staggered, you may need more coverage than it is fair to require of one person. I know this was a common criticism of I Know How She Does It — some reviews thought the idea of hiring two nannies was over-the-top, but I think it’s a lot more sustainable and responsible than having one and expecting her to work sweatshop hours. In most cases it doesn’t have to be two FT people. One 40-hour FT person plus an extra 10-20 hours from a PT person could do it. But (see point above) there is a big lifestyle difference between working 40 hours and 55 hours when you don’t control those hours. Putting 55 hours on one person is asking for trouble. I have heard tales of people going through four caregivers in a year. Then you could tell yourself that “women can’t have it all!” … or you could draw different conclusions.

Finally, you look for trouble spots. You can’t always alternate hours and travel, so you have to look forward and anticipate busy times and figure out a plan for dealing with that. Fortunately, the busy times often aren’t eternal. These things tend to go in waves, and taking the long view keeps life from looking unsustainable at any given point.

If you and your partner are both leaning in, what arrangements work for you?

Photo: Hotel room where you can see the bathtub from the bed. I’m not sure why this is a selling point.

8 thoughts on “No one has to lean back

  1. I think having at least one person have some flexibility is key. I suspect it CAN be done if you have two careers with rigid hours, but that requires either more paid help or more family help (like grandparents in town who can step in if needed). I have two answers for our particular situation: (1) When I was working at a “regular” job (i.e., I was an employee not an independent contractor), we staggered our schedules. I went in early and left earlier (by 4:30), while my husband went in later and left later. He did drop off, I did pick up, until my company moved away from our day care, and then I did the school drop off/pick up and he did day care. We both worked some extra at home as needed, and we each tried to pick up the slack at home if the other one was on a deadline at work. (2) Now that I am running my own business, things are more fluid. If I need to take a meeting at a specific time to try to get/keep a client, he steps in. Otherwise, I tend to pick up the kid things during the work week, because I have more flexibility. When I need to work extra hours (like recently, when I scheduled two book releases and an online class in the same six week period…oops), we talk about it and work something out to get me the hours I need. It is not always easy, but we can usually make things work. I think the key is that we are both aiming to have both of us have “big” careers. I think it would be a lot harder if one partner resented the fact that the other one was aiming so high, and had an expectation that their career should “come first.” Then things become a battle, instead of a discussion/joint problem solving session.

    1. @Cloud – very true on it being a different dynamic if it’s a joint problem solving approach vs. someone assuming his (or her!) career should come first. I suspect unfortunately the latter happens a reasonable amount and doesn’t bode well for the 2 big careers continuing.

  2. What are your expectations for caregivers? A professional nanny is a different choice than a college student babysitter or childcare center. What characteristics of children make an alternate caregiver a better or worse choice? (I’m thinking of age, personality, disabilities, number of siblings in close proximity)

    One professional couple I know had Mom (optometrist) work three 12 hr days weekly and Dad (engineer) work a more standard schedule. They hired young single moms as babysitters that they knew from their church network and let the moms bring their own children when they babysat, solving the caregiving problem for their family and offering money/stability to a couple young single moms. This came out of their religious commitment to consider the plight of young single moms, not necessarily because the young single moms were as qualified as professional nannies.

  3. I think that if you’re someone who makes enough money to afford the kind of childcare this requires, or if you have relatives nearby who are willing/eager to help out, or if one person’s job is already somewhat/very flexible, it’s easy to forget that not every two career family has that, and that in some cases it *is* necessary for one person’s career to take a hit in order to make it all work. In our case, I absolutely would not be able to do residency if my husband hadn’t said he would be the primary parent. He has definitely passed up some opportunities at work so that I could do this, and this is even though we pay for approximately 80 hours of childcare per week. The negative impact on his career is TBD.

  4. We both have a lot of flexibility, which makes it all work. I gave your book to a friend to read, but you had a quote along the lines of “life is a risk; be bold.” I’m much more in the habit of asking for forgiveness vs. permission now.

    There was an article in the NYT magazine a few years ago about equal parenting. What I took the article was that there seemed to be a tipping point of how many hours two parents could work before things started to fall apart or got trickier to manage. Seemed to be about 80 hours a week. Have you done any time tracking of couples? I’d be interested to see how couples make it work.

    One other question – do you count commuting as time spent working?

    1. @LH – yep, that’s the quote. Life is a risk, be bold. I read and enjoyed the equal-parenting article, but yes, they were clear that both of them were aiming to work more in the 30-35 hr/range — “more than a job, less than a career” is I think the phrase. I don’t think things will fall apart at 80. I don’t think they have to fall apart at 100, though there may be requirements like flexibility.
      No, I don’t count commuting time as working unless it’s spent working (like writing a memo while on the train).

  5. I agree, I would love to see you do a time-tracking of couples! I’m sure the results would be interesting. I would say my husband and I are probably at around 80 (weeks he’s not traveling) or 90 (when he is traveling). I don’t think 100 hours would be sustainable for us, and although I think higher income couples could make it work due to their ability to pay for lots of childcare, I really don’t think it would be sustainable for most people over many years who don’t have the ability to pay for a lot of extra childcare (i.e. over the typical child-care arrangement of a FT daycare or nanny) unless there was significant extended family help involved or some kind of very demanding schedule-staggering going on. I think 100 is probably doable for the higher income couples you tend to focus on, but even among middle class couples (and obviously even more so among lower income families), 100 is going to be pushing it. My husband and I are lucky to have some flexibility in our jobs, which I think is key as others have mentioned, but we also have middle income jobs that will never be lucrative (b/c we aren’t in the kind of professions where the top of the field makes a lot of money, and we are happy in these professions).

    1. @Emily – I do think it would be interesting to see how couple puzzle pieces fit together. For high-total couples, I imagine there is a lot of staggering and split-shifting going on. The puzzle can be difficult – or can just be viewed as an interesting problem to solve!

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