I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about marriages and the responsibilities of the two people in different circumstances. I’d be interested in hearing a bunch of opinions about the situation from all of you Dopers. As a seed for conversation, how about first letting us know your own life status, generally, then considering the following situations (and any others you have stuff to say about). Think about the way the people’s generation, gender, and number of kids might affect things. Let me know what you think the people “ought” to do.

  1. One spouse works a medium to low paying job, just enough to support the family, kind of. The other “doesn’t want” to work.

  2. One spouse works a very well-paying job. The other “doesn’t want” to work.

  3. The couple start a family. They have about three small children in close succession.

  4. The youngest child is off to all-day school, meaning constant childcare isn’t needed.

5a) All the kids are now self-sufficient adults, meaning no childcare at all is needed.
5b) One spouse has spent a decade or more entirely out of the job market. S/he isn’t ambitious or career driven at all, and could continue to stay home full time, but needs something to keep busy.

  1. The couple wants a family but are also both highly career-driven people who won’t take time off of work to be stay-at-homes.

I think that having someone stay at home with small children is probably ideal, but not a viable option for everyone. Once the children aren’t so small anymore, I think that opting out of the job market in the expectation that your spouse will support you for the rest of your life is a seriously risky choice. People get divorced. And people who don’t get divorced still die. It’s never smart to put your financial well-being entirely in someone else’s hands.

The family “ought” to do whatever works best for them. If they’re just barely scraping by and one spouse could significantly help out but doesn’t and the other resents him/her for it then there’s a problem. If both people are perfectly content with the situation, then there’s really no problem.
If they determine that the cost of childcare is equal to or more than one spouse would make at a job, then financially it makes sense to stay home. There’s no problem. If they determine that both spouses would make double what childcare costs but one stays home anyway because it’ll be better for the kids…again no problem.
I could go through the entire set of scenarios you outlined but it really doesn’t come down to money or even gender expectations. It comes down to that couple’s expectations towards each other and it probably should have been something they resolved before getting married and/or having kids because they’re significant decisions that could potentially break a couple apart.

I stay at home with my little girl while my SO works. We’re poor and could probably use my income but my daughter has special needs so she requires therapy both at school, after school and another 40 minutes a day at home.

I say do whatever works for your family, but understand no matter what you choose you’ll be making sacrifices. I don’t like not having any money but I wouldn’t leave the care of my daughter to anyone else. I’d be working to cover the cost, so I’d just as soon stay home.

I agree with Enderw24: it really depends on what the couple is comfortable with. Even within the options you’ve outlined, it’s pretty subjective: what is a “well paying job” vs “just getting by”? I know a lot of people that live a lower-middle class life more or less pay check to pay check and are perfectly happy with one person staying home–and I know others who consider anything less than 6 months living expenses in their checking account to be dangerously risky. Neither is right or wrong, careless/lazy or overly paranoid. It’s jut different.

There is also a lot of potential utility in a stay-at-home spouse that goes beyond child-rearing. If someone is in a field where crazy hours have a direct and dramatic effect on both their current and potential earnings (small business owner, CPA, lawyer, many of the trades), having a person stay home and run the household can be worth a great deal of money: if you never have to deal with chores, bills, packing, sick kids, etc., you can put in a lot more hours at work while still having some sort of quality of life.

As long as a given couple don’t ask me for money, have a pity party in front of me, or fight about it in public, I figure they are doing what’s best for them and don’t judge.

Married, no kids, I (female) am the primary wage earner, husband is remodeling our house, in between jobs. He’s not very good at holding down jobs, and I am an enabler but not sure how to break the cycle.

I generally do the dishes, laundry and housecleaning, but he does the snow removal, remodeling/house maintenance, vehicle maintenance and lawn care, plus when I have something big going on in the garden, he pitches in. I help out with those things, and sometimes I come home and find both dishes and laundry done. We both cook, though he is super messy about it. He’s on his own for the damn aquariums - his hobby, his problem.

Ultimately, every family (couple) decides how things will work in their household. When we lived in an apartment, we had a rule that if one person cooked, the other cleaned up. We were both employed at the time. I earned more, but because it was the same time investment from each of us, it counted equally.

For us it comes down to: I am not very physically able (weak and clumsy) and he is not. So he does the more “physical” things, and I do the things I can do. I am more administratively able, so I do the financial, legal, paperworky stuff. We both help each other and will surprise each other by doing things that are the other person’s “job”, so it all works out well for us.

Ender24 pretty much nailed it, I think. This is a decision that’s between the couple. If they’re not both fairly happy with the situation, then they need to discuss it and see what changes can be made. Your “doesn’t want to work” phrase doesn’t make a ton of sense to me–unless the person is a lazy freeloader, then he or she is part of a team trying to make the best decisions for the whole family. Working or staying home with kids is part of that. And raising children well isn’t exactly not “work.”

I’m a mom who stays home with my kids. A majority of my friends are as well–I think we’re lucky to live in a place where it’s not that difficult to be a SAHM. Most of my friends also do whatever they can to bring in a little extra money whenever possible–that might be babysitting, giving haircuts or baking fancy cakes, working a few hours a week, etc. When the kids are all old enough to be in school for most of the day, many of them get part-time jobs or head back to school (nursing school is popular just now). I have a friend who works mornings in her church office (I subbed for her this summer!), that sort of thing.

I don’t know anyone under the age of 60 who doesn’t work at all even though the kids are gone, unless there’s a reason like physical health.

Now, I can actually think of plenty of things for a mom with grown kids to do, who doesn’t need or want to be in the workforce. There’s always plenty of volunteer/organizing work that needs to be done. If I had lots of money and time I might spend it sewing quilts for Project Linus or something. Or making those preemie baby outfits to donate to hospitals. I don’t need a boss telling me what to do in order to organize my time the way I want to.

As for my own life status, I’m a 36yo SAHM with two kids. I’m a librarian and I was working a few days a week as extra help, but the county went broke and I was laid off last spring. Which wasn’t too great just then, since my husband (a software engineer) spent January-October mostly unemployed. He was running a start-up and it was going great until the economy tanked. So he now has a good job again, but it’s going to take us a while to recover financially. Anyway, I still run a program at the library, but am otherwise not in the workforce. I homeschool our two girls, and that’s pretty much a full-time job by itself. I don’t know how long I will continue to do that, but the current plan is to keep it up for at least 6 more years. Maybe by then the library will have enough budget to hire me back…

Let me throw out an example situation. The SDMB isn’t the first board I’ve participated on (sorry to break it to you all; I promise you’re the first one I ever really loved). A previous board attracted a lot of jobless women with teenage or grown children. I have been communicating with a couple of these women via message boards, LiveJournal, and FaceBook for about ten years now. They don’t have jobs. They haven’t ever had jobs since they got married. They don’t have any intention of getting jobs (one is over sixty, the other is maybe 45). Nor are they involved in any regular volunteering, church groups, etc.

Both of them are bored, bored, bored, and they don’t quite understand that they’re bored. One of them occupies herself by writing unsolicited advice to her internet friends and working in her garden. The other, the younger one, paints paintings, buys Victorian memorabilia on eBay, and has hysterics when things get dull. Or stays in bed.

I’m young and don’t have much first-hand experience about life and where it can lead people, but I think that they’d both be happier if they had somewhere to go, regularly, with a sense of responsibility. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the first one never developed the equipment needed to stick to someone else’s routine and deadlines. Maybe the second one is sufficiently mentally ill that she just couldn’t hold a position of responsibility outside the home… though it’s easy to think that she’s just spoiled.

Thoughts? Anecdotes are more than welcome. I know that every situation is different–I’d like to hear analyses of some specific situations.

BTW: I am 29, recently married. My husband and I both work full-time jobs. We are planning to start a family soon; when that happens I will quit my full-time job and find out whether I can be a full-time SAHM, or if I’ll need a part-time job to keep me happy. I think that everyone needs a regular, routine responsibility in order to stay happy and healthy. Raising small kids fills that bill. So does lots of organized volunteer work. So does a full-time job. So does taking care of a small farm (throwing that in because I know some women who do).

My mother believes in careers. She thinks decent people ought to want one, and that staying home with children is spoiling them. Having said that, as she got older, she got less and less tolerant of corporate drudgery and BS, and eventually retired in her early 50s.

I think it’s generally a bad idea for someone to be utterly financially dependent on another. Best intentions still lead to bad outcomes, and a spouse that has no footing in the workforce is in bad shape if something bad happens.

I think that couples should work together to maximize their collective happiness; that can mean different situations for different folks. Definitely no-one should end up feeling exploited or resentful!

My own situation: I’m a high earner, my wife was a medium to high earner, we have a young son. Before the recession, we had a live-in nanny (my wife’s aunt) and that worked well, but she wanted after a couple of years to go home … we were looking for another when the recession bit and my wife lost her position. Rather than looking for another, she decided (after we discussed it) to stay home.

So far, it is working out well for us; of course it makes us both more vulnerable - in that we have only one income (mine) supporting us.

Married, one grown child graduated and back living with us until she makes some kind of plan. Husband has a great job, I haven’t worked outside the home in over 20 years. (I always planned to but that would mean I’d have to first take courses to be trained on computers. Now that the job market has gone completely to shit, I think employers would rather hire a young recent college grad than me!) I’m an introvert with some emotional issues and am more comfortable left to my own devices, though if we needed more money, of course I’d get out there and get some kind of work…We have the dorkiest 50’s type marriage just like mom and dad! He works 10 hours 4 days a week (is eligible for early retirement, yeah, like that’s gonna happen any time soon! Then I’d HAVE to get a job, pronto!). We are the frugal Ants who prepare for the winter. Our house is paid off, our credit cards are paid off every month. I am frugal to the max, I don’t need a lot of “stuff”, or jewelry, or new car every couple of years; there is no one I need to impress and no Joneses to keep up with… I was a busy stay-at-home mom in the early years - Mom’s Taxi Service. I did a lot of volunteer work, would like to get into it again. I now am useful mainly for keeping the house going and doing any errands that involve driving somewhere as Mr. Sali comes home and STAYS there… We’d have it made if it weren’t for our daughter, she isn’t working and of course wants/needs EVERYTHING - exotic foods, new underwear every week, gas money to put in MY car - Doting Daddy will gladly hand over money to little Princess up to a point - I never seem to have $5 in my wallet anymore between handing out money to daughter for lunch with friends/friends birthday presents/new jeans - and of course groceries and things cost so MUCH. But we love her beyond description, can afford to support her, and someday things will change…I worry way too much, projecting into the future about illness, accidents, deaths to any of us, or our families. I try to live in the moment and do the best I can every day. I do feel fortunate that we’re suited to each other regarding money - won’t catch him buying a new sports car or me blowing the grocery money at the casino! As a matter of fact, we ARE going to take it with us!

I’m going to toss in with Enderw24 as well.

I know two couples where the male is the stay-at-home spouse. There are young children in both circumstances. In one case, the couple is scraping by on one income, but there are two young children at home, and while neither of them considers the situation to be ideal, it is what they want in the short term. With the other couple, the wife makes very good money, and they can live quite comfortably having the husband stay home to take care of their young daughter. Since there is good possibility they will be having more children, I’m not sure they have any plans for that circumstance to change.

Since I can’t really ask either couple without prying, I don’t know what sort of contingencies – if any – they have in place in the event of death of the employed spouse or a divorce. I agree with the posters who suggested that having all of your eggs in one basket can be a dangerous thing. However, there are lots of two-income couples that would find themselves in dire straits if one of those incomes was lost. People find ways to survive when they have to. I think any couple has a responsibility to each other and anyone else in their household to be as prepared as possible to deal with an unexpected loss of income, whether there are two wage-earners or one.

I think its important that whatever works for the family provides the best possible balance of

A) Emotional Security for both partners and children. Some people feel threatened by their spouses jobs. Some kids do better with SAHPs. On the other hand, some kids get emotional needs filled at daycare they wouldn’t get met at home, or some spouses don’t want the emotional burden of being the sole provider.

B) Financial Security. My family’s emotional security might be best filled by my husband and I both staying home with them - but we’d loose our house and wouldn’t have health insurance. And financial security for me is more than a day to day thing - its ensuring my kids can afford college and I can afford retirement.

C) Emotional Wants. I find working outside the home to be pretty satisfying most days. I go nuts when I do the SAHM thing. Other people are the opposite. But the emotional wants from your partner and children play in as well. We are lucky in that my husband has never wanted to come home to dinner and a clean house (ok, maybe he has, but it isn’t really important to him).

D) Material Wants. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure buys a lot of other shit people want.

And its a balance. Few of us are going to get it all. Some of us value being home when our kids walk in the door from school very highly. Other people value being able to take the kids to China. Some people don’t get the luxury of choice. They both work and still can’t afford much. Or they’d like to work, but they have kids with special needs that don’t leave them time.

I agree with everything Dangerosa wrote, and I also think that these needs and wants change over time.

When my first baby was born, I wanted to stay home for a year, but my husband was out of work and we couldn’t afford it. By the time the second one came along, our needs had changed and I worked then, too (albeit 4 days/week). Once the younger one was 1 year old, I went to 5 days/week. As hard as that was, I do get a lot of fulfillment out of working. Now that my kids are older, though, I wish I had a little more time at home. When they were babies, they had excellent child care and me home 1 or 2 days/week. Now, though, they have things like school plays or concerts or the desire for after-school activities that I can’t meet because I’m working full time.

I would never want to rely solely on my husband’s income and viability in the job market, but the choice isn’t as clear as I once thought it was.

I think that’s a big thing to take into consideration. If you’d ever told me 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, that I’d mostly be a housewife by the time I was 30, I’d have laughed in your face. But here I am–33, married, no kids, part-time job, supported by my husband. It was nothing we ever planned or even considered, up until circumstances aligned so that it became a good idea.

What happened was this: when he finished residency, we had to move somewhere in the Appalachians to pay off his med school loans, where vet tech jobs are hard to come by. There are only 2 vets in the whole county, and they’re both raging assholes to their employees. Working for the asshole up the street was…well, my husband was the one who suggested me quitting. By that point we’d been around long enough to know the other place was no better, and the next nearest clinic is two counties over. I could get a job at a store or waiting tables or something, but we don’t need or particularly want the money, and I don’t love it the way I do working with critters, so why bother? I do a day or so a week at the vet clinic, and craft part-time, and the rest of the time I deal with the house and yard and garden and all that kind of stuff. Life is so much less stressful for both of us this way–if I can get the bulk of that done during the day while he’s gone, when he comes home we can relax and enjoy being with each other instead of having to do laundry/mow/scrub toilets/whatever. And we haven’t had a single fight about housework since I quit working full-time.

Having gone through this transition, I don’t consider myself in any position to pass judgment on what anybody else ought to do with their lives and relationship, beyond saying they ought to do whatever works for them and to hell with everybody else’s opinions.

Well, not so very young. I’m 29 :wink:

What you describe, crazycatlady, is what I’d really like to do. I like to spend a lot of time on housework and keeping up a big garden. I’d also like to have the time and energy to focus on my craft blog/pattern business, but I just don’t, with a full-time job. And I hate my full-time job. It’s a miserable office with miserable co-workers doing a miserable project. After we have kids, I’d very much like to never go back to the humdrum office bullshit. But, I have my mother in my head, telling me that that just won’t cut it.

My husband says he’s content for me to do whatever makes me happy, whether it pays or not. He’s coming from a very different place than my mother; he grew up Evangelical and now works for Mennonites who won’t necessarily *let *their wives have jobs. Very different worlds.

I agree there isn’t any one right answer. Everyone makes the choice that’s best for them, and we really aren’t in a position to judge what is best for another family unless we’re part of it.

I am extraordinarily lucky to have the life I do. My husband and I are both lawyers, but for the past four years I have stayed at home with my two kids (4 and 2). I always assumed that I would continue working after I had kids, but that’s not the way it turned out. Once the kids were born, I really wanted to be the one to be there on a day to day basis for them. My husband has a very high earning, demanding career, so money isn’t a concern for us, but having at least one parent spending a lot of time with the kids is.

Will my career take a hit? Probably. You can’t be out of the workforce for more than five years and expect to emerge unscathed. However, it was easier for me to take a leave from my practice than my husband to leave his, and it will be easier for me to re-enter my profession than it would be for him, simply by virtue of the different types of law that we practice. I have the ability to hang out a shingle and work for myself - he doesn’t.

People judge. Relatives and acquaintances have flat out told me I’m wasting my education and abilities. It doesn’t bother me, because I firmly believe that I’ve made the right choice for me and for my family. I’ll go back to work when the kids are in school full time, but for now, I’m enjoying the time I have with them while they’re little.

Just want to toss in that when our 3d kid was born we decided to have one of us stay home full-time. We are both lawyers. Tho my wife was making more than me, we agreed she would be the best stay-at-home parent. And it worked great for us. For the past 15 years she has been working part-time, teaching at a community college.

Now with my kids in college, she wants a full-time, decent-paying job - both for the personal and social stimulation, but also for the pay and to save for reitrement. But our experience over the past year is that she is pretty much unmarketable having been out of full-time employment for so long. Not only is she treated as tho she has no worthwhile experience, but she has been unable to get any number of entry-level jobs.

Part of our situation may be due to the current economy, but I’m not counting on it drastically improving soon. Just realize that if one party decides to leave the market for a prolonged period, it may be exceptionally difficult to rejoin.

And for every person who told you that, there is someone who has told me (or a different WOHM) that I’m neglectful and why did I have kids if I was just going to let someone else raise them. The key is your next sentence—to not let anything sway the fact that you (generic you) made the right decision for you and your family. I didn’t have as much choice, per se, but people would have judged no matter what.

I don’t think it was that unusual before the current economy - even for women who chose to stay home for much shorter periods of time. I have girlfriends who only intended to stay home until their kids became school age…and ended up staying home forever because it just was difficult to find anything they felt worthwhile after a hiatus.

The “you can’t afford to work” sites drive me nuts…

Its easy to find places do the math and figure that without the commuting costs, daycare, nylons and lattes, you barely break even working. Its harder to find places that will help you do it honestly, and figure out what you are missing in a 401k match, and that packing lunch and skipping lattes is an option, and that your health care package is really good and adding you and kids onto your husband’s is going to be three hundred a month more than if you put the kids on yours, and that last big one - that when you return to work you are going to be years behind in terms of experience and current industry information.

But, in the end, the financial part only matters if it matters. If staying at home is a more fulfilling choice emotionally, and if that means driving a beater or staying in a small home or never going on a cruise or hoping your kids get grants for college - you’ll do it and probably not regret it. But it IS nice to have the look ahead depth for twenty or thirty years out and be able to realize that the daycare bill now is large, but the small 401k balance at retirement isn’t that much more attractive.