Much has been written about offering more support and empathy for the stay at home parent who gives up his or her job to take care of a child full-time. Being a full-time parent is one of the hardest jobs in the world because so much is at stake. Full-time parents deserve all the respect in the world.
However, little attention is paid to the plight of the sole income earning parent. The sole income earning parent seems to have it relatively easy because s/he doesn’t have to be on call 24/7. S/he can slack off at work with no devastating consequences. S/he can even attend the occasional company boondoggle and have stimulating conversations with adults over copious amounts of free alcohol.
However, any emotionally competent sole income providing parent faces the following difficulties:
- The constant stress of knowing they have to provide for the family with no financial backup
- The constant guilt for being away from their child because of work
- Not being able to find support because a day job is considered the easier job
- The expectation of having to do an equal amount of parenting after a long day’s work
Many couples fight over this division of labor. The sole income provider often wants to come home, have a drink, eat dinner, and maybe watch some TV and relax, before jumping into parenting duties, especially after a rough day.
But the stay at home parent, who has been going non-stop since not-at-home spouse left the house, resents this expectation because nothing is as energy sapping as caring for an infant. The sole income provider is resentful for not being allowed to take even half an hour to unwind. Problems ensue!
Let’s see if we can help the sole income providing parent get him or her get to a happier place.
Surviving And Thriving As The Sole Income Earner
1) Take everybody’s opinion with a grain of salt. Guilt comes from inherently knowing spending more time taking care of your child is better than spending less time, especially in the crucial first five years of development. Guilt also stems from other people’s opinions about what you should do, especially if people criticize you for choosing work and money over being a parent.
It’s good to get advice from more experienced parents. However, as a writer who shares my struggles in finance and in fatherhood, I’ve come to realize that whatever you put out there will be judged. Further, a lot of parents project their guilt onto you due to their lack of parenting.
For example, I shared with readers in my mid-year review that I wanted to provide six hours of joyful assistance or primary care to my wife and son during his waking hours.
I used the word “assistance” because during the first year of life, breastfeeding is constant and I do not have the ability to breastfeed. I looked up whether there were any breast feeding contraptions for men, but couldn’t find a viable solution.
I used the words “primary care” so that I’d take full charge for a couple hours in the morning, especially after a rough night and a couple hours in the afternoon so she could have time to herself. On my “off hours,” I’d get to work writing and managing our investments in order for my wife to be a stay at home mom. Seems like a reasonable effort, right?
Not according to reader Sara, who ignores my words “primary care” and writes,
“Sam, I can’t believe I didn’t catch this before. “Assistance to [your] wife”!?!?!
Parenting, cooking, cleaning, etc. are part of being an adult and a parent, and equally your responsibility as hers. This isn’t the 1950s. You’re not “assisting your wife,” you’re being a responsible adult in a relationship who shares childcare and housekeeping duties. I can’t believe this is even a “goal” of yours; it’s certainly not something you should celebrate if you achieve it, as it’s really the bare minimum standard of being a parent and spouse.”
Here I was thinking I was doing OK as a parent and trying to get better. But trying to be a better parent is not good enough for Sara, who sends her child to day care because both she and her husband work. I was so confused by her reaction. Is she really arguing semantics? The only logical conclusion for her judging me for trying to take care of my son during the week is her guilt for not doing the same or that she was upset with her work or her husband at the time and took it out on me.
Let me be clear, I have no problem with daycare. It can be a luxury or a necessity, depending on your household situation. I never even brought up the subject of daycare in my mid-year review post.
You can see how her comment would start a huge fight after coming home from a full day of work if you are the sole income provider. You can also see how some men are too afraid to be stay at home dads due to the criticism and lack of support from other parents. When stay at home dads make up just 2% of all stay at home parents, it’s easy to get run over by the majority.
The only right way is what you and your spouse decide is the right way through constant dialogue. It’s your life. Don’t let anybody come between you and your partner. Certainly don’t let other parents project their guilt onto you for trying to do better.
2) Be explicitly clear about the budget. Money stress is strong when you’re the only one generating income. As a result, make sure you and your spouse know your exact after tax income in order to calculate how much of the income can be spent on supporting the family while also saving for retirement, paying down debt, and saving for your child’s education.
Don’t just break down your expense budget by month. Figure out how much the family can spend by week and stick to it. After each week, review the actual expenses with the budget and give yourselves a high five when you spend less. This exercise will help reduce the sole income provider’s anxiety because there’s always a little worry when even the person you trust the most is in charge of spending.
Before our son was born, I gave my wife the green light to spend as much as she needed to prepare for our son’s arrival. After our son was born, the green light continued for a full year without us discussing a single item of expense. In retrospect, we should have reviewed our budget because after the first year, I began carrying some anxiety for months that we were spending 2.5X more than reality. I felt relief to see the actual child expense tally once she ran the report.
3) Practice gratitude you’re able to work and have a stay at home spouse. Gratitude always helps dissolve any festering resentment or bitterness. Instead of seeing being a sole income provider as a burden, see it as a luxury and an honor.
Two-parent households where both parents work full-time make up ~46 percent of the population today, compared to 31 percent in 1970 according to Pew Research Center. The percentage of both parents working full-time is going higher because the cost of living and the cost of childcare is outpacing wage inflation.
If you can have the person you love and trust the most take care of your child full-time before going off to pre-school or kindergarten, it is a wonderful blessing. Remind each other daily of this luxury.
If both of you have the luxury to stay at home to raise your child together, even better. Just don’t be too open about it in real life because you will be hated on by other families where one or both spouses have to work outside their home full-time.
4) Know that it gets better after your child goes to pre-school or kindergarten. A child usually starts pre-school at age 2-3 and kindergarten at age 5-6. Therefore, no matter how much pain and frustration you are dealing with, know that your schedule will get easier for both of you within six years for a developmentally normal child.
As soon as you commit to a timeline goal, everything becomes easier to accomplish. For example, one of the reasons why I can keep publishing multiple times a week on Financial Samurai since 2009 is because I made myself a 10-year goal to do so. To quit now would be a travesty. Why do we frequently hear stories about someone passing soon after a major accomplishment? It’s because they were holding on until the goal was accomplished.
Sure, there will be more child-raising issues that come up as your little one ages. But with more sleep and free time during the day, the stress of being the only one to generate income diminishes because the stay at home spouse now has the option to work. The guilt of not seeing your child all day due to work goes away because your child is in school for most of the day. The reward of having a child increases because he or she becomes more interactive.
5) Take mental sick days very seriously. Feeling the pressure to provide is not physical pressure, but mental pressure. Feeling the guilt of not being able to raise your children can be mental torture. When your mind breaks down, you don’t do your best work. You become irritable, combative, and sometimes very volatile. Mental illness can lead to neglect, fights, adultery, divorce, and sometimes even suicide.
For goodness sake, please don’t be ashamed to take all your sick and vacation days. Please know the Family And Medical Leave Act is a federal law that guarantees certain employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss. Be open with your colleagues about why you need time off. If they are good people, they will understand.
6) Have your stay at home spouse generate income. If gratitude, budgeting, patience, taking time off, and ignoring other parent’s opinions don’t work, the only solution left is to have your spouse start earning income again. The income can be generated preferably through freelance work or through a part-time job. If you can run your own business from home, even better.
Some households simply cannot afford to have one spouse stay at home until their little one goes to pre-school or kindergarten. Money stress can really strain a relationship, even if being a stay at home spouse is worth a $100,000+ a year job.
There are plenty of ways to make money online now through freelance marketplaces like Upwork or Task Rabbit. For example, here are all the freelance work categories on Upwork to choose from. Surely you have a skill in at least one of these areas. If not, I know plenty of people, including myself who drove for Uber or Lyft during the early morning or late night hours.
Not only is my wife an amazing mom, she is also an amazing online business partner. Once our son started sleeping for at least a 7-8 hour stretch, she began updating a lot of my older posts with fresh content and writing new pages on top of the quarterly booking she does. Not only did her work help our business, it also gave her a lot of pride and satisfaction.
Be Proud Of Your Accomplishments
Although it may not seem like you’re doing enough when you come home to a tired and stressed out spouse who sometimes makes you feel guilty for being away from the house all day, know that you are doing a great service to your family. The person you trust the most can be a stay at home spouse because of you!
Practice gratitude every day. Keep the dialogue running so resentment does not build up. Forgive each other the first five years before kindergarten. Don’t listen to the criticism of others who don’t walk in your shoes. Please take time off to heal your mind. And finally, cherish every single moment! Before you know it, your kids will be all grown up and will want nothing to do with you.
Anybody else a sole income provider who wants to share how they survive the pressure? What are some tips for helping sole income providing parents survive get through it all?