03.25.09

Recession Marriage Wars

Give up work and stay home with the kids! The recession means wives are under pressure from their husbands who tell them a sitter is now a luxury they can't afford.

My husband wants to fire me, but I’m putting up a fight.

No, not from my job as wife and mother to our 4-year-old daughter—although I think I might be “on warning.” He wants to can me from my freelance day job so I can take care of our daughter full-time.

Three months ago, when my income began to slow, we let go of our nanny. We haven’t replaced her. “It’s just not worth it anymore,” said my husband during one recent conversation that ended in tears (mine).

As the economy continues to implode, I know many married couples with children who are letting go of their nanny—or at least scaling back their schedule—in order to save money. This has led to unanticipated and difficult conversations around many dining-room tables. These previously high-earning dual-career couples are finding themselves in the precarious position of having to choose who gets to keep working—and who becomes the de facto day-care provider.

“It’s a half-assed situation at work—even when I’m home, I have to be on-call. The kids are sensing the tension because I’m pissed off about having to do all this while his life is unchanged.”

In most of the cases I know of, it’s the wife whose career is expendable. Plain and simple: The husband is making more money, so his career is, for all practical reasons, deemed more important.

In my case, there is absolutely no argument that my husband’s job is more valuable to our family in every respect. Based on the number of projects I’ve been getting—and the rates people are paying—I can’t justify hiring another sitter.

But that doesn’t factor in how emotionally invested I am in my work. I, like many of the women I know, have defined myself largely by my career for most of my life. I never thought about “having to” work. I work because I want to. I don’t believe that being a good mother and having a great career are mutually exclusive. I’ve wanted to write since I was 12 years old and have been fortunate to make a very good living at it. I’ve written a handful of New York Times best sellers and earned a six-figure salary that, until recently, contributed nicely to paying the bills.

After all this time, and having accrued a pretty good track record, I never thought I’d be in the position of having to consider giving up working because of financial considerations.

But I am, and I’m not the only one.

A neighbor, let’s call her Karen, was working as an account executive at a public-relations firm pulling in a decent salary that allowed her to, she said, “buy the occasional pair of Jimmy Choos and not have to explain it to my husband.” Now the agency has asked people to job-share in an effort to cut expenses, and Karen had to let her full-time nanny go because she’s home two and a half days a week with her kids.

“My husband doesn’t understand the huge strain this has put on me,” she moaned to me recently. “It’s a half-assed situation at work—even when I’m home, I have to be on-call. God forbid I lose this job completely. The kids are sensing the tension around the house because I’m pissed off about having to do all this while his life is unchanged.”

Another friend, who I’ll call Sally, has a different take on the situation. She has worked at a glossy magazine for many years and has risen through the ranks to a top editorial position that, for the moment, seems pretty secure. Her husband lost his Wall Street job early last year and hasn’t been able to land anything. They let their nanny go last fall and he’s been taking care of their two kids ever since.

“I can’t complain, because he’s the one taking them to school and driving them everywhere,” said Sally, who was reluctant to talk to me at first for this article because she felt she was betraying her husband. “But it’s affected the marriage. He feels demoralized about this and I’m starting to get resentful about being the one going off to work every day. I use a sick day if he gets an interview, but it’s hard. We thought about hiring someone for a little while so he could spend more time looking for a job, but that doesn’t seem like the best idea right now.”

Life as I knew it began to change, seemingly overnight, in September. Projects were put on hold. Some magazine editors were calling to tell me sheepishly that they’d have to cut the rate they’d been paying me in half for future stories. Others reported that for the moment, their marching orders were to do more writing in-house or not use freelancers at all.

It was just last summer that I was finally back to pre-motherhood earning levels, having survived too many nanny horror stories to mention and settled on a cobbled-together combination of an extended-day schedule for my daughter in nursery school while still paying for our full-time child-care provider, who drove me nuts with her increasing demands. But she loved my daughter and I knew she was safe with her. The $600-a-week salary I was paying her allowed me to work the way I wanted to work without worry. I was making enough to justify the expense, I told myself. If anything, this would motivate me to work even harder.

But that was then.

By December, things had turned markedly slower for me, and Mary Poppins started making noises about wanting a raise. I let her go. (I’m keeping my once-a-week housekeeper, though.) I’ve been trying to work around my daughter’s school schedule.

“You’ve got to starting thinking about what you have to clear plus what your expenses are to do these jobs to actually come out ahead,” said my always-pragmatic husband.

We’ve settled into an uneasy alliance that’s based on mutual acknowledgment that we’re doing the best we can. He’s paying the bills and I try not to complain too much about having to do interviews in my car while waiting for school to let out. No matter how many times we have the conversation, my husband doesn’t understand why I’ve chosen to drive myself crazy staying up half the night to write for half of what I was making a year ago. On the rare occasion I have to travel for work these days, he takes vacation time, because it’s doubtful we’ll be doing our usual three-week summer sojourn this year.

When I have to, I’ve been known to drag my daughter into the city and drop her off to play in friends’ offices when something last-minute comes up. But I can’t imagine stopping working. It’s what I do—at least between the hours of 9:45 and 2:45. After that, you’ll find me with the other downsized, newly minted nannies at the neighborhood playground.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor at mediabistro.com where she writes the 'Lunch' column. She is at work on a memoir and lives in Westchester County, New York.