The trade-offs you have to make when your family has two incomes

There's a price to pay when both parents return to work with kids.

Father consoling sad toddler

I’ve been pretty lucky on both the occasions that my wife and I welcomed babies into the world.

When the firstborn arrived, I was working from home and we were in the fortunate position of both being able to be at home for the bulk of his first year.

When his sisters came along a few years later, it was a little more stressful, but still I was able to take a month off work while we battled through the early stages of our new 66 per cent bigger family.

After that month was over though, it was back to the office for me, and back to constant fretting about whether everything at home was all right — and even more constant fretting about whether I was doing enough.

They talk about work-life balance, but nobody ever talks about work-work balance: the balance between doing your share at work and doing your share at home.

I took pride in providing for my family, but there were plenty of moments when I forgot that I still had a job to do when I came home from work.

This is the kind of thing that can make a guy yearn for the old days, when neither mother nor father had much choice about exactly what role they played, or the division of labour in the family. Because when you don’t have choices, you don’t have decisions, and when you don’t have decisions, you don’t have guilt over making the wrong one.

Most modern parents, as baby gets a little bigger, will have to face up to that most dreaded decision of all: when do we — both of us — go back to work? For many it’s a simple necessity: surviving on a single income isn’t an option.

And for many, even without the financial imperative, both parents going back to work is non-negotiable: having a child doesn’t put an end to your own life and ambitions, and if the pursuit of happiness for you includes a professional life, you’ll not be doing your family any favours by giving that up.

But this is where the trade-offs of parenthood really come into stark focus. Because no matter how overjoyed you and your partner might be to be returning to the professional world, what it translates to is leaving your tiny, fragile, vulnerable child behind when you head off to work. Not only leaving them behind, but handing them over to strangers.

What sort of person would do that to a defenceless child? What kind of cruel, Machiavellian figure would inflict such hardship on an infant?

Most parents know the feeling of walking away from a crying baby, while frantic child-care professionals strive to console them, and you leave the building reflecting on the epic betrayal you have just perpetrated.

How will it scar them in adulthood, you wonder, this memory of the day their beloved daddy left them alone as they wailed for him?

For someone like me, who to this day feels like an utter bastard for making his kids go to school, it was a hideous experience the first time our children were left in the care of people other than their parents.

It feels like the height of selfishness, fobbing the kids off on someone else while we go gallivanting off to “work”, living our “lives”.

The fact that the time away from the kids is mostly spent mentally flogging yourself for spending time away from the kids doesn’t seem to ease the guilt much.

Of course, it’s all for their own good. Even if you weren’t leaving them at daycare so you can work to provide for them, even if the healthy balance between home life and professional life weren’t essential for your own sanity, sooner or later a child has to begin to experience the world outside their own family, and it will end up being to their benefit as well as yours.

But a lot of things a parent does are for the kids’ own good — that doesn’t mean we can’t beat ourselves up over them, right?

Sometimes you wonder if it’s all worth it. Literally — have you seen the cost of child-care in this country? Probably, you’re a dad after all. It’s pretty chilling when you see how much it’s going to cost you to be a two-income family.

Often it can end up being cheaper to stay home with the kid — monetarily if not in terms of everyone’s mental health. So “is it worth it?” becomes a question you’re grappling with on more than one front.

And then you have to face the fact that, when nobody is at home during the day, you have … well, you have nobody at home during the day.

Child-rearing might be taken care of by the good folks at Big Bux Daycare, but there are all those other domestic tasks to take care of. Cooking. Cleaning. Calling the plumber. And so on.

When one of you is a stay-at-home parent, those things tend to devolve, more often than not, to that one. When both of you are at work, suddenly the division of labour becomes a much more delicate balancing act.

Without kids, of course, it’s pretty easy, because if housework goes by the wayside you’re only hurting yourselves.

Having kids means feeling that responsibility to keep things in order, and so both mum and dad are going to have figure out who does what, and when. Time management, such a minor concern for the footloose and rugrat-free, becomes a grave matter indeed.

When both parents are back at work, it becomes more crucial than ever that both pull their weight at home. Not just to make sure the house stays clean, clothes get washed and everyone gets fed, but because tempers fray extremely quickly when the exhaustion of being a working parent is piled on top of a sense of injustice.

If you want to avoid all-out warfare on the homefront, you’ll need to put in the hours, and think your way carefully through the challenges you’re facing.

So that’s what lies ahead for new parents. The agony of choice, the intolerable agony of tearing yourself away from your helpless bub, the outrage of having your pockets turned inside out by the childcare industry, and the tightrope-walk of making two frantic schedules sync up without any task being neglected or anyone feeling hard done by.

That’s the trade-off you make when you decide to indulge in the warmth and euphoria of family life.

It’s hard. It’s positively gruelling. But is it worth it? You’ll soon find out.

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