- Melissa Petro is a freelance writer, wife, and mother living in New York City.
- She and her husband once tried out an unusual financial arrangement after they had their first baby.
- Petro soon grew exhausted by all the responsibilities on her plate, especially as her son got older.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Before I became a mother, my husband and I had an equal partnership: We both worked full time – he as a consultant in digital media, me as a freelance writer – and contributed 50-50 to a family budget. We also did our best to split the household work equally.
Then I got pregnant and gave birth, and equality went out the window.
Mentally and physically exhausted, breastfeeding around the clock, and overwhelmed by the duties of managing our household, I didn’t think I had my former hustle in me. It was also a fact that, even though I was relatively successful at what I did, my yearly income as a freelance writer barely covered the cost of full-time childcare.
And so instead of returning to full-time work after maternity leave, I convinced my husband of an unorthodox arrangement: Rather than hiring a nanny or sending our 4-month-old off to daycare, I told him I’d handle the childcare, along with all the housework and other familial responsibilities. Instead of paying a team of professionals, I reasoned, we’d pay me.
I added up the hours I’d work each week and multiplied that by an hourly wage. I then divided that number in half – after all, childcare was as much my expense as it was my husband’s – and subtracted this figure from what I owed the family budget. Though he worried I’d resent him for having to give up my career, he could see that my mind was made up, and so he agreed.
We were both trying to do what was best for our family and our marriage. In retrospect, I was naive and not thinking clearly. While it wasn’t a terrible idea, the issue of equality in marriage is complex. Here’s what I learned.
Motherhood is hard work. Don’t sell yourself short.
According to Salary.com, if a stay-at-home mom charged what she was actually worth, she’d make upwards of $162,000 a year.
In my case, I calculated my hourly rate for my work as a mother at just $15 an hour, what the closest daycare would have cost. After doing the math, there was a difference of about $1,200 to be made up. I also had to continue paying for my own personal expenses – coffees out, getting my hair done, gifts, things like this.
In other words, I’d need a second job just to make ends meet.
At the time, I saw this as a plus: I wasn’t giving up my career entirely, I thought, and I assumed I could complete freelance writing assignments while the infant napped. In retrospect, I should’ve charged my husband more.
Beware of ‘scope creep’
As a first-time mother, I overestimated what I’d be able to accomplish in an eight-hour day.
After feedings, diaper changes, and playdates – not to mention dishes, loads of laundry, and picking up toys – there was no time to shower, let alone work a second job. Finding assignments wasn’t a problem, but completing them was another story entirely. Full-time parenting became even more unmanageable after my baby started dropping naps and became more mobile.
And yet because we’d agreed it was all part of my job, undone housework at the end of the workday remained my responsibility. Sure, my husband helped with the baby when he came home from the office – but even then, he was only “helping.” After all, I was getting paid.
A disconcerting but not uncommon dynamic had emerged: As my confidence as a parent grew, my husband’s waned. He became increasingly deferential, stepping down to let me take the lead. It wasn’t that I was naturally better at folding laundry, fixing snacks, or taming tantrums – I just did these things more often until, eventually, I was doing them all the time, even when Arran was home.
I was working 24/7 – and I was exhausted.
Renegotiate as necessary
Parental burnout, experts say, is a result of an imbalance between demands and rewards, and it shares many of the same traits as professional burnout: high levels of exhaustion, feelings of inadequacy, and emotional detachment.
Had my husband been paying me more – and had the terms of my responsibilities been more clearly defined from the start and controlled as our infant grew into toddlerhood – I might’ve felt differently about life as a stay-at-home mom. As it was, I felt incompetent and unfulfilled, exhausted and resentful.
After about a year of full-time parenting, I hit my breaking point. I knew something had to give the day I found myself sobbing in the bathtub, fully dressed, having lost my phone (again) after inadvertently deleting an assignment I’d spent all afternoon working on after Oscar had woken up early from his nap.
Thankfully, when my husband saw me struggling, he began paying more of the joint family expenses (essentially giving me a raise). He also took on more of the childcare and household responsibilities without my having to ask. And I hired an assistant. For a not-insignificant fraction of my earnings, a mother’s helper took my toddler off my hands for three glorious hours a day.
With reliable support, a situation like this would probably be sustainable.
A valuable lesson
In our case, then something interesting happened: My husband lost his job, compelling us to switch roles entirely. He took over household responsibilities, including childcare, while I worked full time.
It was a blessing in disguise. I realized how much I missed my former career. I also discovered that my earning potential had nearly doubled – thanks in no small part to the time-management and multitasking skills I’d sharpened during my tenure as a stay-at-home mom.
Meanwhile, my husband realized exactly how hard I’d had it for the past year. More than once, I came home from a rewarding day at my office – aka the coffee shop down the street, where I typically set up shop – to find my normally even-tempered husband in tears, overwhelmed and frustrated by the tasks expected of him.
In the end, my family learned a valuable lesson: Taking care of a toddler for 12-plus hours a day is work, harder work than my husband and I ever imagined. And so just as soon as my husband found a new job, we decided to leave it to the professionals. At nearly 2 years old, Oscar will start full-time daycare this fall.
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer living in New York.
This article was first published by Business Insider in September 2019.