My wife doesn’t want to work – even though our kids are at school

27 Apr 2024

"I love my partner – she’s kind, thoughtful and a brilliant mother to our two children, aged seven and five. She runs our home and sorts everything from letters to Father Christmas to birthday parties and holiday packing. I take the time to recognise her work, appreciate her – and my good fortune in life.

When I met her she found work stressful and regularly had panic attacks because of a bullying boss. Since having children, she’s focused on being a parent (she went back for a couple of months between our first and second child, but resigned when pregnant with our second because work made no financial sense with nursery bills so high) and says how much more fulfilled she feels. It’s wonderful to see, but I feel the weight of financial burden upon me.

I’m the breadwinner, I pay for everything and the pressure is huge. If we had more money, I wouldn’t mind – I don’t feel I signed up for her being a stay-at-home mum forever.

We’re not rich and our youngest is now coming to the end of reception. I know she spends her time when the children are in school setting up activities for them and tidying, but I’m starting to feel resentful that she essentially has days off, or helping the PTA raise funds for the school, while I feel increasingly stressed and wish she were helping to raise funds for us.

I brought it up the other day and she turned the conversation around to the mental load she carries. I don’t think she even sees the financial load I’m carrying. "

AM, 34

It’s wonderful to read that your partner is a brilliant mum and amazing at running the home – and that you appreciate both her and how lucky you are. I also understand the resentment you feel at carrying the financial burden of providing for the whole family.

Your family has slipped into a very traditional set-up by circumstance, rather than design. If this works for you both then that’s great, but if either of you would prefer more balance between the parenting and providing roles, then that’s understandable, too.

I wonder if your partner recognises how much of a toll being the sole breadwinner takes on you mentally and how much family time you’ve had to sacrifice by being at work, perhaps preoccupied by work even when you’re with your family.

While you’re appreciative of the work she does for the family, it feels like you’re not feeling similarly appreciated for the amount of work you do? It may be that your partner isn’t communicating the gratitude she feels.

Having children involves huge amounts of time, energy, sacrifice and investment. It seems clear that you’re both working hard to raise happy, secure children: your career has provided her time that many families cannot afford, to focus on the children you both love.

 

Firstly, I’d recommend that you both bare your souls and acknowledge the hard work and sacrifices each of you make for your family. This is a two-way street. As a family, you and your partner are a team.

At the moment, you’re both playing very different roles, but this doesn’t make either more valuable. Surveys have shown that the work of a stay-at-home parent would be worth more than £30,000 as a salary, working an average 14-hours a day, while your work brings in money but involves missing out on time with your children.

It can take a real shift in perspective to shift your thinking around money from what you earn as an individual to become a shared resource: do check in with yourself and see if you consider the money and the things you buy with it, are ultimately yours, or belong to your family.

To reframe your relationship to the money you earn, jot down your typical working day (from the time you get up to prepare for work to the time you go to bed) and everything you do in between, including travel, sustenance, the relationships you manage, how your work is carried with you at the back of your mind and the work itself. Then do the same for your partner and her day. If you can, make the money you earn feel visible – perhaps ritualistically, provide for your family with pride and see how that feels. This will help change your perspective.

If you were never thanked in your career it wouldn’t take long for you to feel overlooked; if you parent with a partner then gratitude is an exceedingly good way to recognise each other’s efforts and melt resentment. Appreciating partners is important at any time; but particularly through the joyous, hard work of raising young children.

 

Secondly, I think it’s important that you’re honest with your partner about how you’re feeling about work. Do you feel trapped in your career? Do you feel you have any option of leaving or changing gear? Are you feeling burnt out? When did you last have proper time off? Do you enjoy your work, aside from the financial pressure? Do you wish you could take on more of a domestic role at home?

If you’re feeling trapped or burnt out, then I’d recommend making a rough plan – together – that has an escape button built in. Perhaps that means applying for new roles and making sure you have time off between starting afresh; perhaps if you run your own business it means giving yourself a month off; perhaps it means planning to reduce your hours to four days a week in future.

It also might involve your partner working: she might not command the same salary as you do but if she worked a couple of days within school hours, it might afford you one day a week when you can be the primary parent and pick up some of the domestic load.

 

I’m conscious that your partner’s career experience to date has been tough and she has previously been bullied by a manager, an unfair situation that may have left her wary of returning to work.

I’d urge you to address this directly with her, both at a conceptual level and a more practical one: what are her long term career goals? Does she want to explore something new? Might a career coach be helpful? How many hours might she be able to work, what income would that bring in and what difference could that make to your family resources in the short and long term (the more practical detail you provide the better). Would she want to work from home? Is there a business she’d be keen to launch, or someone else’s she’d like to support? Encouraging your wife to follow her passions might ignite an enthusiasm in her.

Her passion for homemaking might be career-worthy, whether it’s as a professional declutterer who helps order toy-filled homes, or someone who creates and sells activity kits for parents who don’t have time to dream up ingenious after-school activities. Having been burnt badly in her previous career she is likely to be in need of support and encouragement now.

It might also be healthy to explore the idea of less traditional roles and see how this feels for you both. How would you both feel if you reversed roles? I’m not suggesting a sweeping overhaul but are there elements of a reversal that would appeal to either of you? If so, you might be able to incorporate them into your lives. Do keep in mind that whatever decisions you come to are likely to keep evolving over the next few decades.

 

Finally, I wonder if you both might benefit from spending some time together as a couple. Your children are now at school, which gives you a little more time to rediscover and rebuild the parts of you, both individually and together, that you might have sacrificed to the intensity of the early years.

I appreciate that this is unsolicited advice: you’re asking about finances and I’m suggesting dedicating time to each other, but I’m frequently struck that problems of a financial nature, which can swiftly erode happiness, seem to create the most resentment when couples already have very little time and energy to enjoy time together.