Dr. Phil to Unhappy SAHM: You Made a DealKJ Dell'Antonia
From this month’s O Magazine, perhaps the most off-base advice Dr. Phil has ever given. To a SAHM unhappy without her career, Dr. Phil says, in essence, tough. “Bloom where you’re planted” has never sounded so patronizing.
A mother of two writes in, saying that she and her husband agreed, before having kids, that she would stay home until they were in full-time school. Now that the kids, aged 2 and 4, are actually here, demanding snacks and generally absorbing all of her energy, she’s realized she can’t actually maintain her career as a freelance web designer when she’s “running after the boys all day.”
She wants to go back to work. Her husband wants her to stay home. And Dr. Phil comes down firmly on the side of the “deal.” If your husband (oh, lord and master) won’t alter the “terms of your agreement,” he says, that unhappy SAHM should “stick it out” for another four years.
Anyone else want to tell Dr. Phil where to stick it? Read on for the full exchange. MORE
Q: My husband and I have two sons, ages 2 and 4. When our oldest was born, we agreed that I would be the primary caregiver until our children reached school age. I am a freelance Web designer and work from home, but it’s impossible to advance my career when I’m running after two boys all day, so I’d like to return to a full-time office gig.
My husband hates the idea of our kids in daycare (I’m not crazy about it, either), and he’s upset that I want to back out of our deal. He promised to be more hands-on with the children on weekends to give me time to work, but his job is 24/7 and he’s always exhausted. Can we strike a better balance?
A: You made a deal. You can’t back out just because you’ve changed your mind. Either bear down and stick it out until your youngest reaches kindergarten, or try to renegotiate. If your husband won’t alter the terms of your agreement, be willing to keep your word but explain that he has to keep his when it comes to weekend childcare.
Most important, optimize your circumstances within the confines of the deal. During the week, free up blocks of time for you to work at home or in a nearby coffee shop by arranging activities for the children under the supervision of trusted adults. I understand that neither of you is totally comfortable leaving the kids with others, but everything from parenting message boards to GPS tracking devices has made it easier to rest assured that your kids are safe and well looked after. Do your research, plan accordingly, and bloom where you’re planted.
Look, how sweet. He does encourage her to find some activities for the kids. And Dad should absolutely provide that weekend childcare. (Hello, Dr. Phil: when Dad does it, it’s not childcare. It’s PARENTING.) But she can’t “back out.”
OK, let’s give Dr. P. the benefit of the doubt and assume that he just doesn’t understand a few basics about marriage and childrearing. Here we go: First, it’s often not what you expect it to be. A childless individual who says he or she plans to spend the next 6-8 years of life tending toddlers and preschoolers should no more be held to that than someone who straps on a parachute, looks out the back of the plane and changes her mind should be shoved out the hatch. Circumstances change. Reality intrudes. We no longer allow indentured servitude. This mother has put in four years at home with her kids. She’s not happy. It’s not just some “deal,” as in, oh, but you promised to finish your broccoli before you moved on to your ice cream. It’s her life, and her career, and another four years before that youngest child is ready for full time school.
Second, marriage isn’t about “deals.” It’s not about “renegotiating” or “altering terms.” It’s about two people trying to be happy together, in this case, within the confines of raising a young family. When you hire a nanny, you make a deal (and its one that’s unlikely to involve more than a few weeks notice, if you’re lucky). When you get married, you make a pact: a pact to work together to make both lives better in an ever-changing world. What works one year may not work the next. You have to be willing to adjust your expectations and work together.
It’s not Dr. Phil’s suggestion that if this SAHM is unhappy with the idea of her kids in day care, she consider finding other ways to work until they go to school that bothers me. It’s his assumption than any “deal” you make in marriage, other than the one to stick together, is one that either partner should legitimately require that you keep. I’m just as offended by stories of women who demand that their husbands support their staying at home with the kids after circumstances change (divorce, loss of a job, health issues), just because that’s the “deal” they made back when things were good. The deal is that you work together. Otherwise, your bigger deal is likely to fall apart.