If your family isn’t just “me, the kid, and my partner,” but, rather, “me, the kid, my partner, and both our careers,” then you’re probably in the midst of a Flying Wallendas-like balancing act trying to keep everything on track. But figuring out whose career should take precedence in a family is never simply about dollars and cents.
“[It] can change, day to day,” says certified coach Rachael Ellison, whose practice focuses on strategic business consulting, executive coaching, and countless discussions about this exact topic. When talking through it with two working parents, she encourages them not to think about it as a one-off decision, but an ongoing conversation about “who should lean into their career and who should lean back.”
And if you feel weird subjecting your marriage and career to therapy with a certified coach, remember: “It’s not therapy. It’s a planning process.”
“These are conversations that people avoid having,” Ellison says. “Everyone kind of expects that the other one understands whose career should take precedence.”
If one of you has agreed to stay home and put a career on pause, have you talked about how long they’re comfortable doing that? If one of you is working more to accommodate a paused career and missing events or milestone because of it, have you talked about whether or not it’s worth it?
If the answer to questions like that is “Kinda?” then you have a bumpy road ahead. Even if you’re the next president and she’s Betty Draper, you both need to communicate what the other wants and expects.
These conversations are complicated because they affect your time, relationships, even where you live—so Ellison recommends breaking them down into five key areas:
Parental: Kid-related. Who’s packing lunches? Which days are soccer practice? Does the kid prefer bath time or doctor’s appointments with a particular parent (be honest)?
Professional: Work-related. Do you plan on moving if you land that dream job in Dallas next year? Why is your dream job in Dallas? Reconsider Dallas.
Personal: Whatever keeps each of you sane: golf, the spa, running, the Annual Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw. These things are essential and need to be accounted for.
Partnership: Love life. Don’t let the kid suck all the oxygen out of the conversation. Factor in the time and financial considerations to maintain the things you need as a couple, because the conversations get way more complicated if you’re divorced.
Practical: Everything else. Does gentrification mean you’re going to get priced out of your neighborhood? Will your aging in-laws need to move in with you? Is that a goiter developing on the dog?
If your wife is a teacher, plan on childrearing duties shifting around her in the summers. If you’re a CPA, plan on shifting household duties around, say, every spring for the rest of your life. Is the kid about to start kindergarten, and how does that affect your finances? Does one of you want to go back to school for that MBA?
Get a sense of not just the year-in, year-out stuff, but what your lives will look like in five, 10, even 20 years out.
“Breaking down those big-picture issues into manageable topics is what’s most important here,” Ellison says. “As long as both want to/need to stay in the workforce, then you’re ultimately making a decision around how the little things are covered.”
Who makes breakfast in the morning? Who’s doing drop-offs and pickups from school on Tuesdays, and should that change on Wednesdays? Once there’s a general understanding of each other’s future, navigating the daily hurdles becomes easier. Keep in mind this is a “process,” Ellison advises,”not a decision that’s made categorically and finally.”
One last bit of advice: Nothing ruins date night like inventorying five years of ambitions and obstacles in order to assign spousal duties, so carve out a specific time to have these conversations. Like dental exams, appointments with the proctologist, or that conversation about porn you’ll soon have with your kid, it can be painful, but it’s for the best.
This article originally appeared on Fatherly and is reprinted with permission.