Doing well in my chosen career is something I’ve never really questioned. What I’m less clear about is how much effort is too much, or too little. Our office hours are long and I find myself, in my late thirties, stifled by my lack of control at work (I’m over my workplace’s frantic culture and want to start my own business).
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My wife wants children and a bigger mortgage. She’s pretty clear about what she wants and what role she expects me to play in that. But I feel trapped. I don’t want to commit to 40 years of hard labour on the one hand or a divorce on the other. My wife is a complete babe when she’s not being full-on about having a baby. What do you think?

Popular culture loves to talk about women having babies because women as a group just love them. We’re designed to. It was tabloid speculation about Meghan Markle’s “pregnancy” that led Harry Windsor to explain that no children were on the way during their recent engagement interview. Beyond the fairytale, however, having a child is much more disruptive to marriage, mental health and finances than your average women’s magazine would lead you to believe. It may be a while before we have a society where children routinely land into families and communities that are properly equipped to meet their ceaseless needs for food, love and Disney.

In the face of the pressure to breed and the rush of hormones your average woman feels as her fertility starts to frazzle round the edges, it’s kind of miraculous that anyone manages to get a whiff of all these child-bearing downsides at all. Men seem to be better at this. I suspect men who are trying to cut through the fairytale about how great it is for women to find a prince and then to bear his progeny don’t always get an interested or sympathetic hearing from the women in their lives. Women are, after all, under serious and sustained pressure to breed.

It’s hard for men to talk about how economically burdened they feel, not least because of the professional (and gender) privilege they still enjoy. It’s also hard for some women to learn that their male partners don’t think women in general, and their female partners in particular, have a free pass to bear children and downsize at work.

How much effort is too much, and how much too little? That’s a curly one. In your case, it may be more about the timing of that effort, which would have been much better discussed (by both of you) at the start of your relationship. If that feels true, just concede to yourself that you both blew the timing of a threshold conversation and move on, without giving yourself a hard time. Hindsight can be mean and nasty, but it’s also your surest companion in a well-examined life.

Whether their contracts with each other are clear from the beginning, it’s becoming more common for folks to delay having a child until biological necessity starts to bite. This is often in a woman’s late thirties. For many, the arrival of a child changes the relational contract: how the burdens of income, housework, social relationships and parenting are shared. Women are still under social pressure to carry the lion’s share of these except for income, and, in exchange for this, men are under the cultural thumb of expectations that they’ll finance the family, particularly while the children are small. A young family and a small business can add up to a crushing burden, whether you’re a man or a woman.

Female entrepreneurs in my ambit talk openly with each other about how small-business ownership has changed their relationship with money. Many of us began an expectation that our partners would simply support us (effectively finance our businesses) until they became profitable. But small-business profitability can take years to arrive. So we then grew a new world view over time, in which financial obligations were equitably carried in our relationships/marriages, and in which women can generate extraordinary financial success in their own right, ask for (and receive) what they are worth, and still walk through the world in a spirit of warm reciprocity rather than endless, thankless giving.

But the level of our discomfort and resistance around becoming more financially responsible, and giving up the dream of unbounded financial support from the men in our lives, has been a painful surprise to many of us. In the larger culture, women still look to men for financial caretaking, in the same way men still look to women for emotional caretaking. Caretaking feels so good, but it can hurt so bad if the trade-offs it involves haven’t been clarified between you. I’m all for the culture of the future, in which all of us have more freedom, and more clarity, in how we run our workplaces and our families, and in which caretaking no longer takes hostage the reasonable autonomy of others in return.

Beating quietly, and perhaps uncomfortably, beneath these monoliths is your own sense of destiny. Not all of us, even hands-on parents, have an intuitive sense that they were born to be parents. Not all of us believe that children offer enough intrinsic satisfaction to offset the sacrifice asked of people who parent within the nuclear-family model. Many reluctant parents are later pleased they took the plunge and consider the downsides worth it. Many, however, are not. We were designed to parent in groups, not in a ratio where children routinely outnumber the grown-ups.

If we tease the work question out of this, it looks to me like you’re emerging from the shadow of your parents’ expectations and settling into an authentic desire for a job that’s fairly low-key. It also sounds like this modest professional dream might not gel with your wife’s expectations of your role in whatever family (of children borne, fostered or adopted; pets; nephews, nieces and other beloved strays) you make together.

This stuff is underneath the 100 daily conversations in your average relationship around the margins of dinner, work and your commute. Whatever your needs and vision are, make a stand for them in a way that can hear and respect your wife’s ideal for a good life. You may be surprised how much you’re both prepared to concede, and what new miraculous alternatives may emerge at the end of repeated conversations that have been slow, kind and quiet. And timely.

Gender roles make for beautiful dreams (fairytales, if you ask Markle, whose personal and financial power make her dream more likely to come true). They also involve violent undertones in all directions.

From these roles, dreams and nightmares, you two have the potential to extract and carefully remake something real, gentle and true. It is effort, for which hindsight can only partially prepare you.

Jacqueline Jago is an executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting. [email protected]

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.