How to manage your money when you become parents

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This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

Progressive societies have made massive leaps towards treating the genders equally, from the way that children are taught, to the way job candidates, employees, and leaders are judged. But the moment women become mothers, it’s common for equality to falter, even in the intimate arena of our own relationships. Sometimes it never regains its stride. And one specific arena can be the most telling of all: Money.

Many factors go into the fine balance of equality between parents after a birth: Who requires the most sleep, who gets time away from the baby, what biological needs have to be met by whom, and whose instincts are most finely tuned to the needs of others. “Equality in many couples is busted with the arrival of the first child,” Esther Perel, a couples’ therapist and author who has become one of the go-to voices on long-term relationship health, told Vogue in 2015. In part that’s because it’s very hard to share all the parenting roles equally, but equally it’s imperative that all those roles be fulfilled: Kids always have to be picked up, dressed, fed, put to bed. “There is going to be a frontline parent,” Perel says.

Money is key not only because of what it affords—the ability to buy goods and services—but of what it represents: everything from control, to success, to freedom. While all committed couples will have discussed their finances on at least some level, having a child might be the first time they become financially dependent on one another. And when that happens, the decisions they make—from those about broad numbers, like what each person earns, to factors as granular as who has log-in rights to which bank accounts—become truly interconnected.

Caroline Lovett, a sex and relationship therapist based in the south of England, says she sees this dynamic playing out time and again in the therapy room. “Money holds so much power,” Lovett says. A woman on maternity leave having no access to her own money without asking her partner “would be similar to if her partner came into the kitchen and had to ask permission to eat something,” she says. For many, it’s a totally foreign concept—and an unsettling feeling.

Working out how to share fundamental resources is one of the big challenges to any relationship. Tackling it head-on sets a couple up for a future of parenting in which both partners feel like equal leaders of a shared project. It might also hold some of the keys to the intractable inequality problems of society as a whole.

Built-in equality

We can become myopic in the throes of new parenthood, explains Jessica Chivers, founder and CEO of The Talent Keeper Specialists and the author of two books on women returning to work. Once a woman is home looking after kids and a man is out at a paying job—the arrangement for which the majority of couples still opt in the first months of a child’s life, and often for years—it’s easy to forget that the woman’s caregiving is making her partner’s work possible, just as his is supporting their home. What had been a coupling of two individuals has become a financial unit of more than two.

Childcare decisions are usually not made in isolation. “You’ll have thought about what it is going to take for your family to feel good and for you to have the resources that you need,” Chivers says. “I encourage people to zoom out and think about what the team as a whole is achieving and delivering.”

To achieve this shift and, crucially, to make it stick, Chivers advises addressing the money issue with some basic restructuring. (This could feel like a lot of extra work at a busy time, so if you’re expecting kids but don’t have them yet, get it done now.) It might sound fine to proceed on the same “equal” basis as whatever arrangement you had before children, but—depending on the arrangement—it could lead to structural inequality.

Here’s the format she suggests:

  1. Set up a joint account to which you both have access.
  2. Arrange for both salaries and any maternity pay to be paid into this account.
  3. Arrange for all regular expenses, like mortgage payments and utility bills, to be paid out if it.
  4. Make sure you each have a personal account as well.
  5. Pay a monthly allowance from the joint account into your personal accounts. This could be exactly the same for each partner, or adjusted depending on whether one person does more “daily” spending, for example on kids’ clothes, food, or travel.

Chivers also suggested that it might make sense for one partner, probably the person who spends most time at home, to take responsibility for household expenses. The structure should free both partners from feeling guilty about their spending or worried about the other’s reaction to it, giving each complete financial autonomy day-to-day.

“So, for example, if [one partner] decides that the shopping bill has been relatively low this month thanks to buying bargains or offers, and wants to then spend £20 on an indulgent candle for the living room, that person should feel able to do that because they have managed to household budget,” Chivers says.

The arrangement also obviates the need for an interaction that can be particularly painful for a couple, namely the woman running out of money and having to ask her partner for it. This is a deeply uncomfortable feeling which I and many of my friends have experienced, and which startlingly recalled images of kept women or 1950s housewives: A hard knock to self-confidence that might already be shaken by the upheavals of birth and early parenthood.

When paid childcare kicks in, Chivers says, it’s imperative for the woman not to feel that the (often surprisingly high) costs negate the value of her work: A sadly common sentiment that links a woman’s right to pursue meaningful work with childcare choices, while at the same time making the assumption that her male partner’s work will continue unaffected.

“We must not think: A woman’s salary, minus childcare, is what she’s worth,” Chivers says. “It’s really important that you talk about that childcare coming out of the gross team pay. That psychology is really important,” Chivers says.

Why it matters

Since becoming a mother I’ve heard the same story from several women: They made a decision to stay at home while their partner went to work. But then a feeling set in that the woman couldn’t shake: Disempowerment in the shift from career woman to “only” being a mother, a sense of not “earning anything” and consequent guilt associated with spending. Alongside both, a loss of confidence.

It’s a common experience. A Norwegian study found in 2017 that, after giving birth, women experienced a drop in self-esteem for at least the next three years. The research found a correlation between this self-esteem slump and the women’s evaluation of their relationships. It’s impossible to say which caused which, but women tended to suffer from lower self-confidence and lower relationship satisfaction than their own “baseline” in the years after having kids.

These household money discussions feel very individual and private. But on a societal level, they are by no means trivial. Societies are variously struggling with systemic biases that see women paid less than men, achieving fewer management positions, and starting fewer companies (with less money.) Even orchestras tend to exclude women.

This month, a global survey of high-net-worth individuals from UBS found that, globally, married women tend to defer long-term financial planning to their spouses. Of the 3,700 women surveyed, 58% said that their partner was responsible for long-term planning, though 85% said they themselves looked after day-to-day spending. A division of labor makes sense, the bank noted, but women need to make sure they don’t lose control of their long-term financial health by default because, around childbearing, men tend to take on the role of breadwinner.

Women also return to work part-time more often than do men, and that factor—as well as historical underpayment by companies and probably women undervaluing themselves as a result—has exacerbated the world’s vast gender pay gaps. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that a woman feeling in control of money in her own home and relationship will help her exercise greater control when she’s back in the workforce.

Setting up those accounts might feel strange and exposing, but it’s worth it, Chivers says, because it’s extremely hard in the maelstrom of parenting to remember exactly why we did what we did, and exactly what conversations were had.

Even with those structures in place, it’s important to keep checking back in that the sense of being two equal members of a team hasn’t slipped. “Money is often really wrapped up with a lot of emotion,” Chivers says. “If you start to have feelings like ‘Oh gosh we’re falling into a stereotype,’ or feeling a little bit awkward about the money that you’re spending, I think that could be a sign that something has changed…that there has been a reduction in trust or mutual respect.”

Very high childcare costs are usually just for a few years, while kids are small. A career is for much, much longer. And doing satisfying, mentally challenging work is also about more than money. As Esther Perel explains, parenting and making long relationships work isn’t always about achieving a perfect symmetry of responsibilities. But the building blocks of equality need to be in place.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here