I don’t want to be financially dependent on my spouse

I don’t want to ask you a career question because I know you’re just going to tell me that I’m 32 so I should get married and have kids. But if I don’t get a career I love first then I’ll always be dependent on my husband, and that’s scary.

24 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    You’re right that I’d tell you to get married and have kids. You have no time to find a new career before you have kids.

    You will be fine if you find someone who wants to work and have a partner stay home with kids. If you don’t already live in a city where that is financially viable, then relocate to one. (Or marry a bazillionaire in NYC or San Francisco, but honestly bazillionaires don’t marry 32-year-old women who are under the gun to have kids, because why would they want to be under the gun?)

    Anyway, you will not be any more dependent on your spouse than your spouse will be on you. Because, no matter how you slice child care and working, everyone is dependent on their partner when there are children. One person depends on someone to take care of the kids and one depends on the other for money. But neither can do both on their own. Courts protect both parents so in a dissolved partnership there is money for the parent who takes care of the kid. It’s just harder for both if you’re not together. That’s mutual dependence.

    Another way to look at it is your spouse doesn’t want to stop their career to have kids, and you don’t like your career so it’s no big deal to stop to have kids. You wish financial dependence were a huge step down for you, but it might not be since you don’t like what you’re doing for work anyway. We all make compromises in life. And this is yours. Your clock is ticking too fast for you to make everything perfect. And that’s true for everyone. In all stages of life.

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I think if one were to sum up all your career advice on this blog it would be these three things:

    1. Get married and have kids.
    2. Start a business.
    3. Don’t go to school.

    And all the content is extrapolation on why/how people should do those things. Mailbag-wise, it’s very hard to think of a question that wouldn’t end in one of those three answers from you. It makes me wonder if people don’t send you questions just to see if they’ll be the ones to actually get a different response!

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I like this summary. Thanks, Wendy.

      And I have to admit that I’m sick of talking about this stuff. I am right, but it doesn’t matter that I’m right. I’m starting to think the advice is so hard to swallow that it’s not useful.

      I remember reading research from Dan Gilbert’s lab at Harvard about how humans are predisposed to think things will work out great for them in the future. Life is really difficult. That part of our brain is what makes us not kill ourselves every morning when we wake up.


      I think that’s true

      • Wendy
        Wendy says:

        I think what people don’t understand is that you give pretty general advice (especially on the Mailbag and your posts, which are intended for general audiences) that will work for most people. And people think they’re the exception to this general advice somehow. And yeah, those exceptions do exist, but people need to realize that if they were really the exception, they would already be figuring out how to make that work for them.

      • Kate
        Kate says:

        >I’m starting to think the advice is so hard to swallow that it’s not useful.

        For 98% of women yes, it’s is too hard to swallow. But for the 2% of us who aren’t completely determined to live in denial or make our lives as hard as possible we can see you’re completely right. Your advice has been extremely helpful to me and I appreciate what you’re doing.

  3. Sam
    Sam says:

    But how do you know if someone you’re interested in/dating wants a stay at home spouse? Do you just come right out and ask? Among the 20-something people I know, this sentiment is not very common. The guys expect their wives to be interested in their own careers and to want to keep working. Maybe it’s because I live in NYC? I fear I wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to the kind of guy who openly wanted a stay at home wife, and that I wouldn’t be attractive to him either. :/

    • LisaP
      LisaP says:

      My husband didn’t want a stay at home wife before we had our son, but once we did he was really in favor of it. It’s a cliche, but your perspective really changes after you have a child. I think the key would be to look for a guy who really wants kids, he will probably end up liking the idea of a stay at home mom for the kids’ sake…not necessarily because he has old-fashioned views of women.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      As a NYCer/ Londoner right now (same issue, different cities) 20 something people in NYC are for the most part, delusional. They are not married, yet, and do not understand the expenses of children in the City. Besides that, they are still caught up in thinking everything is split and women should pay their way, because equality. So what happens? The women that didn’t shack up with bankers, or execs, or ladder climbers…are still working into their 30s, but not on a major career path and are still trying to find ‘the one’ in the decreasing handful of eligible bachelors who are being taken up by the 20something waitresses and hostesses and early career climbers who realized earlier they’d rather marry well and have a family in the city. Dual earners even on 100k each, doesn’t bode well in the city due to COL especially with children and childcare- I know several of these families and they are not having a great time: they are exhausted, overstretched, over scheduled, and the only way out is a major change. Then what happens? The mom (or dad) generally wants to stay home as the kids outgrow nursery school to be there for recitals, and lessons, and bake sales, and encouragement, and sick days. Both spouses are earning 100k+, one has to quit to stay home for important kid stuff, then now what? You no longer have the income to live in the major city and have to move. I have so many stories of women that did this (waited, listened to the 20something friends, weren’t as serious) and are stuck either unmarried and wanting kids or in a mediocre career or realizing they need to move. I also have a bunch of friends that got married before 27 (surprise- most not from NYC, but elsewhere and came to NYC with their spouse) with the spouse having major career goals- surgeons, high level bankers, lawyers, biz owners, biz execs etc. and their lives aren’t ‘easy’, but the key is they don’t have to leave the city and can be there for the kids, which both spouses view as important for career goals (proximity) and family goals (home and social), the non-working stay at home spouse also has the financial freedom to start their own side gig (philanthropy, online shops, retail shops, etsy things, homeschooling becomes more realistic, etc)

      If you, personally, are in your 20s in NYC and want to get married and have kids and live in the city or in a nice NYC suburb (meaning expensive) don’t date other people in their 20s, unless you are both bankers or lawyers. People don’t go to NYC to get married-they go there to work. I’d suggest dating men who are ready to have a family (i.e. financially solvent and more settled into life), and in NYC that would be bachelors in their late 30s, early 40s. Date exclusively that age and be yourself around those men. You find what you are looking for, and that goes both ways, so if you are mature and ready to settle down you’ll find your person. Also, you can tell pretty quickly on a date, where a guy or girl is in their lives. Put the ball in your court and don’t wait for them to waste your time.

      • Penelope
        Penelope says:

        Thumbs up for this advice from Jessica!

        I spend about three hours a week on the phone explaining to people that living in NYC in your 20s is not really making a living in NYC and 99% of those people will leave to have a family.


        • Sam
          Sam says:

          Agreed. Living in NYC kind of sucks. I bought a coop in a nice but not hip neighborhood in Queens. I work a civil service job in Manhattan and make decent but not great $ for work that suits me (a bit monotonous, but I get to work independently and it doesn’t raise my anxiety much). I’ve thought about moving, but all of my family lives close by on Long Island. As you’ve stated before Penelope, I’d have to make a lot more $$ to justify relocating away from family. Especially as I get nearer to the point in my life where I’d have kids, I want to be near my parents and my extended family. I hang out with my mom like once a week :) Anyway, I agree with the advice to date a man in his 30s who is a bit more established and who has thought about having kids and making that transition. Thanks!

          • Isabelle
            Isabelle says:

            This is all the same for the Bay Area, or other very high COL cities. I learned the hard way after falling in love with the Bay and having to leave after realizing 2 kids is totally unsustainable there without 2 tech or finance jobs. It fucking sucks.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Men in their 20s are not ready for kids, so they haven’t thought about it. And they think they’d be bored with a girlfriend who did not have an interesting job.

      Men who are ready to get married and have kids have thought through the process more, and they realize that someone will need to take care of the kids, and they don’t want to be that person.

      Also, men who are older see that in the power ranks of the world, taking care of kids decreases one’s power at work. Men who are ready to have kids care way more about that than women who are ready to have kids.

      I’m not saying women don’t care. What I’m saying is that for men, being able to support a wife is a status symbol. Not true for women supporting men. So if a woman in her 20s dates a man in his 30s it’s pretty easy to find out if the guy wants to have a stay-at-home wife or be a caretaker himself.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Read the article: my quick summary is they did make poor financial decisions- they were low paid reporters when they got married and had kids! That’s not Penelope’s advice- her advice is to have and be aware of, one main breadwinner. And of course in the articles case, in the unfortunate event of divorce the other spouse won’t receive a lot of alimony or a large settlement and needs to figure out how to work. The writer is not a victim of staying at home with the kids- they are victims of poor planning and expectations.

      So, of my stay at home relatives that got divorced and were left penniless: it has been because both parties were living beyond their means, or the breadwinner earned a low salary which led to financial problems and stress which didn’t help the breakdown of the marriage. Penelope also states that it’s better to work on the marriage if there are problems as much as possible before a divorce. Most people are aware divorce makes financial matters for both parties worse. What if the writer was still married? And went back to work after her kids were in college? They’d have the time to work on the marriage problems at that point. Just my two cents.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        ‘Like I needed the extra pressure. I already felt responsible for giving my sons childhoods — those fleeting years that would forever loom large in their lives — full of adventure and learning and treasured memories. If I could have enriched their experience by moving to a farm or hitting the road in an Airstream, I would have considered it. But according to the parenting manuals I dutifully consulted, what my boys required was constant engagement with a loving, omnipresent figure, sort of like if God engaged in daily floor time.”


  4. Eiram
    Eiram says:

    I generally agree with Penelope’s advice. But I’d also say hear some stories of women who have made the choice she advises and have been divorced/left widowed/left the sole breadwinner, by the primary breadwinner. Sure, as Jessica says, some may have made poor financial or other life decisions. But so may you. Which is not necessarily to say ignore PT’s advice. Rather, everything is a calculated risk and you have to decide what goes into your personal calculation.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Is this even a real question? If you are already 32 and you don’t know what career you love then it’s too late. You aren’t career focused if you don’t love what you are doing now. It’s possible you may find a job that you love and can cater around working part-time or from home, but a job and a career are not the same thing. You asked Penelope because you wanted someone to tell you it’s ok to not have a career and to look for a spouse.

    Are you living in NYC or somewhere else? Good advice from the other commenters.

  6. Tammy G
    Tammy G says:

    Penelope knows! I was 24 and my husband was 34 when we met in San Francisco. It wasn’t a difficult choice to make between me and the other 34 year olds dying to have kids and settle down. I wasn’t feeling the same pressure to “settle down” and being younger and “less seasoned” helped. He thought I was darling and put up with my tantrums. Unless you’re college sweethearts, I definitely believe that you should marry an older financially stable mate. Just make sure he takes care of himself and you’ll be fine. My husband is still hot at 50. Also, I’m a horrible house wife so I ended up getting a masters degree and working in risk management but left and ended up starting my own business when I had a baby. He’s still the bread winner though but likes that I have my own money.

    • Old Spinster With Cats
      Old Spinster With Cats says:

      Your comment made me sad, Tammy. It’s difficult enough to be 34 and single for whatever reason, to come here and listen to someone brag in hindsight about her choices.

      I would bet that the fact that you met your gorgeous, hot-at-50 husband at 24 wasn’t only the direct result of good choices and excellent planning skills, but probably of more than a bit of luck. Same goes for women who are single at thirty-something. They might have been consciously ignoring awesome advice for no reason whatsoever, and therefore have only themselves to blame… or maybe they were just unlucky.

      For those unlucky women, hearing that they have nothing to do against younger, tantrum-prone “darlings” is hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s “true,” although maybe it is, in an oversimplified world of statistics where only age and looks matter to catch a husband, if you don’t want to miss on the “perfect life.” What matters, to me, it’s how self-righteous and non-compassionate it sounds.

      Just had to get this out of my system.

      • Jen
        Jen says:

        Thank you, Old Spinster With Cats, for speaking the truth.

        Tammy G’s lack of self knowledge is glaring to everyone else.

        But then, you only get self knowledge by struggling, and doing deep internal work in order to survive the struggle.

        Which Tammy G admitted she has never had to do.

  7. SecondShifter
    SecondShifter says:

    Don’t get a career just because you’re worried about ending up being left by the sole breadwinner.

    Career woman or SAHM, if you’re a woman and a mother and your husband leaves you, you’re screwed either way.

    I worked super hard at my education and career in my early twenties, had a baby at 27, and then my husband of 10 years left when I was 6 months into a new prestigious job earning 130K a year and our child had recently turned 1. The courts look at your history, see “career woman” and say okay no maintenance for you. So then you’re left working full-time at a high-pressured job (no well paid job=stress free/options to work part-time) and looking after your child by yourself evenings/weekends/mornings and trying to cram in all the housewife/SAHM duties (these have to be done by somebody) into the time you’re left with after you work your 40 hour week.

    My top priorities for dating after the divorce were:
    1. Find a man that wants to be a husband (not a boyfriend)
    2. Find a man that is willing to be a breadwinner (they do exist), because I recognize that I don’t want to be a breadwinner (and somebody has to be)
    3. Find a man that appreciates my intelligence, but equally values the work that I do as a mother, because that’s the only way you’ll find a man that’s happy to be the breadwinner

    Being dependent on your husband isn’t scary, unless he is abusive.

    There’s no getting around it, one day you will probably want to have children, and being a mother is hard graft, so unless you’re a single mom, you will always be dependent on your husband for something, whether it’s for the family income or for sharing/taking over household/childcare duties if you work. What’s the alternative really? Getting a great high-paying super-powered job, remaining single and having a baby by yourself? Then you’re not dependent on anyone but you also have ZERO SUPPORT from anyone, and believe me, that’s scary.

    • SecondShifter
      SecondShifter says:

      In fact, you would be dependent on your JOB in that scenario and remember:
      your employer can fire you (i.e. completely cut off your source of income)


      your employer won’t help you around the house,
      your employer won’t offer to take your children to the doctors if they are sick,
      your employer won’t offer to do the grocery shopping/prepare meals for you,
      your employer won’t pay your childcare fees (they don’t care that your salary has just halved because you have to pay childcare fees),
      your employer won’t care if you’re too burnt out and exhausted to do a proper job (they won’t say “I can see this is too much for you, perhaps you should scale back and stay at home and I’ll make up for the loss of income”, they will fire you).

      If you find a good husband, he WILL do the above.

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