Why I Put My Wife’s Career First

After taking leave following the birth of each of our two sons, I returned to work assuming my career trajectory would not really change. I planned to make extra time for the kids by being more efficient at the office. If Anne-Marie and I functioned as equal co-parents, in the short term helping each other to cope with work deadlines and travel, and in the longer term trading off periods of being the primary parent, everything would surely turn out fine. Our children would thrive, and we would still be able to grab professional brass rings as they passed by. We had bought into the prevailing wisdom among other dual-career families we knew: 50–50 parenting was not just desirable, but doable.

While our boys were young, it was. But then we hit a few obstacles that other two-career couples will likely find familiar. For one thing, taking turns was easier said than done. One spouse’s job responsibilities do not conveniently contract just as the other spouse’s duties expand. Nor are all careers created equal. From the beginning, Anne-Marie’s jobs at Harvard and Princeton imposed greater demands than mine, because she entered the university-administration track early on; she also accepted more outside leadership roles. And, as we learned, intense jobs tend to beget even more intense jobs—a phenomenon that, in Anne-Marie’s case, led to a deanship at Princeton, followed by one of the highest positions at the State Department, followed by the leadership of a major nonprofit.

We also discovered that as our children grew, parenting posed new challenges. Caring for a baby or a toddler was physically demanding, but we often found it a welcome change of pace from our day jobs. Over time, the picture changed. A teenager’s problems can be uniquely overwhelming, to both child and parent. The demands of school and extracurricular activities are relentless. Some children go off the rails. As puberty hit, our older son fell in with a bad crowd and began skipping homework, disrupting classes, and failing math. He alternately fought with me and tuned me out. Within a year, he was suspended from school and picked up by the police. The support and counsel he required were substantial, but he is now on a much more positive track. When, a few years later, our younger son entered adolescence, his challenges were less spectacular, but have also required much parental involvement.

Confronted with such realities, most two-career families sooner or later find that one person falls into the role of lead parent. In our family, I assumed that role. To be sure, Anne-Marie was actively involved with our boys, taking responsibility for specific chunks of their lives, like dealing with teachers and planning college trips. She was—and is—emotionally close to both sons. And, as she described in her article three years ago, she broke off her government service to help our older son through his rocky transition into adolescence.

But none of this is lead parenting. Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life. In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis. These tasks aren’t intrinsically difficult, and my to-do list is far shorter than that of parents who cannot afford household help. Yet the role has unavoidably taken a toll on my professional productivity.

Still, there was never really any question that the role would fall to me. Anne-Marie’s job duties are incompatible with being a lead parent: When a TV network seeks an interview, a CEO calls a board meeting, the secretary of state seeks your advice, or a donor wants you to travel to a fund-raising meeting, showing up is nonnegotiable. For years, Anne-Marie has rarely been home for more than a couple of dinners a week, except during holidays.

Our decision to designate me lead parent was unusual. In the overwhelming majority of two-career households, women pick up any slack. According to a Pew Research Center study, 50 percent of married or cohabiting women report doing more child care than their male partners, whereas just 4 percent of men do more than their female partners. This disparity has a devastating effect on women’s careers. Researchers refer to the gap between male and female wages and seniority as the “motherhood penalty,” because it is almost entirely explained by the lower earnings and status of women with children. Despite their superior performance in college, surprisingly few women reach the pinnacles of professional success: They account for only 21 percent of surgeons, 20 percent of law-firm partners, and 9 percent of equity-fund managers.

The nearly impossible expectations facing professional women pose a stark dilemma for ambitious young people planning two-career marriages. One option is to try to tough it out, which some couples manage, but others do not. A recent study of Harvard Business School graduates reveals that the vast majority of alumnae initially expect their career and their spouse’s career to rank equally. However, among those who have kids, more than two-thirds end up doing most of the child care. Another option is not to have children. Wharton School research shows that an increasing number of young professional couples are opting to forgo child-rearing altogether.