Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Plan conversation before discussing work arrangements
New York: After six weeks with our newborn, my wife informed me that she could not follow through with our one-year maternity leave plan and that she had to go back to work. I know we're a team in this, so I rearranged my whole career to stay home with the baby. However, it quickly became clear that I'm not going to get very far telecommuting indefinitely. I have already been passed up for a promotion and am missing out on many important elements of the office culture.
Not to trivialize my wife's job, but even she says it's not a "career," and it pays very little. If she needs to be out of the house for her sanity, I understand that, but I have to succeed at work for our family to survive. However, I feel like to insist that she reconsider this arrangement would be oppressive or borderline abusive. Please help.
Carolyn: There is room between insisting your spouse do something, and just doing whatever your spouse insists that you do.
It starts with finding a calm time and place to talk to your wife about this. Especially when there's a baby in the house, the timing matters: You don't want to compete for attention, get interrupted, add more stress to an already stressed person, or introduce something big just as she's about to lie down for some rest. Plan a conversation — put the baby in the stroller for a long walk this weekend, or even get a sitter.
Then, explain to your wife that your working from home isn't tenable, with specific reasons: My supervisors agreed to it only as a temporary measure; I can't do my job from home as well as I can in the office because of X, Y and Z; the reasons they gave for passing over me include my absence from key meetings … lay out solid evidence.
Then ask her whether she has any ideas about other solutions.
Here's the part that will make this more than an insincere, leading question: It's exceedingly rare for there to be only one option: one of you stays home or else. Just with the handful of different ways people work — full time, part time, telecommuting, changing jobs, entrepreneurship — and in the way people care for children — day care, nannies, nanny shares, relatives, co-ops — there are few cases where parents are absolutely locked into either-or.
So, open your mind to other ideas, hear your wife out and offer your ideas. Having a fixed notion of the way Children Should Be Raised, and then forcing everyone to conform, is a great way to create unhappy families. Start with the circumstances and needs of the individuals involved, and build from there.
Should you have no alternatives to her staying home again (and availing herself of co-op day care, maybe?) while you work away from home full time, then at least it will be a joint decision vs. spousal fiat. I would be surprised, though, if it came to that, given the range of choices you have.
Finally, when this discussion appeared, several readers asked about postpartum depression. A screening should be part of the conversation any time there's an issue involving a new mom's ability to adjust.