When One Partner Is Self-Employed

Whenever I mention that I’m self-employed and work from home while my wife works outside of the home, I usually receive a question or two from readers who are thinking about a similar arrangement. They want to know about how we balance things. How do you balance household chores? How do you balance parenting chores? Does it change how you socialize?

Here are seven things we’ve found to be true about our marriage once one of us became self-employed.

“Keeping score” is dangerous. When one person shifts to a completely different lifestyle, the various dynamics of the marriage will shift. This is true of any major change – stay-at-home parenting, a major career shift, even a significant change in the hours worked.

Dynamics change (and I’m going to talk about some specifics below). Don’t “keep score” based on what the previously-established norms were. Instead, focus on figuring out the new norm and forget about the old ones, and talk about it carefully along the way.

The balance of household chores subtly shifts towards more chores for the self-employed spouse. Here’s an example from our own life. I’m about to start my day, so just before I begin, I’ll toss a load of laundry into the washing machine. Then, at lunchtime, I’ll go downstairs and toss the clothes in the dryer. During my afternoon break, I’ll fold those clothes and put them into the kids’ drawers. Still, after work is over, the remaining work is split 50-50.

It’s easy to say that such an arrangement is completely reasonable – after all, the self-employed partner has the time to do this, right? Well, on the other side of the coin, the partner working outside of the home is also taking breaks but not filling them with housework.

It’s unsurprising that, over a long period of time, the self-employed partner may feel some sense of … unbalance, while the partner working outside the home still feels the arrangement is 50-50. This can easily create hard feelings. The best way to handle it is to talk it out.

The social needs of both partners change. When both of us worked outside the home in fairly social environments, we had similar feelings about how much to socialize with others on evenings and weekends.

Then, when I began to work solo, my ideas in that area changed. During my work day, I interacted with others much less than I did before and thus, after work, my desire to socialize went up quite a lot. At the same time, Sarah’s desires remained unchanged.

Our solution has largely been that we invite people over a bit more often than we used to. On top of that, I’ve started to become more involved in community groups and organizations of all kinds, even taking on significant responsibility in one of them. This balance works out well for both of us.

When children are sick, the self-employed parent ends up being the nurturing one most of the time. As I write this, my son is currently watching a program on PBS (Caillou). He’s home sick for the day and I’m busy trying to get some work in.

While this means I’m rushed a little bit, I am the partner with the more flexible schedule, so when the children are sick, I’m almost always the one that steps in to take care of them. This, of course, means that my wife is less interrupted by such things at her work.

Again, this can sometimes feel unbalanced and, if left undiscussed, feel unfair. The instant one partner begins to feel things are out of balance, it should be discussed openly. Such things can easily fester.

The work of the self-employed partner can often bleed into time that used to be shared doing other things. Today, I’m spending much of my time with my son. I’ll make him snacks, make him lunch, put him down for a nap, and if he feels better this afternoon, I’ll play some games with him and work on writing the alphabet with him.

That means that, unexpectedly, I’ve lost most of a day’s worth of work at a time when I can’t really afford such leakage. So, this evening, I’ll need to make up for it. As a result, Sarah will find herself doing solo things. Thankfully, she doesn’t mind this – she’s an avid reader – but it does mean that we won’t be able to do something together, like play a board game.

It can become harder to discuss work. A few times a day, I’ll go do something completely unrelated to my work, simply because I need the mental break. I’ll read the rules for a board game. I’ll wash dishes. I’ll read a book for personal enjoyment. I’ll visit messageboards.

At first, when I told Sarah about this, she was fairly annoyed. “Why are you wasting time?” was her immediate response.

Here’s the thing, though. Most workplaces do offer breaks – and quite often, other break times are squeezed into work times. We gather around the water cooler and chat. We stop in another worker’s office or cubicle and see what’s going on. We go to meetings. In other words, most “real” workplaces have tons of time for mental breaks.

Since I’m self-employed, I don’t have nearly as many opportunities for those kinds of breaks, so I have to make my own. This usually involves things that would be seen as a time-waster in other environments. Again, this is something that’s worth discussing openly.

Here’s the most important thing to remember if you make this change. It offers a lot of benefits, but it changes countless dynamics within your relationship. The best way to deal with this is to talk about it. If one of you is bothered by how a dynamic is changing, say so. Don’t let it fester and grow and become something seriously problematic.

Good luck!

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