What Is It Like to Be a Househusband?

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Nov. 8 2013 4:25 PM

What Is It Like to Be a Househusband?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Dave Cheng, househusband and soon-to-be father:

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As a recent househusband (last day of employment was Sept. 26) in Hong Kong, where the white-collar professionals seem to care even more about career status and the size of their paychecks than in Manhattan, I've experienced a few bumps in the road.

I decided about six months ago to give up my career for my wife's career. I'm actively (but not too actively) looking for jobs and have gotten one solid offer as well as a few promising leads. As an ex-lawyer who got out of law and back into business more than a year ago, I've also been somewhat conflicted, since I'm not a huge fan of practicing law, especially big law, but it pays much more here in Hong Kong than it does in the States. I haven't started on law-firm applications yet and have no immediate plans or hopes to do so.

Without exception, everyone in Hong Kong (including the lawyers) insists that I should try to return to big law for the pay, the stability, and to improve my CV. Most of my friends in the West (including the lawyers) tell me I should stick with my decision of happiness over money.

I'm not in a terrible hurry to start working, and given that my wife's job pays six figures USD and that we're expecting our first child in mid-December, I'm fine being a househusband for at least three months—possibly longer.

Not having an income has also made me much more thrifty. I used to think nothing of spending $150 to $300 on a nice meal with my wife in Manhattan on any given weekend—if we didn't have anything in the kitchen or wanted to try a particular restaurant and not necessarily because we had special cause to celebrate. Now that I do the grocery shopping and most of the cooking, I realize what a horrendous waste of money dining out can be. A few days ago, we went to a fancy Western restaurant in Hong Kong with a nice view for my wife's birthday that ended up costing us $270. I must have complained for two hours afterward about how we could have eaten amazing local food for one-tenth of that price.

I've learned that I enjoy cooking, do not mind doing laundry, love going out to pick up groceries and other household items, but do not enjoy cleaning. This is ironic, because I absolutely hate clothes shopping or replacing any necessities for myself, but when it's for our household, my wife, or our upcoming baby, I feel an odd sense of pride and satisfaction in it. It has been a humbling experience, and I've learned a great deal about the effort and time that goes into running a household. I do not find any of the work I do demeaning or "beneath me."

For instance, a few days ago, I was cleaning the two toilets we have in our apartment. Unlike U.S. toilets, this task requires certain brackish salt buildup (the toilet water here is saltwater for whatever reason) to be cleaned off the outside and inside of the tank cover behind the seat, as well as certain—let's call them brown and black—stains to be cleaned and scraped off the bowl (due to the poor quality of the porcelain or whatever material it is). I've found the fastest way to do this is to get a wad of paper towel or Clorox clean wipes and wiping vigorously before spraying with toilet bowl cleaner and scrubbing with the toilet brush. A consequence of this is that I sometimes get fecal and urine residue on my hands and nails, which I wash thoroughly with soap afterward—twice. While doing stuff like this, I can't help but remember the days when I had administrative assistants, paralegals, marketing assistants, dog-walkers, doormen, building superintendents, and maids-for-hire do my grunt work for me.

All this has made me more grateful for the things that my parents (and the maids I would hire in college and law school) used to do for me. It makes me appreciate that neither they nor my wife would ever complain about getting their hands dirty.

Some days are boring. Other days, like the last 24 hours, are action-packed.

To give you an idea, yesterday I spent the morning out shopping and running various errands, writing Quora answers (no shame), and in the early evening meeting up with a friend of a friend of my wife who is a senior in-house lawyer (also ex-Goldman and ex-PE equity partner) to network at a wine-tasting hosted by headhunters that he invited me to. He was a swell guy. He's got two kids, and we bonded over tales of marriage and the joy of child-rearing. He also told me to get back into law:

You're unhireable right now as a nonlawyer.
You would cost too much for a nonlegal role with your Ivy League degrees. You should go back to law, kiss your wife and soon-to-be kid goodbye for two to three years, and build up your legal expertise and network.

The wine-tasting network event turned out to be for legal positions. Almost everyone lost interest in me the moment I told them I was a full-time househusband and wanted to continue to be one for a few months. I got a lot of condescending smiles and a few people (both lawyers and headhunters) who just turned their back on me and walked away. Toward the end of the night, though, I bonded with a few of the headhunters and one 38-year-old mainland Chinese bachelor in-house lawyer. We drank a lot of free wine and shared relationship stories. Turns out one of the people there is dating and living with a significant other that the person despises but is getting a great deal of familial pressure to marry. The person was set up by parents. Last night was the couple's one-year anniversary, but the person was spending it out drinking with random strangers like me.

So, I guess it could be worse. Instead of not having a job, I could have a job or a significant other that I hate.

I got back home at around midnight, showered, put my suit away, canoodled and chatted with pregnant wifey for a couple hours, slept for two hours, then got up at 5 a.m. to catch up on emails (and Quora), hit the gym, made my wife breakfast (stir-fried eggs and cucumber plus a napoleon pastry I picked up from the local bakery—her favorites), went to the Chinese consulate to pick up my visa (two hours), went to a mall to buy gifts for relatives I'm visiting this weekend, got groceries, came home, packed, made a few calls and emails, shopped online for used strollers* and other newborn supplies, and made a ton of pasta with sausage and broccoli to stick in the freezer for my wife for the next three days while I'm out of town.

I had half a glass of wine and am now ready to pass out for about an hour before I catch a train to Shenzhen, China, and then a flight to Beijing to see relatives I haven't seen in three-plus years. I'm looking forward to the trip and to being offline and out of pocket for a few days. I'm going to miss the wife.

Last thought: A couple weeks ago, a headhunter told me that if I didn't go back into law, "It wouldn't be fair to your wife." That stung a little. Thinking about it, though, I don't think it would be fair to my wife for me to spend 90-plus hours a week in the office doing a job I don't enjoy. It wouldn't be fair to our future child for him to learn English from a Filipino nanny** instead of his father. It wouldn't be fair to me to miss the chance to see my kid grow up.

I'm happy where I'm at right now. I'll probably have a nonlegal job in three to six months, but in the meantime, staying at home and taking care of my family is satisfying and challenging.

*Strollers are shockingly expensive. If I was still a lawyer, I would have just bought a new brand-name model without even thinking about it. As a househusband, I searched with my wife online for used ones, and we will save $300 to $500 as a result. I also felt great about finding a good deal and reusing two perfectly good strollers that someone else didn't need anymore.

**Nothing against Filipino (or any other kind of) nannies. They're quite prevalent here in Hong Kong and speak great English. I just wouldn't want a stranger raising and educating my child instead of me.

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