Role Reversal

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

My husband and I have been married for 25 years and have five children, three of whom are teenagers still at home. Through the years, my husband has been the hands-on, stay at home dad, while I have earned a very healthy salary working as a top executive for a large accounting firm.

We worry that we made a mistake and wonder if it is too late to change things. The role-reversal has placed a strain on our marriage, but at this point if we changed things, my husband would be starting a business/employment/career from scratch (close to the age when many retire). Our finances would suffer greatly and we would be changing the pattern of many years.

I would love to be home with our youngest children before they head out into the world and my husband would like to support us. Is it too late for us to change?

Mindy S.

Dear Mindy,

Our compliments on being able to write such a coherent and thoughtful letter about such a challenging situation. You ask an excellent question, one that is significant to many people. You see, one of the comments that we receive most frequently is the plaintive, “Where were you when I was making so many of these decisions 20 or 30 years ago?” For many, the 5Fs make much sense but sometimes irreversible decisions were made much earlier, long before the wisdom was acquired. Sometimes the question concerns the Family–Finance crosslink as does your question and sometimes it is on one or another of the other nine crosslinks.

We want to offer an example to help you understand the predicament. Imagine that you are a construction engineer, world-famous for your bridge designs. Your bridges are known for resembling elegant, lacy filigrees and yet for also being immensely strong. Every up-and-coming country with a river or ravine to cross in order to extend the rail and road links comes knocking at your door. On one occasion important representatives of the government of the country of Procrastinabia visit your office. They provide you with maps, drawings and dimensions of the river that must be crossed. They want you to build them a bridge that will carry a road across their fast-flowing, deep river. After much work, you engineer a beautiful design that falls within the country’s budget and fulfills all their hopes for transportation. Time goes by and you hear nothing. Finally, with many other commissions keeping your engineering company busy you forget the country of Procrastinabia. One day, there is a knock at the door and in walks the bridge delegation of years earlier. “We’re ready to get going with the bridge,“ they proudly announce. “We’ve had a few revolutions and governmental changes but here we are–let’s get going!”

Well, it turns out that the passage of time has not been without cost. During the intervening years, the river has washed away much of the bank on both sides. It is now a wider river than it had been. The four main columns on which the bridge was to have rested and which were to have been built on dry land will now have to be constructed in the midst of the turbulent river. Alternatively, the bridge will have to be longer. Either way, it is going to cost considerably more than the original would have cost years earlier. You design a new bridge. It is still a wonderful bridge; far better than any other designer would offer. But it is not quite as light and airy, nor is it quite as strong and long-lasting as the original would have been. But it is the best that can be built under the new circumstances. Furthermore, it will be built using the same engineering principles and design concepts that you applied to the original design. It will be eminently workable and a big bridge building success. One thing is clear and that is that attempting to build the original bridge design on the very changed river environment would surely lead to disaster.

Mindy, had you and your husband built the original bridge 25 years ago. In other words, had you designed your marriage around your husband as the primary breadwinner from the start, that would have been different. But you didn’t and time has gone by. Attempting to build that original bridge now would surely lead to disaster. Imagine you severely cutting back on work and your husband’s new business taking longer than expected to begin to profit–or maybe even to fail. This is all unthinkable.

Build the new bridge design. Meaning, continue as you have more or less successfully done for 25 years. Except now you are both aware of the design principles of the Creator’s marriage blueprint. You can now search for ways to ease the role-reversal caused strain. Discuss it all openly and find ways to restore and strengthen your husband’s feelings of masculinity. He, in turn, will find ways to strengthen your connection to home and family.

This is not a time for dramatic change in your marriage, but it is a time to renew it and recommit to each other and to the family you have together created. Sometimes carefully sustaining a structure with small adjustments is much harder than large sweeping changes which provide the psychic satisfaction of a giant new start. But you don’t need a new start. A 25-year marriage and five children is already a monumental achievement and a stunning success. Our bridge analogy is not perfect of course. That is why it is called an analogy. But we hope you get the idea, and we pray for many more decades of family success and economic growth. Onwards and upwards.

Bridge the best bridge you can,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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