Uh-oh -- I'm not Superwoman!

I thought I could be the breadwinner until my husband got his business going, but ... maybe not!

Published December 23, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have been married for a short time, love my husband, all is going well. He had to move towns in order to live with me.

My problem is rather simple. When he moved, he left his job and decided to start his own small business here, instead of looking for a new job. I wholeheartedly supported this choice. We are in our early 30s, no children, so if not now, when? It took him a lot longer than expected to get started. At first, he was having fun, "retiring" early, so to speak. Then, as time went by, it became a little bit less comfortable for him to answer the question "so, what are you doing these days" with "uh, having fun, actually," and he settled in to start the business in earnest.

I was still fine with the idea, although getting a little weary that it had been a year and a half of his enjoying freedom, and still no "businessplan.doc" file. At about the same time, we started looking for a house in the expensive area we currently rent in.

That's when things started going badly for me.

I have a great job. Very stressful, but I have been successful at it so far, promoted rapidly, earning more than I could have imagined, etc. Recently, however, I started feeling really stressed about work. Irrationally so. Was I contributing enough? Was I carrying my weight? Could I be fired for my few small- to medium-size mistakes (mistakes for which I always accepted responsibility and corrected ASAP)? I am not sleeping well, I wake up in the middle of night, terrified of my impending firing, I spend the day before a business trip almost incapable of enjoying myself because of my increasing distaste for business traveling. I've grown a lot more irritable than I ever was, I am prone to hysterics, I cry at nothing, the works.

My boss hasn't said much through this. He's seen my mistakes, obviously been irritated by them, but he's more the "fix it and let's forget it" type than the "let's tell you how stupid you are" type. Until last week, when I was given a good public dressing down for a mistake for which, for the first time, I totally refused to take responsibility. The atmosphere has calmed down since, my boss is acting all jovial once again, but you can imagine that I am a total wreck. I don't know if I should talk to him about it because he's quite edgy these days, also in need of a vacation. On the other hand, I have now convinced myself that the only reason I still have a job is that my boss is too much of a mensch to fire anyone before Christmas. I think I'm going to need a lot of eggnog to survive to January.

So far, so good. This was all only a setup to my question to you:

I've had a bit of an epiphany lately and now think that my stress levels have gone through the roof, my insecurity about my job has become rampant because I cannot handle the stress of being the sole breadwinner in my family. I thought I could do it. I thought I could be the loving wife who supports all her husband's plans. The one who has intelligent comments to make about his business strategy while picking up the slack of household chores because he has a lot of business planning to do. The one who doesn't mind that the large mortgage is entirely dependent on her keeping her highly paid stressful job. I am stressed about losing my job because it would be indeed quite disastrous for me to lose it. Especially if we go ahead with our expensive house purchase.

The only way to address this scares me. Obviously, the sane thing to do would be to address this with my husband and suggest he get a job, instead of starting a business. Or at least suggest that even if it makes long-term financial sense, we should forget about the house purchase. These possibilities send me deeper into panic. Does thinking this way make me a bad wife? I said I would support his idea. I said I didn't mind paying all the bills. Can I, now that he has finally started in earnest, go back and tell him that I am clearly not equipped to be "Mr. Goodfamilyman from a '50s suburb"? It's not so much his response I fear -- after all, he probably values my mental health more than his embryonic idea -- but my own disappointment in myself. He will get over my letting him down; I fear I cannot. Am I nuts?

If there's anything you can tell me to undo the knot in my stomach, I would appreciate it greatly.

An Aspiring Good Wife

Dear, dear Good Wife,

Of course you should talk to him about it. You've got this knot in your stomach because you're not talking about this. Even if it was your fault, you'd have to talk about it. But it's not your fault. You're not superhuman. After all, you didn't know it was going to take this long for him to start his business, or that work was going to become as stressful as it has, or that your job would begin to feel insecure, or that mortgage rates were starting to rise with no parallel slowing of housing prices, or that you'd start to make more mistakes at work and begin to think for the very first time that maybe you could be taking a trip to the boardroom where someone will be fired. You can't know everything, and that's why you need to talk about stuff.

This is the stuff you talk about: You say, "I want to talk about changing the plan." You say, "I have a bottom line and here it is." You say, "I was thinking about what would happen to us if I got fired next month." That will probably catch his attention. When you catch his attention, make it clear that you require some clarity, some resolution, and some, you know, some caring and stuff.

Yes, I know it's painful to realize that we're not quite as all-powerful and unflappable and unstoppable as we sometimes feel. But we're not and there's no sense pretending. Things change in the world. And people take much longer to start their businesses than we had planned for. I mean, face it, you thought he was going to get going on this right away and it was going to take off and you were both going to be pretty much set, right? You sort of mentioned how you felt about him sitting around enjoying his vacation while you were working, but you didn't really go into it; I definitely have a feeling that watching him on vacation was not 100 percent selfless joy on your part.

I actually wonder if his business is going to happen at all. I wonder if you have any doubts yourself. I figure if he's taken this long to get going on it, maybe he's not strongly motivated to do it. Maybe he needs to talk, too; maybe he's been having second thoughts but is afraid to bring them up.

You've got yourself a husband now and you have to know what to do with him. Here's what you do with a husband: You sit him down and freak the holy crap out of him. That's what wives do. It's like your job. At first he may complain. He may call you hysterical. But it will soon dawn on him that you're talking about reality. Then he will be worried too, and it will ruin his vacation, and that will motivate him to make some changes.

So talk things over. In other words, sit him down and freak the holy crap out of him until he's so worried that he does something intelligent. That's your job.

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