Why Would Anyone Want a Tenure-Track Job?

In 2013, a tenured professor at Harvard wrote a blog post called The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.  I was eager to read it, given that Radhika Nagpal started her tenure-track position with two young children. At that point there were zero other mothers among the grad students in my department, so I had no one to talk to and desperately wanted advice. (I mean real advice; i.e. advice that would be helpful to a working mother.  Not like “catch up on the news while you’re eating breakfast.”  Someone literally suggested that to me once. I didn’t bother trying to explain what parents do during breakfast.)

As I started reading, I was enamored by passages like, “I feel that one of the culprits is our reluctance to openly acknowledge how we find balance. Or openly confront how we create a system that admires and rewards extreme imbalance.” (Emphasis added by me.) Preach it, sister!

But further into the post, I started to see some ways in which even the “ultra-laid-back” approach taken by Radhika was still not compatible with the reality I faced or with the mother I wanted to be.  First problem – she worked from 10pm-12am most nights.  Ummm. I think I stayed up till midnight ONCE during my first two years of graduate school to cram for a metrics exam.  Why?  Because Tuffy didn’t go to bed until well after 10pm most nights and by that time I was utterly exhausted. And, he didn’t sleep through the night until he was about 2 and a half. (Sometimes I allow myself a brief moment of silence for all the extra sleep we could have gotten had we found out about his autism and the wonders of melatonin earlier, but it’s water under the bridge now!)

Second problem – she writes some cutesy stuff about splitting the parenting 50-50.  So… I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that both parents are so extremely organized that they can seamlessly hand off information like “the daycare needs extra pants” and “the school library book is due back tomorrow” day in and day out.  There’s still the issue of travel.  Apparently she and her husband never had work travel, but unfortunately my husband did, and he would sometimes be gone for weeks at a time!  Clearly there is no 50-50 parenting going on in this situation.

But the deal breaker for me, the moment that I knew with certainty that I did not want a tenure track job, was when I read the line – “a sick kid whose fever I tried to mask with Tylenol and send to school.” This is such an absolute NO with a side of NO sauce in my book.  First of all, both of my sons got sick a ZILLION times when they were young. (By the way, sharing this unique, miserable experience is something that bonds Law-mom and I together for life.) Frankly, it’s likely that at least a few of these sicknesses were a direct result of parents pulling that crap. But I’m not trying to rag on Radhika – tons of parents do this, and it’s because we’re all in such desperate situations. I’m sure if I had had a “real” job, there would have been a greater temptation to try the ol’ Tylenol Mask just to avoid getting fired. But honestly this is just one of those places where I drew the line in terms of parenting. I always felt some amount of guilt for putting my son in daycare, but at least I was never going to leave him with anyone other than myself or his dad when he was truly sick. So when Tuffy would get a fever, I’d miss class (which was fun because graduate classes move at lightening speed), and as soon as he was fever-free for 24 hours I’d bring him back and try to somehow catch up while still putting in less than 40 hours a week on class/studying/pumping. And even then I’d still often feel terrible because Tuffy would still have a cough or just not be fully back to himself.

So that was that – and this was even before Tuffy’s autism diagnosis and the onslaught of doctor appointments, paperwork, and therapy sessions. Clearly if working until midnight and taking a sick kid to daycare is the bare minimum it takes to get tenure it’s industry jobs only for this mama!

But here’s the crazy part – back in June I saw a couple classmates who now have tenure-track jobs and as we were chatting I started thinking hey, maybe I could do this too. I guess with Peanut now fiiiiiinally sleeping through the night (usually) and the kids getting sick way less often, it is starting to feel like more things are possible. And working on your own research really is fun.  I published a paper a couple years ago, and it was exciting to collect brand new data and attempt to answer a question that had never been answered before.

Ever since then I’ve been back and forth, sometimes on a daily basis.  It’s like that thing in the movies where someone has the angel and devil on each shoulder. Not that I’m trying to compare tenure-track jobs to the devil, but it does sort of seem like the bad choice in a way.  It’s so high stress, with teaching and research demands, being asked to serve on committees, etc.  Let’s face it, even Radhika who has tenure at Harvard admits to occasionally crying in her office. So the angel was winning for a while, whispering in my ear “Your kids need you. Who would take them on playdates? Also you can’t stay up until midnight.”  Then in September I present my paper and an actual professor comes up to me afterwards and tells me that he likes my work and is interested in co-authoring a paper with me.  And the devil whispers “see how exciting this can be?”

Now, here I am on the job market; and yes, I have applied for some tenure-track jobs. Ultimately I felt like I had to try. Part of me thinks I would crumble under the pressure, but part of me thinks, “hey, I made it this far with so many things working against me. I just want to see what I can do when DH takes over as lead parent, and I can truly focus on my work.”  And, of course, I might not get any offers for teaching jobs and the decision will be made for me. So, we’ll see what happens.

Law-mom’s response:

Yes, Econ-mom (EM), you and I are bonded for life commiserating over how sick both our children were for the first five years (for me) of parenting. Well, first seven years, actually. If you, too, dear reader, are going through this phase, as I am sure others have told you: It does get better! I know that is not helpful when you are going through it. But it does give you hope — I hope. For years I toiled without seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. It’s how I felt. I always had hope. But sometimes that hope felt like a lifetime away in a distant future I would never reach. Yet…here I am.

As a bit of a tangent, the other day, as I was walking home from the train, I saw a toddler walking with her mom or caretaker, and I suddenly had a flashback to when SC1 was 13 months old, holding my hand along the sidewalk and walking, and I nearly broke down in tears. (Instead, I just got misty-eyed and had a few good sniffs.) So, apparently, I will still look back fondly and nostalgically at those younger years — even though they broke me. But, there is a silver-lining to being broken: You have empathy and compassion for others who are breaking! And I would never give you advice like, “Just catch up on the news during breakfast!” LOL. That’s a good one! (Though, EM, with older kids who are more self-sufficient, it will be possible.)

The two main points I took away from your post, EM:

  1. The only way to juggle job and family is for all moving pieces to be in perfect order/synchronicity at all times. And, unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. I could be a drill sergeant, I am so good at keeping a ship running on schedule in tip top shape. (Everyone in my family loves this about me, by the way.) But when kids get sick (or you get sick) the whole fragile balance is thrown off, and it’s never easy to recover. The good Lord above only knows how I EVER would have kept my full-time job when the kids were little. I would have been like that lady crying in my office. I also would have had to move to a much higher paying (even more demanding) firm to afford a nanny. I’ve already talked about a litigator’s hours in a previous post.
  2.  I feel your pain re: the struggle between your ambition versus your familial demands. My familial demands drove me to take (what feels like) a “backseat” job. In other words, I took a pay cut and less stress for more time. I went through a period of time where I had a minor identity crisis after changing my career path. I wondered, frequently, if I was making a huge mistake. The other day, however, I had a “Eureka!” moment. It sounds so simple, but it is what finally slapped me out of my self-pity: Time is the most valuable commodity we have. And I now have the (minimum) amount I personally need to try to keep a decent balance between my work and family life. Therefore, even though I took a pay cut, I gained something so much more valuable. It is by focusing on that priceless time that I am able to see my glass half-full — maybe even more than half-full — while I continue to navigate this parenting journey. That is not advice. It is just one perspective. Good luck on the decision-making! Remember that, no matter what you choose, it won’t be easy. That is not pessimism. It is just reality.


Going Fully Incognito

Dear Readers: The authors of this blog have decided to go completely anonymous in order to give you a more authentic taste of life as both professionals and mothers. Therefore, you will now know us as Econ-mom (“EM”) and Law-mom (“LM”). Thank you for your understanding. And thank you for reading!

– EM & LM

This Thanksgiving, I am Thankful for My Village

How many people does it take to get to get two kids to school, to tutoring, and back home on a regular work day? Four. It takes four people: Their mom (myself) and three neighbors who helped me out on Monday before and after school. Thank you, friends! I also need to thank my aunt who came to “Special Someone Day” at my children’s school on Friday. (That is another blog post about the incompatibility of school schedules and demands and work schedules and demands.)

The struggle is real, as they say. So is the guilt. “What if ALL women worked?” I ask myself, daily.** Then what? What would happen to the PTOs? The church youth group run by faithful volunteers? Who could help me out in a pinch like yesterday when my train was running 15 minutes late? A 15 minute delay may not sound like a lot of time, but it is when it takes you 15 minutes to walk home from the train in order to jump in the car to drive another 15 minutes to pick up your child on time from tutoring. It’s also a huge delay when you are then supposed to drive another 15 minutes back to get to a 20 minute parent-teacher conference on time. (That was some awesome scheduling on my part. #mentalload.)

The world needs caretakers. It is an undervalued role in our society, which usually falls on the backs of women. I am very grateful for the caretakers in my community, who make it possible for me to work and, therefore, live in the same community with them. It is a privilege to know and live among them. They are a blessing to our family and our community as a whole.

I loved Econ-mom’s comment in our last post that the only way she “does it all” is by living in abject filth. The only way I “do it all” is with the help of my friends and family. Thank you to my village! This Thanksgiving, I give effusive thanks for your support.


**If all men and women had to work, maybe there would be a change in how we structure the school calendar.

How Does She Do it All? Answer: She Doesn’t

In a recent post, I attempted to determine the minimum budget for a family of four to live in a modest home in the (north/northwest) Chicago suburbs. I did not succeed in reaching a firm number, but I placed that number somewhere between $68K and $85K, depending on the age of your children and the cost of childcare. What is scary to me about those numbers, is that they are considered middle-class salaries, but they will only allow you to squeak by without an ounce of fun or two pennies to rub together for savings. My budget also forgot to include gas money in order to drive those two cars to work. It also left out student loan debt. Just adding in another $300/month for student loan repayment (per adult) and $200/month for gas for two cars, those base salaries need to go up another $11,520 (remember, you are paying tax to net that $9,600), and you still don’t have a savings account. So, now your minimums are looking closer to $80K and $96K, depending on the age of your kids. The average salary in America is about $59,000. Not enough.

Looking at these numbers honestly is explaining why The Hub and I have felt the squeeze ever since we had SC1 almost 10 years ago. As a litigator, I knew it would be next to impossible for me to keep my full-time job and be the mother I wanted to be, which is why I cut back to a part-time schedule. For starters: Being a litigator requires a functioning brain. I don’t know about you, but my brain doesn’t function well on 5.5 hours of chopped up sleep per night. Maybe for a day or two I can get away with it. But not for years on end. It’s rather hard to keep up billing/working at 172% per day to make billing minimums on that little sleep while also taking care of a newborn and a non-verbal toddler. Even men get burnout from a litigator’s demanding work schedule, and they aren’t breastfeeding while doing it.

Which brings me to the main point of this blog post about time.

You may be surprised to learn that there are 24 hours in a day. That’s all you get. I need to budget 8 hours for sleep, for the sake of my mental and physical health. I can get away with 6 or 7 now and then, but those are some long days fueled by massive amounts of coffee. That leaves one with 16 hours to get stuff done.

The “normal” work day is 8 hours long. (Remember, if you are litigating, or working in another demanding profession, you are putting in at least 10 hour days. At least. I am sure we all know someone who puts in 15 hour days.) Next, you have to commute. If you are blessed, you live and work in the same community, or closeby. If you live in the burbs and work in the city, you are commuting much longer. My total commute time per day is 2.5 hours. So, let’s pretend that you are litigating full-time on an “easy” 10 hour day and a 2.5 hour commute. That leaves you 3.5 hours every day to get stuff done. Yep, that sounds about right.** So, in 3.5 hours, you need to:

Pack lunches (or repeatedly remind the children to pack their lunches) (10 minutes)

Shower and get ready for work – 45 minutes

Laundry (if you don’t keep up with it during the week, you’re in for a real treat on the weekend — 20 minutes, sorting, putting in washing machine, dryer and folding; but you need to be home for this whole process, and you do NOT want to time it perfectly so that the dryer goes off at the exact same time your dinner timer is beeping.)

Fix dinner – 30 minutes

Eat dinner – 20 minutes

Clean up the kitchen at least twice – 20 minutes

Take kids to and from their extracurricular activities – 1.5 hours

Read the news and check email – 15 minutes

Exercise at the gym – 1.5 (with driving time)

Spend time with kids – talking, playing a game, or helping with homework – 30 minutes

Let’s see, what does that add up to?….Whoops! We’re over-budget, peeps! That adds up to over 6 hours. So, I guess you are not exercising today, or reading any news. You probably are skipping that nagging load of laundry, and there might be some dishes still piled up in your sink when you go to bed. Don’t worry, you can go to the gym on a day the kids don’t have any activities after school, right? Oh no, that’s not gonna work, because you’re EXHAUSTED by the time you get home.

The reality is there is not enough time in the day to do everything that needs to get done to make a home function and run efficiently. There just isn’t. There are other “to dos” that aren’t even listed above. Those are just the most regular, most needed, and most nagging ones. The holidays, which are closing in fast upon us, are also really good at taking your already dialed up to 11 schedule and dialing it up another couple of notches to 13. (Warning: At 13, your brain wires start fizzling and smoking.)

The school system is really good at piling onto your “to do” list, as well, and they like to do it right around the holidays. I’ll save that discussion for another post….Although, you may not get another blog post out of me until after the New Year. And now you know why.

The famous question of “Can she have it all?” has been incorrectly framed from the start. The correct question is: “Can she do it all?” And the answer is no. She cannot. Not without help. Lots and lots and lots and lots of help in the form of nannies and housekeepers. And maybe even some favors from friends and neighbors and family members. (For which, I am forever grateful. Thank you to my village!!)

And really, if you pause to think about it, how could you expect a different reality? The reason men succeeded in their careers for centuries is because they had free domestic labor in the form of wives. And the reason high-achieving women got as far as they did in high school was (at least, partly) because they had mothers doing all (or most of) their domestic labor for them, as well. Furthermore, in college and graduate school, you have more than enough free time to get all your non-academic labor completed. In other words, you succeed, because you either have help (parents) or time (no kids). Once you add kids into the equation, your ability to succeed (at anything, really; take sleep, for instance) plummets dramatically, because you lose 99% of your most valuable commodity: Time.

Maybe you started on the right career track and are pocketing enough money to afford all this help. If so: Congratulations!  But how many women do you think there are in this world that can afford full-time help and have time to live and enjoy their lives? (I would honestly love to know that statistic!) Because, it’s not just about money. It’s about having enough time leftover in the day to spend time with your family. Men and women who are earning the big bucks are working so many hours, many do not see their children during the week. And maybe, if you’re lucky, it’s about having a little time leftover in your day to sit in quiet contemplation, reading, or blogging. (Wink.) It’s also about mental health and taking care of oneself, so one doesn’t suffer burnout and depression.

So, sure: You can “have” it all: Career and family. But something is getting sacrificed along the way. Some ball is getting dropped. Maybe it’s your health. Maybe it’s your sanity. Maybe it’s your marriage. Maybe it’s your kids. Maybe it’s your career. Maybe it’s your body, the interior or exterior of your home, or the inside of your car. Because we are only human. We only have so much energy. And we only have 24 hours every day in which to expend it.

**I only work an easy 8-hour day now, which most days leaves me with about 5.5 hours to get things done each day. Nice! But I still litigate on the side, and there are days that I put in 2 hours in the morning or evening, leaving me with the leftover 3.5 hours discussed above.

Econ-mom’s comments:

Ah yes, the fun subject of the time budget. People have asked me how I am able to do my PhD and raise the boys.  My main answer is “I live in abject filth.”  This is really not much of an exaggeration honestly.  And beyond almost never cleaning, I cut a lot of other corners. Lunches?  My kids buy school lunches! (Actually, I did pack their lunches for their daycare for years, but Tuffy requested that he be allowed to buy lunch at school and I happily agreed. Peanut’s current daycare provides lunch, hooray!) Shower? Pssh, the daily shower was a pre-kid luxury.  (Although I can only pull this off because I work from home wearing sweat pants almost every day.  This comes at it’s own cost, namely me feeling like a slob.)

I could go on and on, but really the upshot for my situation is that most of my time crunch problems came in the form of me spending less time on school.  This is the hazard of being a working student – if your child needs, oh, I don’t know, 4 different types of therapy, you just do it and let your school work suffer.  (Of course, I would have done this for my son anyway, so the glass-half-full way to look at being a student is at least I had the option to do almost no work for about a year and a half versus a “real” job where I’m sure I would have been fired.)

Finally, like most things Law-mom blogs about, economists have been paying attention to this issue as well.  An interesting paper came out last year describing the “puzzle” of why highly-educated parents spend more time with their children despite working more hours.  I put puzzle in quotes, because it’s only a puzzle in the sense that a very simple economic model would predict that highly-educated mothers would spend more time working because they can earn more money per hour. In reality, I don’t think it’s that much of a puzzle.  The more we learn about how important things like reading to our children are, the more pressure we feel to do them.  And my personal take is that when we choose to work outside the home, we also feel guilty, and that guilt translates to more focused time spent with our children.

To Work or Not To Work: That is the Question

The impetus for this particular post was this articlewhich talks about the middle class tax squeeze. The upper-middle class featured in this article do not sound very sympathetic. Only, I can relate to them. The Hub and I probably fall into the upper-middle class category, but living where we do, it does not feel like it, either. For starters, I checked out the property taxes in Alpharetta, Georgia on Zillow. Their property taxes on a comparable home are half of what we pay here. That is a savings of $4,000-$5,000 in property taxes alone, per year. That could buy us a pretty nice vacation. Or some extra retirement or college savings (which we could really use, by the way.) 

In a recent post, I posited that taxes ought to be calibrated based on one’s regional cost of living. I also surmised that one needs *at least* $50,000 just to “get by” in the Chicago suburbs. That got me wondering: What is the cost of living in Chicago Burbsville? How much money does a family of four truly need to earn in order to own their own home, feed their kids, and not fall into debt? And, how does being a working mother and taxes relate to all of this?

Let’s talk about what it costs to raise a family of four in today’s Chicago suburbs. (If you want more kids, you can increase all these figures.)

If you check out Zillow, you will see that if you want to live an hour or less outside of the city, you pretty much cannot find a home around here for less than $250,000, and the home you will find will be mediocre, at best. I could put examples on here, but I feel that would be insulting to the homeowners. Actually, I just ran a search of the most middle-class, middle-of-the-road suburb I could think of, and the least expensive home was $260,000. I’m going to try another….$257,000.

Okay, so to live an hour or less outside of Chicago, you can find a 1950s ranch or split level for $260,000. Oh boy, I just checked out the inside. You will NOT be getting your dream kitchen. In fact, you might be a developer tearing the place down and starting anew. Compare that with what you can get in Alpharetta, GA: This is the cheapest house I could find. But for only $39,000 more than the fixer-upper I was just telling you about, that is getting a LOT more for your money. (I really want to link and post the comparison Chicago home, but I am just too nice of a person to do that.)

Okay, back to our calculations. So, you have your little tear-down in the middle of middle-class Chicago Burbsville. That is costing you $1,033/month (I used the Zillow mortgage calculator), because you somehow had $50,000 for the 20% down payment. (I have no idea where you got that money, but we’ll give you a generous head start from your parents.) Your property taxes were just over $7,000 in 2015, so, they are probably inching closer to $8000/year now. (Note, our example fixer-upper is in Cook County, which has less expensive property taxes than Lake County, where we live. If the house was in Lake County, I’d bump them up to $9,000.)

I am going to venture to say, that to live in the cheapest tear-down house in the most middle class suburb of Chicago, your minimum monthly mortgage will be $1800/month. That’s assuming you had $50,000 to put 20% down. If you didn’t, you are paying PMI, and your mortgage is probably closer to $2000-$2200/month. Okay, so you need a minimum of $21,600/year to own your own home. Minimum. Guess what? Renting will cost you just as much, if you want to live in a house.

Now let’s make a list of essentials for a family of four:

Food – I am going to say $600/month, because I think most families could live on this budget, though you are probably not eating organic and cutting some corners.  $600/month is $7,200/year

Clothes – If you shop at the Goodwill (which I sometimes do for the kids!) and get lots of hand-me-downs and rarely buy clothes for yourself, I bet you could do a $400/year budget. This will be mostly shoes for the kids.

Utilities – I’m not quite sure what ours run per month, but I’m going to guess $200/month ($2400/year)

Medical insurance – If you are not self-employed, this is still coming out of your paycheck at about $500/month, plus a $2000 deductible. There are probably cheaper plans, but if you have allergic/asthmatic kids, you aren’t risking it. So, minimum – $8,000/year

Two cars, because you both have to drive to work – $500/month –> $6,000/year  (Even if one of you could take the train, that will cost you $200/month in train tickets)

Home and car owner insurance$600/year

Phones – We only pay for our landline. We have both our cells through work. Our landline is also our internet. We don’t have cable. – $100/month ($1,200/year)

Am I forgetting any essentials?

Oh, school fees and school supplies. $470/year 

And childcare! How could I forget?! As I said before, camp is a minimum $6,000/summer. That is for a camp that goes from 9 to 2:30. Last I checked, most jobs have longer hours than that. You have two options: You can use the camp’s before and after care (if they have it), or get a sitter. Regardless, this is going to run you between an extra $50-$200/week. I know. But we’re doing minimums. So, for 10 weeks of summer, that’s an additional $500. ($6,500/year)

You also need before and after school care (B/ASC) during the school year. (We’re letting you have elementary school aged children. If you had younger kids, I would put it at $2,000/month for daycare). Your B/ASC is going to run you about $2800/year for two kids.

Okay, those are your minimums. You have not gone out to eat or seen a movie. You don’t have cable or cell phones, unless your job gives you one. You have not gone on vacation. You have not bought any gifts for anyone or entertained. Your kids are not getting any extracurricular activities. Nor are they getting any special services, like speech therapy, occupational therapy, or tutoring. You live in a very modest fixer-upper. You do not have a cleaning lady or gym membership. You are cutting your own hair at home. Your clothes are are close to a decade old. You also have not tithed or given any charitable donations (except for maybe some of your threadbare clothing).

You need $57,170.  If you have preschool-aged children or younger, you need $14,200 more  — right when you need to cut back on your work hours, not raise the bar!

But wait! You have not paid taxes, yet! If you make $57,170 and pay taxes on this, you don’t have enough to cover your basic cost of living. So, you actually need to make 20% more than your bare-bones. You need to make: $68,604/year.  That is just to squeak by. If you want any of the “extras” listed above, you need to make a lot more – and pay tax on it. Again, if you have preschool aged children or younger, you need even more: $85,644, based on my calculations.  ($57,170 + $14,200 = $71,370. Multiplied by 1.2, because, again, you have to pay tax on all this childcare you are paying for, even though the babysitters and/or daycare centers are also paying taxes on the same income.)

Is it any wonder than women drop out of the workforce? Which makes more sense economically: To try to get by on less, so you don’t need to work longer hours in order to pay extortionary income tax on income you are paying someone else to raise your kids so you can work, or to work harder so you can pay extortionary income tax on income you are paying someone else to raise your kids so you can work? (Did you like that? How do you think I really feel about it?)

And what if you are a single parent and have no choice but to work?

(An aside: One of my best friends is a widow. A non-working mother in our community once had the gall to say to her: “I would like to work, but I don’t have the time.” This is one of my favorite quotes of all time, and I would like to see it written on cocktail napkins.)

As I said before, I really think people should not be taxed on their hard-earned labor until after they have paid for their basic minimum needs. For working parents, childcare is a basic minimum need. Especially single parents! And most of those single parents, as we know, are single moms. Single moms need a BREAK, people! The least we could do for them is let them fully deduct their childcare costs.

But wait, if this single mom is making over $85,000/year to pay for all her basic minimum needs, she is actually paying MORE in taxes! Econ-mom, you are the math whiz. What is the actual number someone needs to make so they can pay their taxes and have the minimum amount leftover to pay for all their basic needs without falling into massive amounts of debt?

Ho! Wait a minute! This hypothetical single mom making $85,644/year so she can put a roof over her head and food in her kids’ mouths has NO STUDENT LOAN DEBT! Now what is the the actual minimum figure you need to get by in Chicago Burbsville?

Is it any wonder that you need two-parent working families?

Please note the tension between the two bolded questions above. How does ANY family make the numbers work? Our family is still trying to figure that one out.

Econ-mom’s comments:

Yes, the conundrum of women both needing the income from working and also not being able to afford to work (due to childcare costs) is bizarre and confusing to me.  I have literally NO IDEA how a single parent making under $60k/year can live.  I once went to McDonald’s with my kids and there was only one other boy in the playland (because despite the fact that it was pouring rain outside no one in Seattle will deign to eat at McDonald’s).  After wondering for awhile where his parents were, I surmised that his mother was working at said McDonald’s.  This is honestly the only way I could imagine making a McDonald’s salary work when you have a child, unless you have a family member willing to watch your child for free.

I am definitely 100% in favor of the government increasing the maximum childcare tax deduction.  If you have one child you can claim up to $3,000 in childcare expenses.  What on earth?! According to this article, the average cost of daycare is $196, or approximately $200 per week.  (BTW I find that number astoundingly low, given that we were paying close to twice that amount in Seattle, but let’s go with it.) If you were lucky enough to be paying that average rate, $3,000 would get you 15 weeks of care.  Isn’t that lovely.  And what exactly are you supposed to do the other 37 weeks of the year?

Now, my desire for more childcare tax breaks (or I would also accept government subsidized childcare) may sound self-serving.  But even if you don’t care at all about gender equality issues, there is a legitimate case to be made that making this change could increase GDP.  Interruptions in work lead to fairly large decreases in lifetime earnings.  According to this article, “Each year out of work can cost a family significantly more than three times a parent’s annual salary in lifetime income.”

Another big issue that Law-mom (LM) has raised here is the prohibitively high cost of housing.  It is, to use a technical economics phrase, completely nuts.  So perhaps it may surprise you that I am actually in favor of eliminating the mortgage deduction. Of course you would need to phase it out slowly, and probably grandfather in those who already have mortgages.  But I’d be happy to see it gone, because all it does is drive the equilibrium prices of homes higher and help home owners at the expense of renters.  Instead, what I would like to see is less land-use regulations.  There is a large body of research out there (summarized nicely here) saying that land-use regulations are a big part of the problem.  I saw this firsthand in Seattle where there are several (very expensive!) neighborhoods that only allow single family housing to be built.  This is a case where I strongly believe that you want to give the “free” market more freedom to do its job.

However, I’m not 100% convinced that loosening zoning regulations would solve the whole problem.  I think a less-appreciated issue is the strong tendency for jobs to cluster in certain regions. It’s not at all clear to me what can be done about this issue, if anything, but I think it deserves a lot more thought.  Anyway, for now I think we’re just stuck in the hamster wheel, trying to get by.  I’m pretty sure that if current trends in housing prices and income inequality continue, more and more people (even families with children) will be moving in with their parents or even other families until the hallmark of being “upper-middle” class will be that you get to live in a home with only your immediate family members.  And hey, perhaps we shouldn’t try to fight this.  I for one like having other people around me, and as this hilarious tweet points out, millennials are doing it!

Applying for a “Non-PhD” Job

As I mentioned in this post, the Economics Job Market is a very peculiar beast.  Right now, I am in the thick of “application season”, as most of the applications are due sometime in November.  I’m applying to a few dozen places and only one of them is in San Diego.  This is just par for the course when you get a PhD – your job is so specialized that you’re likely to have to move to get the job you want.  I get the sense that this is largely unknown outside of the PhD world. (Dare I say the “normal” world?)  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation similar to the one I had yesterday with my son’s babysitter.  It went approximately like this:

Me: I just applied to a job in Minnesota.

Sitter: What? But what about your husband’s job? What about your kids?

Me: Well, I’d love to stay here, but there just aren’t many jobs here, unfortunately.

Sitter: What about UCSD?

Me: Sigh.

Here’s the thing.  I could apply to UCSD.  But it would be a waste of time, and frankly, my own advisor probably wouldn’t sign off on it.  Economics is a very hierarchical field, and I’m getting my PhD from a school that is not ranked nearly as well as UCSD so there’s approximately zero chance of me getting hired there. There are a few other schools here, but the chances of getting an academic job at one particular school are slim.

Now, I really truly would love to stay here.  I don’t want to have to move my kids again.  They’re very happy here and that means so incredibly much to me.  That’s why I am also working on an application to a local job that doesn’t require a PhD (but still looks like an interesting job).  I’ve been hesitating on this one though (read, I started the app 3 weeks ago!!) for one reason: If I were to get that job, they would probably want me to start right away. But I also really want to finish my PhD* and try for a “PhD job”.  (I almost want to say “academic job,” but I’m also looking at think tanks and government organizations, so academic isn’t quite the right word.)

To me, going to the AEA meeting (the big job market meeting that happens every January) feels like going to try-outs for the U.S. Olympic team.  I have been training for years, and I just want to get a spot on the team — any spot.  But getting that spot would mean moving my family and starting a high-intensity job that would leave me less time with my kids. And here these lovely economists are always telling us that more choice is better!

*In theory people can work full-time and finish their PhDs on the side.  But let’s face it, these people don’t have kids.

Law-mom’s response: Econ-mom (EM), I love the asterisk. I am a bit tired today, because daylight savings has completely messed with my schedule. So, my brain is not working well-enough right now to respond further. I wish you luck!

EM’s response: Ah yes, the lovely time change.  Peanut is now waking up at 5am.  *sad face*

The Inequities of Income Tax…and Fashion

I think about income taxes a lot, because I have been self-employed for the majority of the last 10 years. (And I also just wrote a nice fat check to our friendly, efficient government.) That means of every paycheck that comes into my hands, I have to set aside a certain amount for taxes and not spend it on necessities like our mortgage, property taxes**, food, utility bills and childcare — or anything remotely fun. (Yes, I know this is obvious, but please bear with me.)

As a self-employed person, the amount I have to set aside each month is 25% after accounting for deductions and exemptions, because of self-employment tax. This is a lot harder to swallow when you have to write those checks yourself, rather than have your employer just take them out for you. (I know, because I also receive checks from an employer, and it is nice.) So, really, I have to tell myself that each paycheck is really just 75% of what I bill for. A quarter of my labor is owned by the government. (This is true for everyone; but, again, it is just a lot easier when your employer takes it out for you. Out of sight, out of mind. Kinda like how they say it is harder to spend cash than use a credit card. It is more tangible, and, therefore, feels more real.)

So, if 100% of my work is really only worth 75% of my work, how much do I have to work in order to actually make 100%? Sounds like some easy math, right?

Let’s talk about the billable hour. As any billing lawyer will tell you: You cannot bill for 100% of your time. If you do, I venture to say you are being dishonest. You cannot be 100% efficient with all your time. It is impossible, unless you are a robot. You have to eat. You have to take breaks. Your co-workers come into your office and talk your ear off. You have meetings. I would say, on a good day, you are working at least 10 hours to bill 8, which is a 25% extra effort, just to meet an 8 hour day minimum. (The bare minimum requirement of most firms.)  Also, many clients (insurance companies) use third-party vendors to cut 10% of a lawyer’s bill (another rant for another time). So now, to make 100% of your goal, you need to bill even more. You have to bill 10% more than the 125% you were already working. 125 x 1.1 = 137.5%. So, I have to work 37.5% harder than someone who can go into the office and work for 8 hours straight and go home.

Okay, now the government comes along and takes 25% of that. So, if you want to actually pocket your full 8 hours of billing, you have to work 25% harder than the 37.5% harder than you were already working. 137.5 x 1.25 = 171.985%. Just to earn 8 hours of labor. Therefore your average billing attorney, if they actually want to pocket all their labor and hard earned income, has to work 72 (rounding) percent more than an 8 hour work day. Now you know why attorneys work as long of hours as they do: 40 x 1.72 = 68.8 hours, minimum. And now you know why I have two jobs.

Someone reading this is going to be like: “Yea, but you bill like $350 to $500 an hour. So stop your sob story.”

Not, my friends, if you are a solo practitioner barely hanging on by the skin of your teeth.  As one Facebook commentator I read recently noted (and I paraphrase): “The difference between what a Big Firm lawyer earns, and Small Firm lawyer earns is STAGGERING.” (Her caps, not mine.) Yep. Staggering, peeps. Like, there are days I wish was a teacher, because then I’d at least  get my summers off and not have to pay for summer childcare. (I do not, by the way, charge nor earn $500/hour, or even $350/hour, just for the record.)

The big firms have all the big corporate clients that can afford the impressive fees. If your client cannot afford to pay $500/hour, you are not charging $500/hour. And if you do plaintiff’s work, you are not bringing in any money at all on a monthly basis. Also, if you don’t have the work, even if you are charging $500/hour, if you only bill a couple hours for that client all month, you are not faring too well. If you are a good lawyer, you might even suffer more: Getting a client’s case dismissed means no more work for you. And if you are honest, you are not over-billing, or over-working a file for no reason.

The realities of self-employment are true for any job or profession: You have to put in a lot of (free) time and labor just to get the work and keep the income coming in, as well as (free) administrative time and labor. When I was full-time self-employed, I often explained to people that I was having a good day, if I billed 6 hours. At least two hours of my day were administrative work. My husband had a short stint as a self-employed contractor, and he was putting in 60 hour weeks, minimum, to stay afloat.

Being self-employed is not for the faint of heart. You don’t have a regular income stream.  You don’t get benefits without paying for them yourself. You don’t get overtime pay.  You don’t get sick days. You don’t get paid vacation time. A day off of work is a day without making any money for oneself. The list goes on.

What is my point? The point is: Why are we taxing hard-working, honest people who work their butts off to put food on the table and keep a roof over their family’s head? Why am I paying the government for all my hard labor? Seriously? What is up with that? Why are we being taxed on our productivity?  Every time I write a check to the government, it honestly feels like robbery. I personally think people should just be taxed on passive income. Or, at least, only after $50,000. Everyone needs at least $50,000 just to live in this country. Or to live in Illinois, anyway.***

But here’s where I really feel the punch in the gut due to income taxes and what causes me to gripe and complain the most:

  1. I get taxed above The Hub’s salary. So, rather than get to pay graduated income tax on my salary, I’m hit from the get-go at 25% on every single dollar I earn. On every single minute of my time. (Some call this the “marriage penalty.”)
  2. Then there is childcare. Given our reasonably good income tax bracket (believe me, I am very grateful for what we have; I do not take it for granted), we don’t get much of a deduction on childcare. And because we live in an affluent area, childcare is even more expensive than in most states. (Everything is more expensive.) When both girls were still in daycare, I paid over $2000/month for daycare. Since starting school, camp is, at a minimum, $6000/summer. (And I have spent more in the past, in order to get the “best of the best” care for my food allergic child who couldn’t swim when she first started camp.) All told, between after care programs, etc. I have to budget at least $12,000/year in child care expenses. And on average, I get about a 10% deduction on those expenses. In other words: A drop in the bucket.
  3. I cannot work, if I have to take care of my kids. Why can’t I deduct the full amount of childcare (used for working) as a business expense? Have you ever tried to write a complex brief with kids interrupting you every five minutes? Employers can deduct for childcare provided to employees. Why can’t I just deduct for the childcare I pay for to run my business!?

One last issue about taxes and the tax code:

As a litigator, I have to dress a certain way for court.  Also, I have to walk a lot on horrible sidewalks to get to court. In my 20s, I was frivolous enough and vain enough that I could afford to replace my stilettos every three months. Now, not so much. (Remember my childcare expenses? There goes my shoe budget. And my clothing budget. And all the vacations I took in my 20s.) So, I try to find specific shoes just for work that can withstand grates and gaps in sidewalks and not hurt my feet, but still look dressy enough for work. But not too frumpy. (Okay, they are super frumpy.)

But the tax code says that my pantsuits are not tax deductible, because I can wear my work attire to weddings. (Yea, right.) And I supposedly can wear my frumpy work shoes to other events, as well. (Only if I want the “worst dressed” award.) I call balderdash on all of this. Have you ever shown up to a wedding in a pantsuit and frumpy chunky heels? In this respect, I think the tax code is sexist. I don’t love throwing the word “sexist” around liberally. But, in this case, I think it applies. Men can wear suits to court and weddings. Women can, but they don’t, because we don’t want to be cited by the fashion police. We still want to look nice, even if we have lost all our sex-appeal after baby number two.

In this respect, the tax code has a “disparate impact” (i.e., a disparate discriminatory impact) on women by making assumptions about professional work attire based on men’s, rather than women’s fashion. I should be allowed to deduct for attire I deem only explicitly suitable as work attire — i.e., courtroom attire. A woman should not wear a “little black dress” to stand before a judge or jury. (You also should not wear a black Lycra bodysuit. I’m talkin’ to you, lady I once saw at the Daley Center!) And a woman “should not” wear a frumpy pantsuit to a wedding. IMHO.

**Illinois has the second highest property taxes in the nation. And our county has the most expensive property taxes in the State. So, I am not exaggerating when I tell you we pay some of the highest property taxes in the country.

***I’m sure $50,000 goes a lot further in other parts of the country than here. So, wouldn’t it make sense to have some sort of graduated tax code structured around cost-of-living?

Econ-mom (EM) Three things – first of all, HEAR, HEAR for more childcare deductions! The amount of money we have spent on childcare over the past six years is OBSCENE.  I’m sure when we had two kids in full-time care we would have been eligible for the earned income tax credit if we had been able to deduct that entire expense.

Second, I have long been jealous of men’s fashion.  Need to dress up for work or a wedding? Wear a suit. Business casual? Khakis and a button down shirt.  As my kids would say, easy peasy.  I recently saw a man on Twitter complaining about needing to pack a jacket for business trips since he didn’t know how formal various events would be.  I almost popped a blood vessel.  I mean… gosh.  That must be SO HARD not knowing what to wear at an event!! I have NO SYMPATHY for this.  And bringing a whole jacket?  Please. Try extra shoes, skirt vs. pants, etc etc.

Finally, as an economist I of course have some opinions on taxes, but I will save most of it for another post and just say that I’m generally fine with everything Law-mom (LM) is saying here.  Economists consider income taxes to be distortionary (i.e. in theory they discourage people from working more) so there would be a lot of better ways to raise revenue while still lowering income taxes for many people in the middle class.

LMHey, EM, it could always be worse. I think we need an entire post some time dedicated to women’s fashion woes. What do you think?

A Short Rant on Forms

Econ-mom (EM), I feel a rant about forms bubbling up inside of me.

You mentioned forms in a prior post. I have just spent the past hour of my Saturday afternoon (and I am still not done) filling out forms for an after school program my girls are joining mid-way into this semester. (The reasons for this late transition are numerous. It is a very long story for some other rant on finding suitable after school care and the law).

Here is my rant:


She still has allergies. She still has asthma. THIS IS NOT CHANGING. Same program. Same child. Can’t last year’s paperwork carryover? Can’t you hand it to me with an addendum or something for me to sign? I’ll initial every page. “Yep. Still applies. Yep, this applies, too. Yep, she still carries around 3 different medications with her.” Initial. Initial. Initial. Done. Thank you.

Yes, I authorize you to administer whatever medication is needed and necessary to KEEP MY CHILD ALIVE. You don’t need 25 sheets of paper with my signature on it to tell you to do so. You just need common sense.

Does this sound petty and whiny? Keep in mind that the vast majority of these forms require a physician’s signature. Do I still sound petty and whiny?

(For the purposes of completing this last batch of forms, I found her summer school forms that were signed by my daughter’s physician. I attached them as an addendum to the new forms they wanted me to sign, indicating that the documents apply across the board to any and all programs my daughter is involved in, and then signed and initialed the life out of that paperwork until it could not breathe its last breath. And if anyone gives me any iota of a complaint about the sufficiency of that paperwork, I will first try to calmly explain that, as a legal document, what I did was 100% perfectly acceptable. And if that doesn’t work, I guess I will just have to smile, grit my teeth, and very nicely ask our saint of an allergist to sign some more forms for me…again.)

Okay. Rant over.

P.S. It took 10 minutes to fill out SC2’s forms. So, there you have it. It takes about six times longer for parents of special needs children to fill-out paperwork for activities and programs their children participate in.

EM’s comments:

There’s something ironic about an attorney complaining about too many forms – ha! (Sorry Courtney, I’m sure this is playing into some lawyer stereotypes that you don’t appreciate.) Then again, perhaps you have the power to fix this!  Please add to your to-do list “start a non-profit dedicated to reducing the number of forms parents have to fill out.”

[Law-mom (LM): Actually, it’s funny you mention this, because I initially had a paragraph about this being the fault of attorneys. But then I scrapped it, because it got so tangential that I needed a legal disclaimer that I wasn’t providing any legal advice or opinions on the subject. Ha!]

Let me just state that I can’t believe you have to get a physician’s signatures for all these forms.  That’s right up there with going to the post office for me.  I need to get a TB test done so that I can volunteer at Tuffy’s school, and I have been now putting this off for about 10 months.  I almost got it done last time I took Tuffy in for an evaluation, but after doing a 1.5 hour eval I stopped by the nurse’s clinic where they administer the TB test and there was a HUGE line.  And we already needed to go wait in another line to get flu shots.  And this was taking place on a weekday morning so Tuffy was missing school.  Of course, had Tuffy and I decided to wait in that line, I would have had to drive back to the clinic 48 hours later to have someone read the test.

[LM: As Jen Hatmaker would say: FOR. THE. LOVE!]

A Mom on the Job Market

This year is my seventh(?!?!) and final year of my economics PhD.  During our final year, many of us go on the job market, which is a centralized market of sorts through which most PhD economists are hired. For the uninitiated, Noah Smith has a great post describing this process.

This process is very efficient, but (as it would be with any job search I suppose) I don’t exactly feel like I’m being myself.  First of all, I had to take a picture while wearing a suit.  Scratch that.  First, I had to go buy a suit.  That was fun….I took Peanut (my 3-year-old) to the mall a couple weekends ago.  I spent about 10 minutes trying on clothes and about 90 minutes buying food, taking multiple trips to the bathroom, and purchasing a toy in the toy store.  (Yes, I had to bribe my child to get through 10 minutes of clothes shopping.  I’m on track to win several parenting awards this year.)

Then I had to write a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy.”  In this document, I am supposed to make it sound like I’ve been teaching for years, during which time I have been honing my craft and now have strongly held opinions on pedagogy.  This is a little bit hard to do, given that I’ve independently taught a grand total of TWO classes. (And my teaching evaluations are…well… reflective of the fact that I had a 9 month old baby at that time.)  But I was thinking the teaching statement could be better, if I was able to incorporate my mom experience by adding something like this —

Extensive experience lecturing young minds on a variety of topics including:

  • making a decision before opening the fridge
  • choosing weather-appropriate clothing
  • when one should jump off a bridge
  • correct discount rates as applied to teeth brushing
  • why strong priors are not sufficient to justify rejection of a new food
  • when to come crying to me if you’ve hurt yourself
  • the relationship between money and photosynthesis (hint: there isn’t one)


It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of the Year!

No, not Christmas.

It’s time to “fall back” on our clocks tonight, thereby gaining one full hour of sleep!

Wonderful, right?

Parents of the nation, can I get a “Hell no!”

Every parent I have ever talked to will bemoan the arrival of the time change – both in the fall and in the spring for different reasons. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule. But in my house, as an early bird with early bird children, it just makes long days longer.

Lemme tell you about my particular problem: On Sunday morning, I will very likely be up at 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning. Heck, I might even be awake at  2:30 in the morning. This is because I have been waking up between 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning for weeks* now. Okay, years. I have only “slept in” (sleeping in = sleeping past 6:00 am) two times in the past decade. (You keep track when it is so momentous, it feels like a special holiday when it happens.)

For a little while there, prior to this fall, I was actually regularly waking up between 5 and 5:30, and it was heaven. I could stay awake until 9 or 10 like an normal adult! It was so exciting! Then The Hub started setting his alarm every day at 4:30 (for his own reasons; good reasons), and soon my circadian rhythm was back to waking up at 4:30. And then it started creeping back even earlier to 4. Then 3:45. Then 3:30. (Groan.)

Here’s the problem with this: It’s a vicious cycle. You start waking up that early all the time, and then you have no choice but to fall asleep as soon as you get your children to bed. I (usually) get my 8 hours of sleep, people. I just go to bed really, really early. I can do this, because I have no social life anymore. It’s awesome.

Go to bed later, you say? I have tried. This doesn’t help. I still wake up early. I just get less sleep, and I am more tired.

Also, my early morning hours are how I exercise, blog, and perform my side hustle (a/k/a my second job). I also use the early morning hours to read the news, email, write cards, and clean the kitchen. This is no different from those of you who wake up at 7 and go to bed at 11 or later. You are just using your late night hours to get stuff done, and I’m doing the opposite. I will gladly leave a sink full of dishes in the evening so I can go to bed and then quickly put them in the dishwasher in the morning while the coffee is brewing. This is because, most days, my body gives out and my brain freezes after 8 o’clock. The Hub says I fall asleep faster than any person he has ever seen. My head hits the pillow, and I start sawing logs.

You may think this is a crazy schedule. And it can be. If you ever see me eating lunch at 10:30, it’s likely because I have already been up 6 hours. That would be like eating lunch at noon or 1 for most people. Also, you know when you invite me to your house for a 7:30 or 8 dinner or party? That’s like me inviting you over to my house at 10:30 or 11 at night. I will be there, but I will not be fully there, because I would otherwise be getting my first REM cycle.

So, enjoy that extra hour of sleep Sunday morning, peeps, if you can.** I’ll probably be getting my side hustle work done. Or I’ll start doing my CLE (Continuing Legal Education) while I’m on the elliptical. (One of my many “busy mom life hacks.”)

*This seems to happen every fall when the days get shorter. I think the shorter, darker days are what throw me off. If it’s dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, then surely, my brain says, it should be light out 12 hours later. Right? That’s my theory, anyway.

**If you can, it’s because you no longer have super young kids who will also be waking you up at 3 or 4 in the morning.