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.