Dr. Sarah Hart-Unger is a busy woman who wears many figurative hats. She’s a pediatric endocrinologist, residency program director, wife, mother of three, blogger, and podcaster.
Just the thought of all of that wears me out. I cut out the practice of medicine, don’t have a podcast, have one fewer child, and I still wonder where the time goes!
Today’s guest author and I communicated after Dr. Brent Lacey shared the story of his wife leaving medicine to raise her family. Like many other readers, Dr. Hart-Unger was hoping to hear Dr. Catherine Lacey’s side of the story, and I’m glad we were able to deliver. I’m also happy to share a counterpoint, and I thank Dr. Hart-Unger for today’s contribution.
The following article was written in response to This Decision Cost Us 13 Million Dollars, But Was it a Financial Mistake? It was written before I had received or published the followup, Why One Mother Left Her GI Fellowship to Raise a Family.
Why I Still Work (Even Though My Physician Husband Out-Earns Me)
First of all, a confession. I am not a FIRE diehard. I am intrigued by the movement, but I hadn’t even heard of it until about a year ago. Physician on FIRE was one of the first FI/FIRE bloggers that I came across, and I definitely felt awakened to new possibilities by reading his musings (and others, like The Physician Philosopher and Choose FI).
In fact, I would not consider myself a particularly frugal person, though interestingly the more money we have, the less I am attracted to flashy showy things (paradox?). I do very much enjoy using my “life energy” to purchase amazing experiences that do not always come cheap, whether they are a meal at French Laundry (worth every penny) or a stay at the Ritz (actually, NOT recommended with a toddler #neveragain).
So how will this nonsense get you to FI?
While I have not always exercised such discretion around spending, the most pro-FI action I have taken is to stay in my career. I am a pediatric endocrinologist, which is the second to worst paid specialty (average of $201K/yr according to Doximity — I guess we’re undervalued!).
I am married to a vascular surgeon which has a salary average of more than twice that, landing it in the top 5 of all physician specialties. We have 3 children, ages 2, 6, and almost 8. I had my first beautiful baby girl while I was in the second year of my fellowship, and the other two children as an attending.
To be clear, I haven’t always loved everything about my career path, and in fact have pivoted a couple of times. When pure clinical work felt a little monotonous, I embraced GME and leadership, and am currently serving as program director of the pediatrics residency program in an increasingly academic health system.
I technically work 0.9FTE. I initially cut my hours a bit to have some extra flexibility & time with my children, but also ended up following my passion and launching a podcast about (wait for it!) working motherhood.
While I’ve played with the specifics of my working life, I have never once even considered quitting. Why?
- Because I want to continue to grow and learn professionally. I love learning and gaining new skills, whether they are clinical or related to my GME role. It’s truly fun for me!
- Because I want to take care of patients (and help train the next generation of pediatrician to do this well, too!). I find this gratifying, meaningful, and even enjoyable most of the time. Admittedly, I DO hate being woken up at night and someday would like to buy my way out of call entirely.
- Because I have a REALLY good job, from an objective standpoint. My hours are reasonable. I have enough flexibility. And while I am not going to reveal my exact salary, the midpoint pedi endo according to Doximity — while on the low end for physicians — is still at the 97th percentile according to this calculator. I may not earn as much as my physician husband, but my contribution is still significant. I could support our family if it was necessary. I can provide a buffer so that we can enjoy luxurious things sometimes, and still save. And importantly for this audience, it should be noted that I can help us reach FI significantly earlier!
What Will We Use Our $13 Million For?
In his post, Dr. Lacey calculated that his wife’s career-ending decision was a ~13 million dollar loss for their family, looking at potential savings/earnings of his wife’s potential salary invested fully in the market. In reality, I’m not sure if the amount of difference is quite that high (childcare does cost something!). But, based on pure math, I can say that my working will allow us to:
- Reach FI faster. According to Mustachecalc, with a conservative estimate of $80K more saved yearly, our “time to FI” decreases by a non-trivial 10 years!!
- More easily save for / pay for college. I know that covering kids’ college costs is a controversial topic in the FI/RE world, but we are aiming to provide at least 4 years of college expenses (public or private) for each of our 3 children. Which is $$$!!! My husband and I are grateful our parents did this for us, and I want to pay the gift forward. My contributions help our 529 plans grow faster.
- Live with a little more freedom and ease, saying “yes” to our kids more often. Quite honestly, I’d like to give my children more wiggle room than I enjoyed growing up. Being a dual-income couple means that we will be able to do that (big family trips, yes please!) and still save.
- Outsource more! We employ a full-time nanny (who also feels like a 6th family member; she has been with us for more than 6 years now!) and she helps us with cooking, laundry, and much more. I don’t spend my weekends buried in housework; I’m generally free to spend quality time with family.
But is this a worthwhile tradeoff?
To be clear: if staying in the workforce meant that something negative would be likely to befall my children, I would leave. Or perhaps I’d see if my husband and I could each work at 50%. And maybe some people do believe that my choice to work is harmful to my children.
In this vein, there was language in the recent post that stung a little bit, language that suggested that by working, I am not providing the best environment for my children to grow and thrive.
In communicating with Dr. Lacey since he posted, I don’t think this is what he meant or intended. And I’m glad to hear that! The language that particularly struck me was in this section in which he write, regarding his wife:
“She’s involved in their lives in so many great ways! She volunteers at their school and finds great community activities for them. She teaches them reading, arts/crafts, sports, social interactions, and so much more.
Her approach to being a stay-at-home mother is the same as her approach to medicine was: total focus on being the best.”
When I read this, I will admit that I initially read these words as a personal affront. Did “the best” mean better than all of those others who work, either because they choose to, or because they need to? Does her “best” mean that I am “worst”?
Thankfully, I don’t think this is what he meant, and I also believe it my heart that it is not true. I am sure that I have fewer face to face hours with my children than she does. But — for the record — I still have quite a few!
Just like Dr. Lacey’s wife, I also volunteer at school sometimes (in the last year: 2 class events + career day!), and so does my husband. When it comes to reading, sports, and the other areas mentioned, I haven’t noticed my kids falling behind. They enjoy plenty of fun activities both in and outside the home, and we read together almost every night.
A Few Final Thoughts
First, I think it is important to remember there just isn’t data to support the concept that working does an automatic disservice to one’s offspring (and honestly, studies on this particular topic often seem quite fraught as the number of potential confounders are nearly infinite).
Second, I have seen models of both kinds of families with outcomes that vary widely, both in my patient populations and real life. There are clearly variables more important than “whether mom works” at play. Parental life satisfaction, a strong marital bond, and financial stability are just a few potential ones.
Third — well, it’s early, I know. But my 3 seem to be doing okay. And I know my children love me and are bonded to me, just as they are to my husband.
In summary . . . it’s all okay.
I hope I did not come off as expressing sour grapes in this counterpoint. I am glad that Dr. Lacey and his wife have found a life together that they love, and have found way of making it work (while still pursuing FI — impressive!). I just took initial issue with the article because it was less clear that this was a choice she made because of what she truly wanted, rather than one that was “best” based on some very antiquated traditions of what family life should be.
Perhaps she also found medicine disappointing in some way — which is absolutely valid — and I’d love to hear more about that, too. Notably, my husband read the post and wondered how people would feel if gender roles were reversed; i.e. if it were written by a woman whose physician husband decided to leave the workforce with one year of fellowship remaining. It seems far fetched to even imagine, which means there are biases at play whether we are conscious of them or not.
All that said, I am going to continue doing what I am doing, nanny and all. I believe we can have happiness, love, and health within our dual career family. I think that what I do makes a positive impact — on the world AND on our children — and I am proud that my kids will point out that “my mommy is a doctor for kids and my daddy is a doctor for grownups!”.
I don’t think that having an additional loving (paid) caregiver will compromise our family, or our children’s future. And I wouldn’t be sad to get to FI earlier, either.
Dr Sarah Hart-Unger is a pediatric endocrinologist and residency program director. She has been blogging at theshubox.com for over 15 years and cohosts a podcast, Best of Both Worlds, with time management expert Laura Vanderkam.
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