In spring of 2011 my wife Fiona, an academic economist, was asked to serve as Chief Economist in the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice. Could she take a leave from the university where we both taught, and go work for the Obama administration, keeping American consumers safe from monopolists? She’d live in Washington, D.C. five days a week, and come home on weekends—for at least a year, possibly two.
At that time we owned two houses, about a mile apart. We were selling the one we lived in, and having work done on the other, in anticipation of moving in. I had just learned that come midsummer, I’d be taking over the directorship of my academic center from my soon-to-be-retired senior colleague. Two of our children were in primary school, the third in junior high. We were—I was—busy.
Of course I told Fiona to take the job. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her: a chance to apply her knowledge to real-world problems, a chance for public service in an administration we both admired, a chance for new friends and new experiences and a chance, too, for a bit of prestige. “I can handle my new job plus the home front five days a week for a while,” I thought—and leaned in.
It was hard. There were unexpected complications, little and big. Little: when we moved into the new house the kitchen wasn’t finished yet. We lived with construction for a while and cooked in a microwave balanced on boxes in the chair-free dining room. Big: Fiona’s mom was dying of ALS, so our weekend “together time” was often spent driving up to Massachusetts for difficult family visits. But the hardest part for me wasn’t the complications, but the routine. Doctor visits for three were mine to plan and attend; ditto parent-teacher conferences and school open-houses. Whose turn was it to take our daughter to the orthodontist? Mine. Who could stay home for the plumber? Me. Snow day childcare? My problem.
In the end, we all did well. The kids really rose to the occasion and learned to do a lot of things for themselves that we used to do for them. I got to spend a ton of time with them, cooking, helping with homework, sharing evenings together. I didn’t get a whole lot of academic writing done during those 20 or so months, but nothing fell apart.
And Fiona? She had some of the best months of her working life and made new and close friends for the first time in years. She’s filled with excitement about the problems she had a chance to work on—many of which keep showing up in the headlines. Better still, her experience seems to have opened up a flood of new academic opportunities, and made her — within her own field — a little more senior and a lot more famous.
Friends have told me how great I was to take on some single-parenting to help Fiona’s career. Yes, I love the praise. But really, it was nothing that millions of women haven’t already done.