When my husband and I decided to have children, we didn’t put much thought into the broader social impact of the decision. We got together at secondary school and had been discussing the fact we were going to have kids since we were 18, long before we found effective altruism.
We made the actual decision to have a child much later, but how it would affect our careers or abilities to help others still wasn’t a large factor in the decision. As with most people though, the decision has, in fact, had significant effects on our careers.
Raising my son, Leo — now three years old — is one of the great joys of my life, and I’m so happy that my husband and I decided to have him. But having kids can be challenging for anyone, and there may be unique challenges for people who aim to have a positive impact with their careers.
I’m currently the director of the one-on-one programme at 80,000 Hours and a fund manager for the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund. So I wanted to share my experience with parenting and working for organisations whose mission I care about deeply. Here are my aims:
- Give readers an example of a working parent who also thinks a lot about 80,000 Hours’ advice.
- Discuss some of the ways having kids is likely to affect the impact you have in your career, for people who want to consider that when deciding whether to have kids.
- Discuss challenges people might face in their careers related to having kids and how they might handle them.
- Help people feel less alone if they’re finding some of the standard parenting advice alienating — particularly any mothers who feel the literature tends to underestimate how much they care about their career.
- Write out some of the lessons I’ve learned and things I would have liked to have known beforehand (I still find some of this hard to keep in mind!).
- Start a conversation with the hope that other like-minded parents will share their lessons and suggestions.
- Highlight some of the ways the effective altruism community supports parents.
Note different people find very different advice useful, and people’s situations vary greatly by how many children they have, whether they have a partner and what that person’s situation is like, what family help they have nearby, their socioeconomic condition, and so on. I’ve been very fortunate to live in a wealthy country like the UK with a lot of social support, and I’ve been paid well enough to always meet my needs. My experiences will be most relevant to people who are similarly situated. And some of what follows will be speculative, because I consider counterfactuals and possibilities that are inevitably uncertain. Also, my son is only three, so I have fairly limited experience. I’d love for others to contribute to this conversation and offer additional perspectives.
Deciding whether to have children
It feels important that working to improve the world doesn’t prevent me from achieving any of the other things that are really significant to me in life — for example, having a good relationship with my husband and having close, long-term friendships.
Becoming a parent was another personal priority in my life. For that reason, I didn’t think much about how having a child would affect the impact I had over my life. While I think it’s important to consider how we can best have a positive impact on the world, I don’t think it’s required or practical to think we might have to give up some of the things that are most important to us in the name of impact.
I did think about it some when considering whether to have more children. The potential negative effects on my ability to have an impact with my career counted against having any more kids, but my husband also was keen to stick with one child for reasons unrelated to impact, so the choice was overdetermined.
Figuring out how to take impact into account when deciding whether to have kids at all seems harder than deciding about a second child — both because the change in lifestyle is bigger for the first and because it’s hard to know in advance what it will be like.
For people going through that, I thought it might be useful to talk through how it seems to have affected my impact. Bear in mind that even in my own case it’s pretty hard to know what the counterfactuals really are. Also I may be biassed toward thinking I can still have as much impact as I want.
My guess is that the amount of impact I will have over my life will be in a similar ballpark to what I would have had if we never had a child.
The reason is that I expect to have the most impact through my career, and the jobs I’ve taken haven’t been very influenced by having a child. My guess is that this isn’t true for everyone, and it depends on the kind of impact you have, the type of jobs you do, and your personal disposition.
On the one hand, this shouldn’t be surprising, because the world is built around the assumption that most people have children. Most workplaces expect that at least some of their employees will be or become parents. On the other hand, people can typically do better at their jobs with more time and effort devoted to them, so it does seem surprising that the challenging and time-consuming work of raising a child wouldn’t reduce the impact one can have in a career.
Working harder probably does allow you to do different jobs than you otherwise could. But this effect often isn’t the dominant factor in what roles you take on. I think spending less time working than I otherwise would is a count against me taking on more senior roles, but not a large count against it.
I also think that I don’t work tonnes less hard than I would if I didn’t have a kid. That’s partly because it’s not like I’d want to spend all my time working if I never became a parent, and partly because my husband and I have been able to set up our lives such that I have plenty of time to work. So probably I work five and a half days rather than six full days a week, which I probably would do if I weren’t a parent. I’m fortunate that my husband has a flexible job, we’re financially comfortable, and we have family nearby. (Note that many of my colleagues work standard five-day weeks and are very successful at their jobs.)
One worry you might have is that becoming a parent could cut off the really high-value opportunities in your career. Although you can still do 90% of the roles you otherwise could, you might worry that, in expectation, you still have way less than 90% of the impact.
For example, maybe you could have a shot of being a CEO of a really successful startup, and that would be way more high impact than your next best option, but with a kid you just can’t pull off the hours this would require.
My impression is that there haven’t been specific roles I would have been able to do had I not had a child that I can’t do now. Though it’s always a bit hard to know what opportunities would have come up had things been different.
That seems fairly unsurprising when it comes to ‘traditional’ types of roles — such as working for a large company or for the government. Those types of institutions aim to ensure that all their roles are suitable for parents, since they expect the vast majority of employees to be or become parents. (This may be more true in the UK than in the US, where I’ve heard less provision is made for parents generally, and there may be important gender differences in how parents are accommodated.)
Less traditional roles like entrepreneurship seem less conducive to being done by parents, given the typically extremely long (and hard-to-predict) hours. My impression, though, is that even these kinds of jobs can be compatible with parenting. However, whether you have a partner and what they do for their career may be a major determinant of your ability to succeed in a demanding role.
The closest I’ve gotten to entrepreneurship was when I was helping set up the Global Priorities Institute (GPI). The director and I were both pregnant at the same time and needed to take maternity leave simultaneously when the institute was just a year old. The institute only had a couple of other employees. Thankfully, we found very qualified people to cover us while we were away, and GPI continued to flourish. Under different circumstances, this might have been a major cost.
I think one important reason it’s still possible to do high-impact roles that play to your strengths even when you have kids is that typically the harder it is to fill a role, the more flexible employers are willing to be on things like location if needed.
For example, when I first joined 80,000 Hours, it usually encouraged people to move to San Francisco, where we were based at the time. But the organisation was willing for me to continue working from the UK since it valued my skills, and the move would have been very costly for my family.
This means that it can be really helpful to get some valuable experience before having kids, as it means you’ll be more able to ask for flexibility when you do have children. But there are a lot of tradeoffs to consider as you plan when to have kids, so this issue isn’t straightforward.
Ways children can affect your overall impact
Although I expect the impact of my career to be in a similar ballpark to what it would have been had I never had a child, I do think it will be lower. Some of the reasons are pretty obvious, while others are less so. Here are some factors that stand out:
Money: Kids are expensive. By far our biggest cost at the moment is childcare — we pay around £350 per week for nursery. That doesn’t count any childcare in evenings or weekends, or when Leo is home sick. This would be an even larger cost for people aiming to donate as much as they can, or for people with lower incomes than ours.
Time: I used to frequently work evenings and occasionally both weekend days. That schedule is decidedly less viable now. My husband and I mostly split evenings and weekends. This allows me to work a couple of evenings a week and whatever part of Saturday I’d like to. I’m pretty happy with that amount of work.
I think the category of work-like things that I’ve most reduced are the activities that aren’t required but can end up being useful in your job: hanging out with colleagues, having dinner with people in my field, and reading or listening to content in an interest-driven way.
Travel: I find travelling quite a lot less appealing than I used to. Travelling with a child is hard because childcare doesn’t come along, so I tend to travel on my own. But that means being away from my family and leaving my husband with a lot of childcare responsibilities. So I now travel only when there’s a really strong reason — about once or twice a year — whereas at one point I was going on trips around every six weeks.
Living constraints: It now seems more costly to move or to have some unusual living situations. During pregnancy, I lived Monday to Friday in London and came home to Oxford (an hour and half or so via train) at weekends. That’s not viable anymore for my family. We’re keen for Leo to go to a good school and have plenty of space to play, so fewer areas and houses seem reasonable places to live than they used to. I’ve considered moving to the US for work, but that seems less appealing if it will mean switching Leo’s school and living far from our extended family.
Their impact: I expect that my child will have a nice life, and I hope he’ll decide to help others along the way. So I think his existing is overall good for the world.
Motivation: Some people report being more motivated to work after having children. They may be more motivated to earn in order to look after their kids, or more motivated to work to improve the future to ensure their children have long, happy lives. Other people report being less motivated by work after having children, because other things seem less important than they used to in comparison to parenting.
I haven’t really noticed either of these effects. Over the medium term, I’ve felt pretty similarly motivated by work after having Leo as before. I did have a few periods of finding it hard to get motivated to work due to childbearing — particularly while I was experiencing morning sickness and after having a stillbirth.
One decision people who want to have children face is whether to have their own biological children or to adopt. I felt very strongly about wanting to conceive a child ourselves — I just loved the idea of a human who was part Nic and part me. I only realised this preference when I considered adoption, and it essentially ruled out any alternatives.
I think if I had more seriously considered adopting, I still would have decided against it. One potential reason in favour of choosing to adopt is that you could raise a child who otherwise wouldn’t get a good home. Given the number of people interested in adopting in the UK, though, I expect that kids who wouldn’t otherwise have a good home would face more challenges growing up than the average. I don’t think looking after children is my comparative advantage, so I expect to be able to make a bigger difference by spending the marginal time on my job than spending it looking after a child who needs more help.
Of course, some people and families might find adoption to be the right choice for many reasons, such as in cases of couples who can’t conceive.
Another potential reason to favour adopting would be if you think that it’s bad for there to be more people than there already are, so you want to avoid adding new children to the world.
But personally, I’m not generally too worried about overpopulation. That’s partly because my impression is that we shouldn’t expect the global population to grow hugely more than its current number. It’s also partly because humans are pretty good at innovating when needed. Although new people require more food and other resources, more people also means more ideas for how to increase the food and resources in the world — or how to get a certain number of resources to go further. For example, the invention of dwarf wheat, leading to the Green Revolution, made it possible in the mid-20th century to feed a larger population than ever before.
Things to bear in mind for parenting and having an impact
Pregnancy can be tough
I think I really underestimated the time commitment that comes with pregnancy. Pregnancy is often really draining and can involve a lot of nausea and doctors appointments. Miscarriage early on is also very common — about 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, though it’s much more likely early in the pregnancy than later. It can be devastating and physically painful, so this is a significant possibility to prepare yourself for.
If you want to work a lot, you’ll need lots of childcare
Professional childcare providers tend to only operate during normal working hours, so if you want to work on weekends or evenings, you’re likely to need additional help. Children also get sick pretty often — particularly if they go to a group setting like daycare. And typically, they won’t be able to go to the group setting while they’re sick. So you likely need a plan for how to look after the kids while they’re sick. In our case, our parents can watch Leo when he’s under the weather.
It’s OK to do things differently
I was the only parent at my work for quite a while, which meant I had different needs from my coworkers. And importantly, they didn’t necessarily know what my needs were going to be. For example, it turns out that if you want to travel abroad, there’s a surprisingly large number of countries the UK’s National Health Service recommends avoiding if you’re pregnant.
So I had to figure out what would work for me and ask for it. Thankfully, everyone at work was very accommodating of my requests. A few things that have come up:
- Video-calling into meetings and doing them while looking after Leo — The office has a great video call setup that really helped with this, and people were very willing to have me call in even if everyone else was there in person.
- Pumping milk in the office — In addition to the actual pumping, the process requires a surprising amount of faff, like having all the pump parts on-hand and a way of sterilising them (plus storage space for the frozen milk!). Thankfully, I could use my office equipment budget to get what I needed for the office.
- Skipping out on evening events.
- Making it possible for my husband and son to visit our days-long retreat.
Our family also doesn’t tend to follow the stereotypical pattern of who does what in a family. In some cases we cut corners, like eating a lot of pre-prepared food rather than cooking from scratch, and tending to not write or send cards. In other cases, we see if something can be done by either my husband Nic or me rather than both. For example, I often went to pregnancy appointments on my own.
And Nic has done quite a few of the things often done by mothers. He’s usually the one to settle Leo back to sleep if he wakes at night. I find being different in these ways challenging some of the time because I feel people will judge me for them. But it allows us to live the kinds of lives we want.
Things change significantly and frequently
As adults, we’re not used to changing that much, but young kids change constantly. Different stages bring different challenges, but for the first three years it has seemed to steadily get easier.
I also find parenting more rewarding now that Leo is more of his own little person. It can be lonely being on your own with a baby, in part because it feels weird to interact with a human who doesn’t respond clearly at all to your emotions. It’s been really wonderful watching him start to learn concepts and talk to people.
The rewards aren’t always easy to bear in mind when you’re going through the hard parts! It’s worth paying attention to, though. If you remember it will get easier, you’ll hopefully feel more affordance to take things easy with work while things are full on, knowing you’ll have more capacity in future. Indeed, it’s probably better for your career in the long term if you recognise the time when you have less capacity to do as much work.
Particular challenges people in our community might face
People drawn to helping the world as much as possible are often guilt-prone and perfectionist. Parenting can really exacerbate these tendencies. That might be worth paying attention to so you can mitigate these effects.
I found becoming a parent introduced a large new area for me to feel guilty about. For example, it feels harder to take leisure time because I assume that loving mothers will want to spend all their non-work time with their children.
I really appreciated the book I Know How She Does It for its emphasis on the fact that it’s important to take time fully off rather than spending all your time either parenting or working.
I also found parenting thrust me into a different social world from the one I’m usually in. As I went to parenting classes and listened to parenting podcasts, I felt more surrounded by people with different values to me. That made me feel like the odd one out, and it led to me feeling bad about not living up to their standards. For example, I felt guilt for not cooking meals for Leo from scratch.
I found it really helpful to talk to people who had similar values to me. In some cases, it even helped to talk especially to people who weren’t parents about these issues, because it felt like they could look at parenting decisions more dispassionately. I also really appreciated books by people who felt like they have similar approaches to life to me, particularly Emily Oster.
I also found early parenthood a tough time to be a perfectionist. I was confronted with a high volume of new things I didn’t know how to do, at a time when I was already feeling tired and overwhelmed. For people who are similarly wary of new things, I recommend:
- Trying out new tasks before the birth. For example, you can put on and tie up your sling or baby wearer, put together and take apart your breast pump, and sterilise bottles (depending on which of these you plan to do!).
- Doing things with a second person when you’re first doing them. I was intimidated by things like going to a cafe with a baby for the first time, so I initially went with a housemate.
- Researching post-birth pain relief. People sometimes want to be pretty careful about what pain relief they take after birth, particularly if they’re breastfeeding. After you’ve just given birth is a hard time to research this kind of thing, and you’re likely to want some pain relief, particularly if you end up needing to have a C-section.
Another aspect of this was being compulsive about things like exclusively breastfeeding and trying to figure out what was the ‘right’ version of every baby product. Are these the best bottles for his age group? Which nappy cream should I buy?
I had a friend who had gotten obsessed with exclusively breastfeeding in a way she didn’t later endorse and had warned me about it. But I still ended up in that position. Many hospitals and medical staff like midwives forcefully advocate for certain practices, and it can feel difficult to go against their judgement even when an alternative really would make more sense.
I think things that might have helped me would have been:
- Thinking in advance about what kinds of decisions I did and didn’t endorse. It could have helped to pick a point in time to reevaluate important decisions. For instance, I could have precommitted to myself that if breastfeeding was still really hard six weeks in, I would test out combination feeding. I think that probably would have been sensible.
- Getting a list from a friend I trusted of the products that they bought. This would include things like bottles, nappy cream, dummies, and so on. I think that would have made me more relaxed about not getting things too wrong.
One thing I really appreciated was being able to talk to other parents with similar approaches to me. Sometimes this just got me to calm down about basic things. Being told, “Yes, it’s just really hard to get them their recommended daily allowance of iron, we all find it hard,” was a big help. I also appreciated reading advice that systematically looked into the research literature and summarised it comprehensively. This was written after my pregnancy, but is the kind of thing I’d have really appreciated.
Some things that are easier because of our community
I’d like to end with a few things I’m grateful for.
I think the effective altruism community is pretty accepting about people doing things a bit differently. So I’ve felt fine, for example, carrying around Leo while doing a Q&A and asking to sit at my desk while I pump milk (so that I still have access to my computer while doing it).
Some of the parenting books I read warned about being taken less seriously at work if you, say, show people baby pictures. Thankfully, I haven’t felt people take me any less seriously, regardless of how many cute photos I post on Slack.
I’ve never felt wanting for sensible people to think through difficult situations with. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of excellent advice and kind support over the years. Sometimes that’s been about what you’d expect, like the fellow mother who’s done it all before and can tell me what she did and how it worked. Sometimes it’s really not — it’s the economist colleague who listened to Emily Oster on EconTalk and gleaned tips, or the ex-medic who’s willing to look into the literature on some pregnancy risk you’re worried about.
It takes a village, and I’m glad this is the village I’m in.