Author Archives: Julia

Unintended pregnancy in folk songs

I’ve been listening to a lot of the Watersons and Waterson:Carthy this week. It’s reminded me how absolutely full British folk music is of songs about unintended pregnancy.

Most commonly the result is unhappy motherhood:

“But if I had kent that I now ken
And taken my mother’s bidding o
I wouldn’t be sitting by our fireside
Crying hushabye my bairnie-o.

It’s hushaba for I’m your ma
but the Lord knows who’s your daddy-o
So it’s girls take care and you beware
of the ploughboys in the gloaming-o.”
– “When I was noo but sweet sixteen

Sometimes extremely unhappy motherhood:

“The rain wets my yellow locks, the dew wets me still
The babe is cold in my arms, love — Lord Gregory, let me in.”
Lass of Loch Royal

(His mother turns her away and suggests she drown herself, resulting in predictable tragedy.)

There’s occasionally a responsible father, as in “Bogie’s Bonnie Belle“, but this one is also thwarted by disapproving parents:

“When the full nine months were gone and past, she brought to me a son
And it’s then that I was sent for to see what could be done
And once more I said I’d marry her, but no that wouldn’t do
‘For you’re no match for my bonny belle, and she’s not a match for you.’
And I took my young son in my arms, and joy to him I’ll bring
And maybe he’ll mean as much to me as the girl that I adore.”

(I wonder if that last more tender couplet was maybe added in the 70s by Robin and Barry Dransfield, as I don’t see it in other versions.)

Tam Lin” includes a memorable description of morning sickness:

There’s four and twenty ladies all in the court
Grown red as any rose
Excepting for young Margaret
And green as glass she goes, any grass,
Yes green as glass she goes.

Outten spoke the first serving girl,
She lifted her head and smiled
“I think me lady’s loved too long
And now she goes with child, me dears
Now she goes with child.”

And outten spoke the second serving girl
“Oh ever and alas,” Said she
“I think I know a herb in the merry green wood
That’ll twine the babe from thee, Lady
That’ll twine the babe from thee.”

Margaret’s lover interrupts her as she’s picking the abortifacient herb and reveals that he’s been absent because of being kept captive by the fairies (an unusual excuse). He tells her how to rescue him, and they go on to have one of the few happy endings in balladry.

Unhappy parenthood is the most common plot outcome, but there’s also infanticide, as in “The Cruel Mother“:

“She leaned her back against a thorn
And there she had two little babes born

She took her penknife keen and sharp
And pierced those two babes to the heart.”

(This one ends with haunting and damnation.)

And homicide, as in “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.” After a courtship goes on longer than convenient, the man invites his lover to the woods and murders her. Pregnancy isn’t mentioned until the last line when the vengeful ghost returns:

“She ripped him and stripped and tore him in three,
Saying, ‘That’s for the murder of my baby and me.'”

As a teenager when I first heard a lot of these ballads, they seemed like they were about unhappy, sometimes melodramatically unhappy love. I didn’t quite get just how many unhappy long-term situations must have resulted from lack of reliable birth control.


Valentine exchange 2019

It’s time for a valentine exchange! Here’s how it works:

  • email me with your name and mailing address (julia.d.wise at gmail)
  • I’ll let you know who you’re exchanging with
  • make or buy about 4 valentines and mail them by the end of this weekend
  • enjoy checking the mail!

As per usual, I’ve forgotten to announce this with enough leeway for international mail arriving on time. Most participants will likely be in the US, so you’re welcome to participate internationally but you’ll get your mail on the late side — sorry!

Contractor mindset vs. homeowner mindset

Jeff is redoing our bathroom, which involves taking down walls with old lead paint on them. He’s sealed off that portion of the house, and when he’s doing leaded work he doesn’t come back in the rest of the house until he’s taken off his coveralls, changed clothes, washed his hands in the basement, showered, and changed clothes again. That’s what you do if you’re an informed parent who doesn’t want your kids to get lead poisoning.

When my dad worked in construction, the comment made after a shoddy job was “Well, I can’t see it from my house.” That’s basically the attitude I’ve seen from contractors about things like lead dust, despite laws about precautions they’re supposed to take. When our electrician’s assistant cut through an old wall with no precautions, scattering lead dust all over the inside of a closet (containing, unfortunately, the cleaning supplies), I called to complain. “I have no way of knowing what’s in your walls,” the electrician told me, though we both know very well what’s likely to be in 1920s walls given that lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978.

I called the state lead safety agency, the ones theoretically in charge of enforcement. They told me to clean my house really well.

The next time the electrician needed to go through a wall, he promised he’d put down a dropcloth. He did — it covered the area just under the work, and the dust extended for yards beyond it, including down the stairway where he tracked it on his way out. When I went to clean it up, it was like one of those cakes where you can see the shape of where the doily was laid, because the icing sugar is sprinkled everywhere else.

That’s the kind of work you get when the incentive is to look like you’re doing the right thing, rather than to actually prevent lead from getting into your children’s bodies. You get a dropcloth that pretends to address the problem. You get a phone number where you can call and get no help.


Last night I was talking with Jeff about some health problems I’ve been trying to figure out. I made a long list of things I had tried already, and a shorter list of things I haven’t tried. I spent a lot of the conversation arguing to him why the remaining things were unlikely to work.

I was essentially in contractor mindset. As if it weren’t my house, and all I needed to do was demonstrate that I’d taken some reasonable steps. But when you’re the homeowner, when it’s your roof that’s leaking, when you’re the parent of the children who live there, it’s not enough to try. You have to actually fix the problem. If you stop when you have taken the steps that could reasonably be expected of you, it’s you and your family who bear the cost.

I’m trying to balance this with the virtue of acceptance. I may try every single thing on both lists, and I may never find anything that works all that well. I may just need to learn to live with the status quo.

But it would suck to try 15 out of 20 things and never find out that the 18th thing on the list would have helped. This body is my home. If I can summon the energy, it’s time to keep trying.



How much do kids cost? The first 5 years

We did an estimate on how much our first year of having a baby cost. Four years and another baby later, we decided to do an update on how much the first five years have cost.

TL;DR: Over 5 years we’ve spent about $106,760 in cash, or about $150,000 including lost earnings. By far the biggest costs for us were housing, childcare, and lost wages of a stay-at-home parent.

Related posts:
Cost comparison of childcare
How much does it cost to have a baby? (at the one-year mark)
How much does it cost to raise kids? (speculation before we did it)

Total cost over 5 years:

Ok, this graph looks ridiculous because most categories are so much smaller than housing and childcare that you can’t see them, but that’s probably the point. People talk about baby gear and diapers costing money, but they just don’t hold a candle to the big two.

And that’s just counting what we paid in dollars. Here it is with my lost wages (post-tax) included:

So overall we’re about $151,690 short of what our child-free selves might have (assuming we neither donated nor invested the money). We’re also ahead by an unknown number of kisses and games of Lily-burrito.

Monthly averages:

With the exception of buying a house, most of your costs don’t come all at once. So how to the costs actually come each month?

Some costs scale with having a second child and some didn’t. The biggest differences were 1) moving towards more paid childcare 2) moving to a house where each kid had a bedroom, instead of sharing our bedroom as Lily did for the first two years. Of course some of this is more affected by the passing time than by adding additional children — if we’d had just one child, we still would have moved her out of our bedroom around that time.

Chart with numbers

What’s in the categories:

  • Housing: this is kind of pretend, because we actually built two extra rooms onto our house, which had a high up-front cost but will be useful for years and will eventually make the house sell for more. I’m instead substituting the cost at which we currently rent our spare bedroom ($900/month times 2 bedrooms). Lily got her own room around age 2 and Anna got hers around age 1, but I’m prorating it equally between them. This is one where you’ll be able to work out pretty easily what an extra bedroom costs where you live. Remember that your housing size won’t scale with your family size unless you move to a larger place every time you have a baby, so you’ll likely have some crowded years or some spare space.
  • Childcare: payments to daycare providers, payments to nannies, au pair costs (stipend, agency fees, room, food, utilities, phone, and transit). The cost of the au pair room is estimated in the same way as the kids’ rooms above. Duplicate childcare while traveling (when either parent takes one child with them on a work trip).
  • Food: additional food while Julia was pregnant and nursing. Minimal food during child’s first year. When we split food costs with housemates, we started counting the kids at half an adult share when they turned 1. This is probably an overestimate of what they eat.
  • Health insurance: increase over what we paid for 2 of us to be on health insurance from Jeff’s work.
  • Gear/nursery: cribs, rocking chair, stroller, etc.
  • Hygiene/medical: diapers, bottle-feeding supplies, medicine, dentistry, vitamins, copays on medical appointments.
  • Other: travel, toys, books.
  • Education: books and materials for doing home preschool with Lily, and a summer program.
  • Clothes: mostly from thrift stores or
  • Julia: maternity and nursing clothes. The fact that I even thought this would be a significant category when we started tracking shows how vague my idea of our future expenses was.

More on lost wages:

During 2014-2017 I worked 2434 fewer hours, or about 60 fewer full weeks, than I expect I would have. After Lily’s birth I used my 13 days of vacation and sick time I’d hoarded from my social work job, and then quit and returned 5 months later. Lily lasted 3 weeks in daycare before getting kicked out because she wouldn’t drink milk for anyone but us (who knew that was a thing? To be fair, it’s unusual and your kid will probably be fine in daycare). So Jeff moved his schedule earlier, I worked evenings and weekends, and between us we took care of Lily constantly while working the equivalent of 1.6 jobs. More on that period. When she was 18 months we switched her to 4 days a week in daycare, and I worked 4 days and 2 evenings a week.

With Anna, we had a more normal setup. I took 7 weeks unpaid maternity leave, Jeff took 10 weeks paid paternity leave, and then both children were cared for by a nanny or au pair. Cost comparison of childcare arrangements we considered.

Things that may change your costs:

  • Paid parental leave: Both times Jeff got 12 weeks paid leave and I got none. This is better than what most Americans get, but not so good by world standards.
  • Opportunity cost: If a parent earning a lot takes unpaid leave or reduced hours, it’s a bigger difference from your previous income. If the parent wasn’t earning that much, it’s a smaller difference. If you’re in a field where taking extended leave will hurt your chance of promotion, etc, that’s an additional loss.
  • Cost of childcare in your area: Boston has one of the highest childcare costs in the country, which is why an au pair (with nationally standardized costs) was the cheapest option once we had two kids. I don’t really understand why it varies so much by region. Also, different types of childcare vary in cost, quality, and convenience.
  • Cost of living in your area: There are many places (including cheaper areas of our city) where a spare room costs less than $900/month, and some where it costs more.
  • Sharing rooms: We could have moved to a three-bedroom place before having kids, which would have increased our costs. Or we could have stayed in a smaller space for longer — children having their own bedrooms has been unusual historically. But extended room-sharing means extended night feedings and (at least in our experience) more disrupted sleep for everyone. That’s one thing if you don’t need to do a lot of mental work during the day, but chronic sleep deprivation is no joke if your job requires you to think clearly. There are also other ways around this (baby in the bedroom and parents sleeping in the living room seems to happen a lot in San Francisco). Having children share with each other is another common option.
  • Buying more or less stuff: We’ve kept costs pretty minimal here by buying used toys and clothes. and similar sites are excellent for this.
  • Preschool: we opted for minimal paid preschool because we were already paying for full-time childcare. We could either have put the kids in a daycare (the more expensive of which include preschool programming) or paid for Lily to go to morning preschool on top of the childcare we already had. The difference is whether someone is basically watching the kids play, vs. leading more organized group activities and having them learn letters, basic math, prewriting skills, etc.
  • Vehicle: We have never owned a car, so kids really haven’t changed our transportation expenses. This is a cost to consider.
  • Travel: The trips we take are now more expensive, but we take fewer of them, so I think this about evens out.
  • Health insurance: Costs would be lower in a country with free health care, or higher if you don’t have an employer that covers as much of insurance costs as Jeff’s does.
  • Health needs: children with special needs (medical, emotional, behavioral) need more of your time and more money for medical copays, services that aren’t covered by insurance, childcare that can handle their needs, etc.

How I want you to use this information:
To think about how much it may cost you or others to raise children. I particularly advise saving money before you have kids.

How I do not want you to use this information:
To criticize my family for our lifestyle or financial choices.

Hardly anyone publishes their budget. Please don’t disincentivize that.

Thoughts on “you owe me”

I chose the title quote of this blog in a more socialist stage of my life. I was excited about applying generosity to personal relationships, to my finances, and to policy in general.

There’s an ideal of marriage in my mind, based on novels like I Take Thee, Serenity, of old people enjoying a lifetime of selfless love. At a friend’s wedding, an older married woman gave her the advice, “Don’t count. It will always seem like you’re doing more. Give and give and give thanks.” I loved that. I hung the last line in our first apartment.

Then I had kids, and now I definitely count. 

Jeff and I have done several rounds of time tracking, including at least one where I was quite sure I was the put-upon wife. Embarrassingly for me, it turned out he was doing quite a bit more work. But now we know that.

The idea of people truly not minding their generosity to their spouse is appealing. At the same time, treating women’s time as valuable is a major victory of the 20th century, and the gains are not complete. Excerpts from the mothers’ group I’m part of:


Note that this isn’t purely a gender thing — there are similar stories from moms with a female partner, or from moms who acknowledge being the weak link in the household.

Now that I’m familiar with the kind of “partnership” that many of my peers experience, it amazes me now that so many people read The Giving Tree as a heartwarming story of selflessness. I read it now as being about annihilation. No matter how much she gives, it never makes him happy, let alone grateful. He does not even enjoy wrecking her. Maybe it’s meant to be about parenthood more than partnership, but I wouldn’t let my children treat me like that either.

After seeing a bit more of real life, my guess at what works best is now something like:

  • Be aware of the work your partner does, and express gratitude.** I do recommend a few days or weeks of time tracking as a way to realize what this looks like — I had forgotten whole categories of work that Jeff does, and tracking made me more aware of the full picture. It might also help make clear how much time is spent on invisible planning-type work (arranging with the babysitter, making the shopping list, reading about how to fix the drain).
  • Don’t expect perfect equality on a daily or weekly basis, but try to even things out over time. (I’m particularly happy that Jeff now deals with the kids’ night wakings after my years of night feedings.)
  • Recognize that things may not even out. People vary in their need for sleep, in the tasks they hate, and in physical and mental health. Maybe the reality of your partnership is that one of you will consistently put in more than 50%.
  • If one of you has your heart set on a career that will leave little time for helping with household and children, get on the same page about whether that’s something you can both live with.
  • Freeing each other up to do special things occasionally — to go out with friends, to sleep in — can go a long way even when you’re both handling a lot.
  • If you’re dividing work in a traditional fashion, double check that this is really what you both want.
  • Recognize that society may not allocate responsibility evenly between you. If the baby is in dirty clothes, if the table is set wrong at Thanksgiving, if your kid does not bring a good present to their friend’s birthday party, society will not be even-handed in assigning blame between a mother and father. If you’re both cool with saying, “to hell with society’s expectations,” great, but recognize that society already assigned all these expectations to the mother and she is the one who had better be cool with disregarding them.

*A second note of irony is that years after falling in love with Daniel Ladinsky’s translation of Hafiz, I realized they are not translations at all, but 20th-century riffs on Hafiz’s 14th-century poems. No wonder they sound so modern.

** Thanks to Jeff who is putting the kids down for their nap as I write this!

Lives we didn’t plan to have

A throwback post. This week I was packing a suitcase, which always makes me think of a woman I knew and her backpack.

. . . . .

Here are some categories of people I once thought of as having always existed in some alternate world from mine:

Cancer patients.
Old people.
Homeless people.

I was kind of shocked when I was pregnant that I didn’t just magically have time in my schedule for things like prenatal yoga and lots of medical appointments. I knew these were the kinds of things pregnant people did, but I did not enjoy the transition from non-pregnant person’s schedule to a pregnant person’s schedule. Somehow it hadn’t really clicked with me that I would have to actually drop things from my schedule in order to have a pregnant person’s schedule.

Having seen people develop serious illness likewise made me realize that it’s a part- to full-time job. The time it takes to wait on hold with the insurance company, go to 9 million appointments, to not be able to work today — that was not time that was just available before. That time used to be filled with hobbies, dates, work, projects. Those things had to be swept aside.

I still catch myself thinking this way about old people. They are like a separate life form, one with back pain and segmented pillboxes. The rational part of me understands I may one day become this life form, but I still catch myself thinking they must have been doing it wrong and surely it won’t be like this for me.

. . . . .

“Homeless people” are perhaps the most extreme of this category. Until I became a social worker, this category contained only people I did not know and never planned to know.

At the jail, one young woman described her backpack routine. When she was not in jail she was homeless, and all her belongings were carried in her backpack. She packed it anew every morning, folding every item before it went back in. Her life might have fallen apart in every other way, but her socks would never be unfolded. A crack erupted in my sense of what made “regular people” and “homeless people” different.

Another client, a self-described germophobe, told me about his process for settling down for the night when he was on the outside: he’d find a porch with an electrical outlet. He’d get out his bottle of bleach or ammonia, sanitize the porch, then plug in his electric blanket and make the best of a cold night. He refused to stay in shelters because of the stench of other residents. “I may be homeless,” he hissed, “but my feet don’t stink.”

. . . . .

Those categories? It’s a person like you in there. They weren’t always like this. This wasn’t their plan.

Thoughts on Samuel Pepys

I’ve been listening to the diary of Samuel Pepys on audio. He wrote it between 1660 and 1669 while living in London and working in the British government. He’s unusual among diarists in that he was interested in everything from politics to fashion to music, spared no detail even about his own faults, and witnessed some major historical events.

At first I was enjoying the details about daily life and their similarities and differences with daily life now — What he thinks of his new wig! The argument he and his wife had about whether the dog should sleep in their room! Boy, there are a lot of public executions!

Maybe the most striking thing to me is how much he writes about sex. I can think of a few contributing reasons:

  • he was just unusually interested in sex.
  • lots of people are very interested in sex, and I usually don’t read their diaries.
  • this is an abridgment of the original million+ words, and they kept the juicy bits in and cut some of the details about his day at work.

By the time we get to 1665, I was pretty done with the constant description of his interactions with bosoms and was relieved that he started talking about the Great Plague of London instead.

The fastest way to find the sex passages is to search for the phrase “God forgive me,” which basically always means the rest of the sentence is him trying to figure out how to get it on with his servants, his friends’ servants, his friends’ wives, or random strangers.

“God forgive me, I was sorry to hear that Sir W. Pen’s maid Betty was gone away yesterday, for I was in hopes to have had a bout with her before she had gone, she being very pretty. I had also a mind to my own wench, but I dare not for fear she should prove honest and refuse and then tell my wife.”

One of the rare bosom-themed passages in which he does not ask God’s forgiveness, apparently because it was the fault of the Mrs. Penington involved:

“she willingly suffered me to put my hand in her bosom very wantonly, and keep it there long. Which methought was very strange, and I looked upon myself as a man mightily deceived in a lady, for I could not have thought she could have suffered it, by her former discourse with me; so modest she seemed and I know not what.” Poor Sam, so deceived.

Maybe the nerviest episode is where he tries to grope a woman in church, she threatens to stab him, and he just moves on and tries another woman in the next pew instead:

“I walked towards White Hall, but, being wearied, turned into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design. And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me, and she on me; and I did go about to take her by the hand, which she suffered a little and then withdrew. So the sermon ended, and the church broke up, and my amours ended also.”

(Through the 1910s, hatpins were used for a similar purpose.)


Another (literally) striking aspect of the diary is the casual attitude toward physical violence. He routinely complains about injuring himself while beating his employees.

“I sent my boy home for some papers, where, he staying longer than I would have him, and being vexed at the business and to be kept from my fellows in the office longer than was fit, I become angry, and boxed my boy when he came, that I do hurt my thumb so much, that I was not able to stir all the day after, and in great pain.”

“I bade  Will get me a rod, and he and I called the boy up to one of the upper rooms of the Comptroller’s house towards the garden, and there I reckoned all his faults, and whipped him soundly, but the rods were so small that I fear they did not much hurt to him, but only to my arm, which I am already, within a quarter of an hour, not able to stir almost.”

He has a similar approach to his wife. After giving her a black eye, he does admit to being “vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it.” It’s unclear how much of the vexation is due to the black eye and how much is due to the servants noticing.

He married her when he was 22 and she was 14. In the early years, he discusses the pleasant times they have talking, singing, walking, and “sporting.” As time goes on he more often complains about her requests for money.

At one point she gives him a letter asking for him to hire her a female companion so she won’t be so lonely during the day while he’s gone (working/drinking/wenching). He burns the first copy without reading it. When she reads him a second copy, he’s afraid it will become an embarrassment to him. What’s a husband to do? Destroy her documents:

“She now read it, and it was so piquant, and wrote in English, and most of it true, of the retiredness of her life, and how unpleasant it was; that being wrote in English, and so in danger of being met with and read by others, I was vexed at it, and desired her and then commanded her to tear it. When she desired to be excused it, I forced it from her, and tore it, and withal took her other bundle of papers from her, and leapt out of the bed and in my shirt clapped them into the pocket of my breeches, that she might not get them from me, and having got on my stockings and breeches and gown, I pulled them out one by one and tore them all before her face, though it went against my heart to do it, she crying and desiring me not to do it, but such was my passion and trouble to see the letters of my love to her . . . to be joyned with a paper of so much disgrace to me and dishonour, if it should have been found by any body.”

“Though it went against my heart to do it.” Why do it, then? Just the kind of stupid prideful argument most of us have had, taken too far? Or to be sure she knows her place? Much more on the scene here.

The scene reminded me of literature-class debates about The Taming of the Shrew. Surely Shakespeare didn’t really mean the happy ending (Katherina abandons her pride and submits to her husband’s every whim) unironically? He wasn’t really celebrating the breaking of a woman’s will, was he? After reading this passage, written about 70 years after The Taming of the Shrew, I find it a lot more likely that the answer is no. A 17th-century audience may have just found this good comedy.


I worked in a jail, right? I’ve heard people talk about bad stuff they’ve done.

What feels disturbing about this one is that he feels like part of my tribe. He’s super into books and playing the flute. He gets all excited about practicing his multiplication tables when he realizes it will help him find errors in the books at work. This is the kind of person I might well have been friends with.


I come away with both a sense of disappointment about human nature (this is how powerful people treat less powerful people if they can get away with it) and also a sense of progress.

If it’s no longer acceptable in developed countries to beat your employees until your arm is sore, if destroying someone else’s documents is now considered abuse rather than a husband’s right— maybe there’s hope.

One of the main reasons animal advocacy doesn’t appeal to me at an intuitive level is a sense that the power imbalance here is eternal and intractable. The economic change involved would be staggering. To teach my children that animals are not there for us to use would require a lot more critical reading of most of our books. (“Why is there a pig on Old MacDonald’s farm?”) In short, it wouldn’t be easy.

But the idea that Pepys’ wife could earn her own money or choose her own friends was likewise unthinkable to him in 1663. A lot has changed, and it wasn’t easy.

Maybe someday my meals will seem as archaic and barbaric as the dinners Pepys describes:
“a dish of marrow bones; a leg of mutton; a loin of veal; a dish of fowl, three pullets, and two dozen of larks all in a dish; a great tart, a neat’s tongue, a dish of anchovies; a dish of prawns and cheese.” I’m not sure what would need to change, but it seems less impossible than it used to.