As I sit here working, my husband is downstairs with the kids watching a Euro 2020 soccer match. It’s not something you’ll hear him talk about because he’s a lawyer—like me—and lawyers are supposed to work all of the time. Sneaking down during a workday isn’t generally favored, even if he spent several hours earlier plugging away at contracts.
We hear a lot about work-life balance, but you can’t understand what that means when you’re just starting out. When I was a young lawyer, my plans for marriage and family were of interest to potential employers. In fact, at my first job interview, I was asked very pointedly whether I intended to get married and have kids (to be fair, I answered yes to both and still got the job).
But it tends to be different for men. My husband isn’t—and wasn’t—asked about kids during job interviews or work events. And while I got used to explaining the need to juggle work with being a mom, I noticed that my husband was never expected to apologize if he needed to leave early or take a day off.
And I used to be secretly jealous of that fact.
But then I realized something: We often don’t ask about dads and parenting, because we’ve decided that it isn’t a priority for them. I think we’ve determined that dads have resolved themselves to working hours on end and missing their kids’ concerts and games. And that’s where we are getting it wrong.
We know that fathers are in the workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor, in 2020, 33 million families, or two-fifths of all families, included children under age 18. At least one parent was employed in 88.5% of families with children, and 59.8% had both parents employed.
In tax-related professions such as law and accounting, men are—compared to women—disproportionately in the higher-paid positions that are typically associated with long hours. By the numbers, men make up about 70% of non-equity partners and 80% of equity partners in law firms, while the AICPA reports that roughly 77% of partners in CPA firms are male.
And, even as the pandemic changed the workforce last year, employed fathers remained more likely to work full time than employed mothers. In 2020, 95.6% of employed fathers worked full time, compared with 79.7% of employed mothers.
I think those numbers help perpetuate the narrative that fathers are content to be the breadwinners, even if the real-world cost means less time at home. But is that an accurate view?
I wanted to hear more about how fatherhood had impacted careers in tax—and vice versa—from those in the profession. So I asked. And clearly, there are a lot of fathers who wanted to be heard. Within hours, I had received dozens of responses—some nearly a page long—from fathers who wanted to share their experiences. I even received an email from a woman who wanted me to know how hard her husband worked to be a good dad.
The overwhelming sentiment? Finding a work-life balance isn’t always easy.
Adam Wolfe, CPA, of Wilson Toellner, in Lake Ozark, Mo., found that a lack of balance is “probably based in a lack of clear expectations.” It’s crucial, he explains, to both set expectations and to work within the expectations of your firm. And, he says, that can change as you and your team get older. One of his partners, he says, has a teen who plays baseball. That partner requires a different schedule than his own calendar managing two children under the age of five.
Tax professionals in all sectors report that they spend long hours at work, experience high levels of stress, and increasingly find it hard to say no to job-related duties. Mix in financial challenges and guilt over managing work with school, sports schedules, and dance recitals, and it can be… a lot.
Kenny Ray, CPA, out of Pinnacle Consulting in Springfield, Mo., writes that he struggles with “never feeling like I’ve devoted enough time to parenting and work.” His son was just three years old when he learned about tax season, labeling it “teason,” a term Kenny’s family still uses sometimes.
One of the main culprits? Jamison Shipman, an assistant accounting professor at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., believes that the pressure of the billable hour for accountants and lawyers significantly adds to the challenge of balancing work and family. “It is hard to express in words,” he says, “how heavy this burden is when you are in it day after day, and year after year.”
These issues have, tax professionals say, gotten worse, not better, during the pandemic. Working from home, especially in families where both parents are working, has been challenging. Parents were tasked with managing childcare, schoolwork, and extracurricular activities from home offices and living rooms—all while taking Zoom calls and working caseloads.
For some, the collision of work and home has been a reckoning, with decisions to scale work hours back. For others, the decision that something had to give was made long before the pandemic began.
Making a switch in job level or to a different size law or accounting firm can have consequences. Partners in public accounting are paid very well, with lower-level associate salaries ranging from 70% to 80% less. Taking a step back can mean less money—and less chance for promotion in the future.
Karl Strube, CPA, of Fresno, Calif., a former Big-Four accountant and father of two, loves tax work, but he didn’t want to sacrifice his family for it. He ultimately decided to go out on his own. He’s learned a lot while running his own firm, including to fire the bad clients sooner and, importantly, “live below your means so that you don’t need every client.”
Andrew Carroll, CPA, also left a regional firm to build his own business, CFO Andrew, in McKinney, Texas. When I asked about regrets, he said simply, “I wish I had done what I did sooner.”
But not every change has to involve switching positions or companies. Mike J. Santo, CPA, of Augusta, Maine, noted that his wife needed his support, and he wanted to spend more time with his son, Rowan, so he adjusted his hours. Like others in his position, he is philosophical about any perception that he’s slowing down, saying that it may take time to find balance. “Your career will still be there,” he says, “but the time and memories you make with your kid won’t be.”
This is a weekly column from Kelly Phillips Erb, the TaxGirl. Erb offers commentary on the latest in tax news, tax law, and tax policy. Look for Erb’s column every week from Bloomberg Tax and follow her on Twitter at @taxgirl.