how i get it done

Emily Oster Thinks of Herself As an Expert on Data in Parenting, Not Parenting Itself

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Emily Oster, Ph.D, is an economist at Brown University and the author of two best-selling books on pregnancy and parenting, Expecting Better and Cribsheet, a subject she also explores in her twice-weekly newsletter, ParentData. Her third book, The Family Firm (out August 3), is about parental decision-making in a child’s early school years. During the pandemic, Oster helped launch the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, an effort to collect data around virus transmission in schools and how they were reopening. She also wrote several viral op-eds arguing that the numbers showed in-person schooling to be safe for kids at a time when everyone was Zoom learning but somehow bars and restaurants were open. Here, she talks about triaging her workday, owning her decisions, and why she’s optimistic about the coming school year. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, Jesse, and their children, Penelope and Finn. Here, how she gets it done. 

On her morning routine: 
I have a personal foot alarm [set for 5 a.m.], so I don’t wake my husband up. It goes around my ankle and it vibrates — it’s called the Shake-n-Wake. My husband gets up an hour later, and there’s a sort of Pavlovian thing about the iPhone [alarm] that always woke him up. So several years ago, I moved to the Shake-n-Wake.

I drink coffee, look at my email, sometimes I do a little bit of writing. I make the kids’ and my lunches, and then I go running. [For lunch], the kids typically get a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a container of vegetables, and a cookie. The vegetables are a bit of a farce these days, actually, but I keep trying. I feel like it’s important to try.

The kids get up around seven, and then we have breakfast together. They’re supposed to get their own breakfast, which works better in the summer when there’s more time. Camp doesn’t start until later, so after breakfast there’s some educational enrichment that they practice or violin. In the summer, [mornings] are quite nice because there’s a fair amount of flexibility. There’s actually a lot of time to do stuff and not be stressed out. Providence is the greatest place — the idea that I can walk my kids to camp and then I can walk to my job — it’s a dream.

On starting her workday: 
I will usually sit down, check my inbox, try to triage that, and then figure out what the shape of the day is. Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of meetings and calls and relatively limited blocks of time for more focused work. Sometimes I’ll sort of think about, “Okay, what writing task” — it’s always writing these days — “am I going to try to get done today, and when am I going to slot it in?”

I used to have a more structured work schedule. I think in my ideal world, it would be, “On these days of the week, I work on this task.” Earlier in my career I did more of that, where I worked in blocks of time, or, “We’re gonna sprint on this project,” where we would have some plan in advance. In the current moment, that has gone by the wayside, but I’m always trying to re-create that every week. But in fact, it’s just things coming up and then I have to fix them.

On taking on a new project in the pandemic:
The other big thing is I’m running this COVID school data hub, which we’re trying to pivot into a research project. We’re trying to aggregate all of the information on what mode every school in America was in every week of every month over the 2020–2021 school year so we can figure out who was in school and use that in researching. That’s actually a very big project, where I employ a very large number of people through different grants, and so I spend a lot of my time managing that. I’m terrible at [managing] and I don’t like it at all. This is only able to happen because Clare Halloran — the No. 2 person that I have on this — is extraordinary, and she makes it work. I think one of the things I learned about myself during the pandemic is that I am not actually a very good CEO.

On being optimistic about school in the fall: 
I’m so focused on “How do we get everybody to be in-person at school?” What makes me optimistic about this debate is, although it remains extremely contentious and my Twitter feed is full of the maskers and the anti-maskers and the ventilation people, everyone is working on a baseline of, “Kids are going to school. We’re going to have access to school.” And that is really different from this time last summer. And I think now we’re saying, “Okay, we all agree this is super-important. This is the thing we’re going to try to do, and we’re going to fight about exactly how we’re going to do it, but we’re not going to fight about whether it’s going to happen.”

On being done with work: 
Summer is a little more flexible, and so I’m always home by five, which means leaving by 4:45 or so, because I like hanging out a bit with the kids. I work later than that [in the evenings], but I will try to get to a stopping point. I’ve been trying to think about, “What do I want to be done with at the end of the day?” Then sometimes when I’m done with that, I will be like, “Okay I’m done, I’m gonna go.”

On identifying as a writer:
At this point, I’m a person who writes books. Of course I have a job as a professor, but I’ve perceived my professional identity to have moved more into this writer space. I think of myself as an expert on data in parenting, but I actually do not think of myself as a parenting [expert].

On active decision-making: 
All you can do is try to make the best ex ante decision. You can never know if you made the best ex post decision. Stuff happens. And I think that’s hard because we want to make the decision that’s right, but can’t know if it’s right. And that’s really true about a lot of this COVID stuff. Taking an action feels like I’ve made a choice, and then, if something bad happens, it’s because of this choice. I think there’s a way to reframe this to say that you’re taking an action either way. “Either you get the COVID vaccine or you get COVID” is a little bit of an exaggeration, but you’re either choosing to be vaccinated, or you’re choosing to get COVID, maybe not next week but eventually. It’s similar to a lot of these choices you make around your kids. The choices are choosing day care or choosing to have a nanny [if you’re working]. Those are both active choices which have benefits and risks associated with them and I think if we think about it like that, it may feel a little bit less like one of these choices is something I would blame myself for, if something bad happened.

On deliberate parenting: 
So much of what I suggest that one does in [The Family Firm] seems like it would take a lot of time, but I think that part of what happens when our parenting is reactive rather than deliberate, is that we end up taking more time than we need. And we really just take it in little pieces. Give [the decision] the space that it deserves, but not all the space.

On her evening routine: 
The little one goes to bed at 7:15. The older one stays up for longer, and I hang out with her. I will read to her and then she and I will sort of hang out together while I work, and she reads a book. I’ve been reading her the Philip Pullman Golden Compass trilogy. We’re almost done with the third one. That lasts until 8:30 or 9 when she goes to sleep.

At nine o’clock, I talk to my husband for 45 minutes. We’ll just hang out in the kitchen, empty the dishwasher, and talk to each other. Then I usually read, or sometimes I watch a little bit of TV. You’re not supposed to use screens before bed, but I’m so tired all the time it doesn’t matter. I like a good crappy reality show like Real Housewives. We go to bed at ten.

Emily Oster Had to Collect the Data Herself