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More on the Juggle

In last week's blog about how playwright Maria Zacarias balances her roles as mother and employee, many of you chimed in wishing that we in the media would talk to someone without flexible schedules, someone who works in an office every day.

So, please welcome Moira, who stepped up to the plate. Moira is a senior consultant with client, business development and supervisory responsibilities with a health policy consulting firm in Falls Church. Her husband is an attorney at the Department of Justice.

Q: Was there ever a question in your mind whether you'd go back to work full-time or not?

A: No. I don't think I'd like staying home full-time with kids -- even if I didn't work for pay, I would be doing things outside the home. (And if I'm going to be spending my time on something, I'd rather get paid!) I'm sure I'd feel less secure if we had only one income, even if I was confident I could get a job if needed. I have been very determined not to be mommy-tracked and have actually been promoted twice, each time within a year of returning from maternity leave, probably because I felt like I had something to prove. I have not requested any modifications to my hours or travel demands; the only change in my work schedule is that I leave by 5 every day.

The only time we really discussed it is when my husband was finishing law school and considering a law firm job. I knew it would be impossible for me to do my job, with the hours and travel, if he was working law firm associate hours (I mean, it would be impossible to do that if we had kids). Ultimately, he decided to work for the government, which would allow him to be home at a reasonable time most nights and be an involved parent, and also allow me to stay in the job I want. His willingness to take less pay/prestige made a big difference in our ability to balance life and work.

What child care arrangements have you used?

Both of my sons went to an in-home day care in our neighborhood until they were toddlers. We were very lucky to find a terrific person, and she was very supportive and flexible, which helped us manage on a day-to-day basis (e.g., if I got hung up at work, I could pick up my son a half-hour late). She also took care of so many details -- she bought the diapers, formula, food, extra clothes -- we could just drop off and pick up the kids and not have to worry about anything. (She was also willing to deal with pumped breastmilk or provide room for me to nurse if I stopped by mid-day. I nursed/pumped until each kid was almost 1.)

We moved the kids to a day care/preschool around age 2, which was less flexible (you have to do pick up by 6) and requires more effort on our part (we have to bring diapers, clean sheets, sunscreen, etc.). We've been very happy with the center, which is near our home and works hard to minimize staff turnover. My older son is in kindergarten in Arlington now and does Extended Day at the school in the afternoons. The many school breaks and teacher work days have been a real pain for us.

Describe your daily schedules in detail.

I get up at 6 and try to get to work by 7, but it's usually more like 7:30. To the extent I can do errands (e.g., bank, dry cleaner, gas) before work, I do. I don't usually see the kids before I leave. If I'm extra busy, I go in earlier. I also bring work home many nights and usually work some on the weekends. This is because I do pickup, and to get to both the day care center and the school in Arlington by 6 I have to leave Falls Church by 5, and it's often hard to wrap everything up before I leave. There is all the usual home stuff when we get home (feed cats, open mail, feed kids, empty dishwasher, start laundry) and I try and get dinner started in time for my husband and me to eat around 7. Together, we get the kids bathed, brushed, and in bed by 8. For a while my son's kindergarten teacher was sending home "homework" (worksheets and reading) and I can tell already that the evening routine will probably get harder as the kids get older.

My husband gets up when the kids do, around 7 a.m. They are out the door by 8:20 to get to the school bus stop at 8:25. He drops the younger one off at daycare then goes to the Metro and to work. He leaves work around 6 and gets home around 6:45 unless there's a problem with the trains. He does kid stuff until they go to bed, and often does household things (finishing the laundry, etc.) after that.

Once in a while I have to work late or he needs to go in early so one person does both drop-off and pickup. It's impossible for that person to get in a full work day (since the bus is not until 8:30 and pick up must be by 6). It gets difficult when one of us is very busy at work and needs to do this more than once a week or so. Because many of our work demands are actually client-driven (or in my husband's situation, case-driven), we have to judge when we say "I have to leave" at our jobs, versus ask our spouse to be the one that says "I have to get in late." At times this has been a source of tension between us, but the demands of our jobs ebb and flow somewhat so it's never been more than a few months at a stretch, and luckily those periods have almost never overlapped between us.

We plan a lot of our shopping to try and minimize the amount of running around we need to do in the evenings and on the weekends so that we can spend time with the kids. I do Let's Dish once a month, which provides a lot of dinners. We order lots of things online (including most clothes) because then we can do it at lunch or late at night instead of making a trip to Target or whatever on the weekend. My hope is that doing all of these things adds up to more family time/downtime for me.

When you think of a typical week, describe in detail your and your husband's roles. What gets done?

We split a lot, which is why our arrangement works. Since he does drop-off he keeps track of all those kinds of routine things (bringing diapers and wipes on Mondays, sending lunch money and permission slips to school). I try and stay on top of periodic things like doctor appointments and new clothes and deposits in the college accounts.

Around the house, we both do regular chores like dishes and laundry and trash as needed (and have a service every other week for the serious cleaning). I try and start dinner most nights, but he is able and willing to cook and does prepare a fair number of meals. I usually do the weekend shopping, but his commute takes him past a grocery store so he does the mid-week runs. It works out -- like any couple we each feel like we're doing everything, but I think we really do share the load.

What doesn't get done?

We do find it's hard to get personal stuff done, or certain kinds of things around the house, so we both end up taking PTO [personal time off] to be able to get haircuts and dentist appointments, do major household projects, etc. We can squeeze little things into the commute and lunchtimes, but have to use vacation for bigger chores, which is annoying because the rest of our vacation is used for teacher work days and kid sick days, so we never have much actual time off. We have also given up almost all of our volunteering and community activities, and neither of us gets in as much exercise as we should. I can't see either of us being on the the PTA or civic association because we just don't have the time or energy. Neither of us spends any time on most of the hobbies or activities we did when we were childless.

What works?

We have both established at work that we are committed to our jobs and our family. I think that helps -- my colleagues know that I will do everything I can to carry my share of the load at work, and if I say I can't, that means I really can't. Having a store of goodwill with my coworkers makes it easier for me to arrange things how I need to. If my husband is light at work, I will make a point of working longer hours or volunteer for last-minute stuff so that another time I can say "no" without blowback. If he's busy, I find a way to get my stuff done at work without dumping on my colleagues. I also find it's helpful to have an external limit to my childcare (I HAVE to get the kids by 6 p.m.) In addition to the cost, one of the reasons I didn't want a nanny or au pair is because I imagine it would be a lot harder to leave the office. Since I have to get the kids at a certain time, people don't expect me to be able to stay late. Finally, we both have chosen to work at places where there are other working, involved parents (both moms and dads). Not being the trailblazer or outlier helps.

What doesn't?

Planning only gets you so far, so I have to let a lot of things go, both at work and at home. When things are extra busy at work, or when one of us has to do a lot of travel, the system breaks down. I notice that when I've been busy for a long time a lot of things will slip, like not noticing that the kids have outgrown their shoes, or that the cat appears to be sick. There are limits to what two people can manage; thinking you can keep taking things on and just find the time is not a good long-term strategy.

For a while my husband worked a "flex" schedule, where he worked longer hours for nine days and took every other Friday off. In theory, he could have done a lot of the things that we take PTO for (haircuts, plumber calls) on those Fridays. However, it didn't really work out that way and with the school bus schedule, he wouldn't be getting home until 7:30 p.m. if he did that now so he switched back to a regular work schedule.

What conversations do you have about managing?

This is the other reason this all works for us -- we discuss everything. We check in a couple of times a day and make most decisions about the kids jointly. We're not super formal about our planning, but we do frequently go over upcoming things (doctor's appointments, parent-teacher conferences, field trips) and figure out who is going to do what so we can each plan around work. It's always stressful when there is a major change in routine, but we eventually work it out.

How do you deal with doctor's appointments and other unexpected things?

Scheduled things are usually split 50/50 (one of us will do the pediatrician appointment and one will do the dentist visit), but sometimes it just depends on who is less busy at work/able to go in late that day. For unexpected things, like sick days and snow days, we try and split the day -- I'll go in early, then come home at lunch and my husband will go in and then work late. We each end up able to work about 4-6 hours, which is better than nothing.

The bigger problem with my job is unexpected travel. My husband usually knows well in advance if he needs to be gone, but I sometimes need to travel on only a day or two's notice. I'm also gone for longer periods -- often three or four days in a row. It's upsetting to the kids and hard on my husband to have to do short days at work plus everything at home. I don't know of a solution to this problem -- I'm in consulting, and we have to travel on short notice when clients ask us to. I remind my husband how much I am compensated to do this job, which helps a little.

About once a year we've had to ask for some outside help -- having a relative (a grandmother) stay for a few days if we both have to travel at the same time, or having a friend pick the kids up if we both are stuck at work. In five years we've only had to do that about three or four times -- in general, we just make it work between us.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  May 13, 2009; 1:00 PM ET  | Category:  Work/Life Balance
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I appreciate Moira's candor. Our work/home life is completely different and I don't think either my husband or I could function in their roles, but that is by choice. Everyone makes their choices and most of the time they make it work, so congrats on making it work, Moira.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 13, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

i agree w/ cheeky and appreciate the honest answers and the way Moira admits it's hard w/out sounding like a whiner.

Although i find the 'daily chores' to be far from overwhelming. Since my wife's accident, i do everything around the house (and like Moira, have the 'real' cleaning done every other week by a service), in addition to taking care of my wife. Rarely is it past 8pm when kids are in bed, we're fed and the household stuff is under control.

i hear so many people lament about 'daily chores' that i can't help but wonder if i'm forgetting to do something??!?

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 13, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Moira eats dinner with her husband at 7-- when do the kids eat? I 'm curious because getting dinner on the table by 6 pm is my goal, but its typically 6:30.

Posted by: captiolhillmom | May 13, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

So much of today's blog has parallels in my life - not exact at all, since DH is a SAHP, and we deal with the extra stressor of a kid with autism - but the parallels are there.

I get called at least a couple of times a day, and sometimes have to call home because I'm going to be late. Last night DH didn't have the chicken thawed early enough, so he couldn't go pick up older son from his after-school drama class because he still had to get dinner together. So, I walked into the house from work, and almost immediately headed out to the car to go get the boy.

Picking up the slack when your partner needs you to (I can't imagine my life working at all without DH).
Having some sort of back-up plan when everything seems to be going sideways at once.
Having a family-friendly work environment, and coworkers who understand life-needs and are willing to share some give-and-take.

Yep, there's parallels even though our specifics are very different.

Posted by: SueMc | May 13, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

i'm up at 6am and on the go until i drop off at day care at 7:45 and at my desk at 8. leave at 5:30, dinner by 6:30, a little time to play after dinner then kids are in bed by 7:20. do chores until 8pm at the latest. if i do 30-minutes of household stuff every day everything stays under control. i do the outdoor stuff (yard, car wash, etc) on the weekends.

i'm pretty happy with our balance - we have a little time in the morning and at night to have a some fun family time and our weekends are free for activities and/or lazy time around the house.

i guess as the kids grow up and have homework, etc it may become busier, but by then they can also do chores to lighten my burden.

all-in-all it works for us.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 13, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

interestingidea, You are probably just more organized than the average bear. We constantly have "chores' and "picking up" to do because we are very haphazard in this area. The key is to do it in smaller doses - 30 min a day or so - but when we get really busy (like last week) the house goes to hell in a handbasket and it takes us a couple days to dig out.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | May 13, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I think people make too big of a deal out of chores and household stuff. You just do a little bit as you go about your day-like if you pass by the laundry area and see a pile of stuff-throw it in the washer. Not like you have to wash by hand everything. And if you notice the floor needs cleaned, clean it.

Posted by: sunflower571 | May 13, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Sunflower, your house has got to be way different than mine. I'll admit to whining too much about chores, but I don't "pass by the laundry area" - it's not on the living floors. I also tend to notice that the floor is dirty when I can't take the time to clean it - during morning rush, or dinner rush when I'm standing on the kitchen floor.
It also doesn't help that I can't do laundry when someone is taking a shower (well, not without cruelty) so times are limited. The timer on the dishwasher is a wonderful thing - I can be out of the house or asleep when it starts using water!
Thanks to the poster for sharing - a nice piece.

Posted by: inBoston | May 13, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Moira, for sharing. One of the things that really scares me about going back to work is how we're going to juggle everything, so it's really nice to see how someone else is doing it.

Posted by: newsahm | May 13, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

don't get me wrong... we have our days too!

spills and accidents and unexpected work and the water heater breaks and the cat is sick and the baby is sick and i have a cold... but those are the times when we let it go and accept that the dishes or laundry might not get done that day.

but overall it's fairly manageable.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 13, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Yes, it's very nice to hear from someone in a family where both spouses work regular hours in an office.

Our juggle is similar except we live on an early schedule. We're out the door at 6:20 (the kids go to before-school care) and home by 4. We throw in some activities during the week and make things work.

We're also both work close to home and have jobs that are fairly flexible if we need to take the kids to the dr. or something.

Posted by: dennis5 | May 13, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

It is good to hear from someone where both spouses work offices hours. My husband and I are both lawyers and it can be very tough to balance. Luckily we have an excellent nanny to help with the kids. It really does take a village.

Posted by: ElaineatLipstickdaily | May 13, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Great blog today - I really enjoyed reading Moira's story and thought there were some great ideas/examples there. We're also a huge fan of Let's Dish and we eat separately from our daughter. Someday she'll catch up but until then, dinner with my husband once she's in bed is one of my favorite things.

Posted by: stephs98 | May 13, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

Stacey, here is your next challenge:

Interview a working parent who doesn't get any sick days.

Posted by: bubba777 | May 14, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Right. The "juggles" I'd really like to hear about are the people working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet who don't have paid sick time and limited vacation time, if any. But these people don't have time to read parenting blogs because they are too busy trying to put food on the table to feed their kids.

My wife's and my juggle is hard, but compared to a lot of people's, it's a piece of cake.

Posted by: dennis5 | May 14, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

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