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The Art of the Juggle

Playwright Maria Zacarias has two roles: She's mom to three children under the age of 8 and she's a well-respected playwright in Washington, D.C. In a story in The Washington Post Weekend section today, she answers a question I often see asked: How do you do it?

When Zacarias became unexpectedly pregnant with her third child, she thought that her creative work part of her life would get shelved. But then, an opportunity too good to pass up came along. And so, she and her husband had a good, old-fashioned heart-to-heart.

"We sat down and reevaluated what we needed in our life and what we didn't. And we didn't let the tail wag the dog," she told reporter Ellen McCarthy. "We restructured our whole life, and we let go of certain things." Gone were community activism desires, school volunteerism and a perfectly kept house. The only roles she would take on would be playwright and mother. And they'd hire a babysitter three times a week.

Zacarias is far from special in figuring out how to manage work and motherhood. Some of us cut back to 80 percent to get that fifth day off (and yes, for many, that means working full-time but on our OWN schedule). Some of us cut back farther, telecommuting while the kids are in school. Some of us become entrepreneurs to control our time. Some of us freelance. Some of us work to figure out how to work with the kids underfoot. In the end, all of us make choices, knowing that much as we might want it all, having it all isn't always realism.

In honor of Mother's Day on Sunday, let's all share how we do it, dads included. How do you juggle your multiple roles? How did you come to your decision? How's it working out for you and your family? What lessons do you have for others just trying to sort out their own juggle?

Happy Mother's Day everyone!

Update: Several commenters have requested stories from parents in less flexible professions to talk about the juggle. If you're a lawyer, doctor, engineer or work in a profession with deadlines to meet and clients to please, e-mail me at I'd love to hear and write about your struggles and solutions.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  May 8, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Work/Life Balance
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I dealt with it by choosing not to juggle at all, at least at first. It's been fun (the best time of my life, so far), but now I'm gearing up to go back to work. I'm interested to see how others have handled the transition.

Posted by: newsahm | May 8, 2009 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Ok, I'm sure I'll get slammed for this, but- how is it difficult to "juggle" being a playwright and a parent? Although it takes talent, skill, and (uninterrupted) time to write a play, you don't have to do it on a particular schedule or in a particular place. It's not like being required to be at an office or other job site from x in the morning to y in the evening.
I think that generally, when journalists write articles about work-family balance, they rely way too much on people like this who have jobs that are super-flexible anyway. "Freelance writers" are overrepresented in these pieces. Maybe it's just because journalists tend to know a lot of writers? Anyway, consider this a plea for profiles of people in more realistic situations in articles like this.

Posted by: bubba777 | May 8, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

I understand and relate to the argument that work-life balance articles often look at parents who actually have more flexibility than others (writers, freelancers, etc). I read "The Mommy Wars" recently and was struck by that very thought.

But - I also take exception to the phrase "how hard is it" and the judgmental factor that so often comes into play in these kinds of debates. It's not productive and it's not helpful.

I work full time, have a two year old, another on the way in August and a husband who works full time. It's not easy and it's about to get a lot harder. :) I take a couple of different approaches:

- Talking to friends (and even parents I've just met!) about what works for THEM and how they've arrived at solutions. I look for what might be applicable to our family and we try new things out accordingly. I've come across a number of great resources this way - babysitters, Let's Dish, easy dinner recipies,, and a general healthy dose of "just try not to worry when you totally forget it was your kid's picture day at school and you sent them out in raggedy hand me downs - who cares and everyone will get over it."

- Making certain choices. Like others, we've examined how we spend and we find ways to save and to be prepared to make new choices if the old ones don't work anymore. For example, I left the private sector in January to join an association that has made a WORLD of difference in my ability to balance things.

- Making time for ourselves. I know this isn't always an option, so I appreciate that we have it, but being a two parent household, we take a strong divide and conquer approach to many things. For example, we both benefit strongly from having one morning a week to sleep in and have time to ourselves. So every Saturday, my husband wakes up with our daughter, carts her off to the Y for gymnastics and then they go to the grocery store together to buy weekly groceries. We "switch" at 10 and I take over to give him a break until she goes down for a nap. Then on Sundays, I get up with her and take her to Costco/Target and the park or something and again, we switch at 10. The afternoons are reserved for family time and activities. It's a schedule that will have to shift a little with number two, but I'm confident we'll get back into a routine. Having a little time to myself each week (that I know I can count on having) makes a big difference in my sanity level.

So - just some thoughts from one working mom. I'll look forward to reading other comments!

Posted by: stephs98 | May 8, 2009 8:47 AM | Report abuse

"let's all share how we do it, dads included."

Okay...I go to work at an office. My wife stays home with the kids. That is how we do it. She's a little bored. I miss the kids a little. We're not rich. We're not poor. We're pretty happy. If she gets a lot bored, or I start to miss out on a lot of the kids' stuff, we'll try something else. No drama. Just life.

Posted by: 06902 | May 8, 2009 8:54 AM | Report abuse

stephs, we do the same thing on the weekends -- and you can keep it up with two, it just will change some. When we added no. 2, all of that early AM chore stuff went out the window for a while, replaced by cartoons and napping on couch. Now that they're older, my oldest has karate and I have a Sat AM gym class, so our AM time only lasts until 8 instead of 10. But boy, even that extra two hours makes all the difference (my kids are crack-of-dawn annoying).

Big-picture: we juggle the two careers. I am a lawyer at 80%; he's an engineer in a regular job. I get a fair bit of flexibility, but also have to be flexible myself whenever clients need me. I traded off salary and the pursuit of power (which was never my thing anyway) to be able to have dinners, evenings, and weekends with my kids. He has more regular hours, but when he needs to get extra work done, he does it at home at night after the kids go to bed.

We split kid logistics pretty evenly. Normal is he does dropoff, I do pickup. We chose to live very close to my mother, who loves to do dropoff or pickup one or two days a week when her schedule allows (since she has two jobs!). We also live very close to our jobs (he has a 10-15 minute commute, mine is 15-25); I have to go into the city (Baltimore, not DC), but I work the early shift to avoid traffic as much as possible.

We've given up on things that don't matter as much to us. Our kids are never going to have 6 extracurricular activities. The house is never going to be on the cover of a magazine. At this point, we're not very active in many civic/community groups. I don't get to the gym nearly as much as I'd like to. What does matter to me is having a fairly regular, predictable life for my kids -- snacks and playtime for kids before dinner, I make dinner just about every night, we all sit around the table and eat together, then homework, a cartoon, sometimes bath, and bedtime.

Oh: and we have a cleaning service come every couple of weeks, and lawn guys do the basic mowing. That frees up at least half a day every weekend for us to have fun with the kids, or do other chores that need to be done. I also try to get the groceries done on a weeknight on my way to pick up the kids, so, again, we don't have to spend valuable weekend time on that.

Posted by: laura33 | May 8, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Bubba - all the "work/life/balance/juggle" stories seem to involve people who have very flexible jobs - writers, freelancers, consultants, etc. It would be nice to see some of these articles include people who actually work full time jobs in an office every day.

As for how we do it, my wife and I are fortunate that our employers give us a little flexibility in our hours, plus we live in Denver which runs on an early schedule anyway. So we each go in early two days a week so we can pick the kids up from school at 3:30. Wednesdays are early release days at 2:10 so they go to the after school program. They go to the before school program every day, but it's cheaper than the after school program. And this way we can get them to after school activities. We also have short commutes (mine is less than 10 minutes) which helps a ton.

We have someone come to clean every other week - we tried doing it ourselves and it never got done. I mow the lawn but we have a small yard so it only takes a half hour.

The bottom line is you just do what needs to be done.

Posted by: dennis5 | May 8, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Laura, I think we're a lot alike. :) We split pick up and drop off duties, too. And live close to both places of work and day care is close to home so it's been really nice. Thanks for the feedback on making two work - I really appreciate it. I'm grateful that number two is on the way, but I'll admit to having moments of trepidation at times about how it will all work.

Posted by: stephs98 | May 8, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

we've done almost all. I have been home with the kids, we've both been working. It's tough, no matter what.
Now, one of us will be working, we're just not sure which one yet. We're both looking...we'll see what happens.
I know people just 'do it.' But when we were both working, we had either a nanny or an au pair and it was still TOUGH. For those of you who don't have, I'm not sure I could've done it. We've both had not so long commutes...and still it's all tough.
Of course, now I'm sitting here commenting. But seriously, I'm 'working' til late in the evening, anyway. (and I have a phone interview in an hour).

Having kids is tough. Doing all that needs to be done is tough. You can't have everything, and not all at once. but we all try to do what we can.

Anyway, if I end up going back to work and DH stays home...we'll see how it all works out...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 8, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Thankfully, those days are (mostly) behind us with the youngest now being 12. But back in the day, we split duties like many of the other posters did. I was the early person, getting up, getting the kids' breakfasts, etc. DW woke up later and did drop-offs; I picked up (minimizing the time the kids spent in day care).

Later, we had au pairs for three years. You'd be surprised how much easier that can make things - you don't have to worry about getting the kids up/fed/out the door with you in the morning. And with three or more young kids, it can be a lot cheaper than day care.

Last point - all of you talking about handling things with one or even two kids. Once you have more than two, you're outnumbered. No more man-to-man defenses for you; you're permanently playing a zone. The third one really does make things a LOT different. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 8, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Yeah Bubba! When I start reading these "balance" articles I'm always hoping to hear something from somebody with a real job, but usually its the freelance writer, the artist, the beleagered at-home web designer. Enough with the articles about people with work they make up for themselves! I'd just like to hear, for once, from somebody who works from 9 to 5 and has a boss, not because I resent the freelancers (I love my job), but simply because that's the situation that most of us are in...

During the week my husband and I each cook dinner only once, but we make enough for leftovers. Then there's take-out, usually on Friday or Thursday when our energy is running low. Like Denis, we have basically have no commute. Living within walking distance to work is the biggest thing we have done to make our lives more enjoyable. It's worth paying a little extra and giving up some space for. We usually alternate doing 1-2 hours of chores every night so we don't have to spend the entire weekend catching up. Shopping on the web, or picking things up during lunch time helps alot too.

Posted by: pinkoleander | May 8, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Folks: I hear what you're saying about jobs with deadlines, clients and huge demands and as I wrote in the blog update, encourage you to send folks who seem to have figured it out in your professions to me for an interview. But one caution here is that unless any of us is a playwright, we don't know the deadlines and demands that Zacarias faces. The way I read the Weekend article, she's involved in plays through the production cycle. So, there are deadlines there. One piece of advice from how she approached her life seems to be a great starting point for anyone: She sat down with her partner and had a really good talk about what was important to her and what wasn't. Then, they made hard choices.

Posted by: Stacey Garfinkle | May 8, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Add some pets and this gets to be even more fun... One of us walks the dog every night while the other gives our daughter a bath.

Altmom doesn't know how the nanny-less parents survive. You just have to work out a system, and you have to be a team. The people I worry about are the single parents, the ones that figure out how to do it right are some of the toughest people I know.

Posted by: pinkoleander | May 8, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Stacey's post and it speaks to my initial point well - you can't know the real difficulties and struggles ANY parent faces unless you ARE that person or at the very least, unless you are involved in a very similar situation work- and family-wise.

That said, I'll look forward to reading more about families where parents work in different kinds of positions (ones that involve bosses, revenue pressures, client pressures, etc). Although I have to admit, I wonder who'll be brave enough to step up to the plate there... several profiled parents have gotten slammed in the past!

Posted by: stephs98 | May 8, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I’m a mom of four ages 6 and under. My husband and I decided after #1 that we didn’t want any of them in daycare. Nothing against anyone that does, that’s just our personal preference. I work full-time in D.C. and have a two-hour commute (yes, really). I arrive at work by 6:00 and leave at 3:00 (I stay a little later on days my husband is off to build up extra time). My husband works a night shift that gets him home at about 1:00 a.m. So he gets up with the kids, does the whole morning routine, and gets the oldest two off to school. He’s home with the younger two all day, picking up our DD from pre-k at lunch time and then getting DS off the school bus at 4:00. I arrive home shortly after 5:00 and handle dinner, homework, play time, baths, story time, and bed time. My husband works Saturday, so that’s my day out with the kids. We usually have a baseball or football game for oldest DS, then we do a grocery run, and go home to play. Sunday is the day we’re all together. Housework is completed during naptime by my husband or by me once all the kids are in bed.

We chose to move out to where we live before #3 was born. Before that, I had a 30 minute commute, my husband had a 5 minute commute, but we hated where we lived and couldn’t afford much better. Our income has increased significantly since, but housing is cheaper in our current location and our kids are in our own care, so we’re able to live comfortably within our means. We love our house, neighborhood, school, etc now, none of which we could have said before. We get pretty tired sometimes and certainly look forward to the weekend, but we’re really happy with our arrangement and it works well for us.

Posted by: MEALmama | May 8, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of different work conditions… my husband is a federal firefighter and works 48 hours at a time (they let him sleep and have down time but he has to do it all at work and respond to emergencies when they arise). This leaves all of the care of the kids, two under two by the way, to me while he is at work. This is tough with my nearly 40 mile commute from the BWI are to Bethesda when I have to drop off the kids and also pick them up from daycare. The plus side is he has two to three days at home in between shifts and allows us to have a reduced daycare schedule of 3 days per week. He can also pick up the kids from daycare on his days off. This allows me to work longer those days. Luckily I have a flexible work schedule (and a great boss) but since he does not, I mostly end up dealing with sick kids and day care issues. It is tough. I don’t get much time to myself and I am constantly running late, but isn’t this true of all parents? I get a bit of a break when my husband is home and he can help with bed time for our oldest and I can feed the baby, but we let the housework slide a bit and dinners are definitely not fancy, we’re lucky if we can all eat at the same time. Yes, I know the family meal is really important, unfortunately this is one thing that is very difficult to coordinate with a toddler bedtime of 6:30 and the evening commute from hell. In addition, my husband does most of the shopping and I tend to shop online rather than take weekend time to do it. So far it works for us… It gets a bit much for me at times but I have found that it only gets worse if I don’t address the issue and ask for more help/time to my self. My husband asked what I wanted for mother’s day and I answered, “Some down time.” Whoever said, “you just do it” is so right. No matter what, you figure out a way to make it work when it comes to your kids.

Posted by: firemom35 | May 8, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

pinkoleander: totally in agreement.
My husband got home from work yesterday then had a 2 hr phone interview. So basically, we didn't see him til after I put the kids to bed. So, seriously, I was thinking most of the time: how do people do this every day. I could have picked something slightly more simple for dinner, but i enjoy the cooking and giving my kids healthy dinners.
So, if I'm exhausted all the time (and, I'm a SAHM! - but when I was working, same thing) - so when people have to do things and give more of themselves, I do look at them with awe.
Or my grandmother, who lost her husband when she was young (and who worked since she was 8, anyway, to support her family) - and had to take care of two young children. she would work 40-60 hours a week - 6 days a week, at least, and then she would come home and cook elaborate meals for them. no convenience foods in the supermarket then. Amazing.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 8, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Yep, joining the "just do it" camp, and really strongly agree that partners have to talk to each other and be willing to help each other out. I'm the work-in-an-office parent, and DH is the SAHP - 17 years 3 and a half months, and counting.

I have a really great employer with a lot of flexibility and support for families/parents. Most of my coworkers come in later than I do, and/or work from home, which I don't like to do. I'm the person who is in the office every morning at 7:30, and leaves at 4:30 promptly, but in between those hours, everyone knows that I'll answer the phones and emails with the corrent answers, research a customer's latest snafu and keep after everyone until it's fix, read every word in the tedious business documents and thoroughly critique the unworkable designs! and know when and where to reach others on our team if I need their expertise.

So, when I needed to go pick up a sick kid from school at 11:30am a couple of weeks ago (DH was volunteering at the elementary school younger son attended last year, so they couldn't reach him) I sent a two sentence email to my manager and coworkers, checked that I hadn't left my cellphone behind or turned off, and walked out of my cubicle for the day. When I got back to work (several days later, because I got sick just a few hours behind the kid), there was an email from the boss saying basically, "go take care of your kid," and that's what I'd expected when I hit the front door of the building on my way out. That's the company's formal policy too - employees need to have their family life working well so they can focus on their jobs when we're working. If there's a problem at home that I need to solve, I go, and my coworkers will back me up. Informally we would all do the same for each other whenever we need it.

Really, having a great employer and great coworkers has been the key for us. And my definition of a great employer is one that recognizes and values talent, and gives their talent what's needed to keep us happy. Didn't I already say 17 years and counting?

Posted by: SueMc | May 8, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Hi everyone! You guys have left some great comments about how you juggle, but what about exercise? Do you? If so, how often and how much? Exercise is a HUGE part of my life and always will be. It's one of those things I refuse to give up if I have kids, so I'd like to know how you get it done. Thanks!

Posted by: Monagatuna | May 8, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Hey Mona. Answer is not as much as I'd like. When I was out west, working hourly, I had a great system going: my daughter went to daycare at the JCC, where they also had a gym, and because my clients and bosses were east coast, my phone stopped ringing most days by 3 or 4. So I'd head out, hit the gym, and pick her up.

Now, with 2 pretty much full-time jobs and two offices, that's one of the things that gives. I do one 6 AM morning at the gym during the week (so I can still be done and on the road at usual time) and one Sat. AM class regularly; when I'm not feeling lazy, I also do a long (for me) run on Sunday. But a lot of that is just me -- I work out because I know I should moreso than because I really, really enjoy it. So I tend to make excuses more than I make time for it. Truly, if it were a higher priority for me, I could find time -- my kids do go to bed at 8, after all, and the world probably wouldn't end if I had to leave later and fight traffic some mornings.

Posted by: laura33 | May 8, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm the typical downtown desk jockey. I wake up around 3:30 for an hour or so of "me" time, then get ready and leave for work at 6:00. After taking a bus 2 trains and a 3 block hike, I arrive at the office around 7:30. Then it's work, gym for lunch, work, 2 more trains and a bus which amounts to a 1.5 hour commute to get home around 5:30.

After I get home, I've got about an hour of recapping the events of the day , figuring out what to do for dinner, and finding out what is expected of me from all the kids' activities before my wife leaves to do her nursing job. She works evenings, every other weekend and most holidays.

From evening till bedtime, it's management of 4 kids from ages 6 through 17 and a dog that needs to be walked. (The cats can take care of themselves.) Sometimes there are addons (kid's friends) over, sometimes there are chores/projects/social obligations to be done, and sometimes I get to relax in the master's chair.

Round about 9:00, it's time to start the bedtime routine - lights out, media off. I try to encourage the 6 year old to hit the sack before 10 if I'm not yet asleep myself. The older ones can figure out when to go to bed on their own.

Wife gets home around midnight, and takes a few hours to unwind before crawling into bed. We may get 2 hours of sleep time together before it's time for me to get up and do it all over again.

So some people think I have a tough life. Hahaha! No problem - I can do it with my eyes closed!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | May 8, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

mona: this has completely been the hard part. I decided I can do 20 mins in the AM and 20 mins in the PM and that's my committment to me. We have a wii fit that I've been using (but, hey, I've been up and down the stairs in the last 30 minutes about 100 times trying to keep a tantruming preschooler in his room...). Sometimes I can't (meeting in the evening, didn't get sleep the night before, up with a sick kid) - but having that in place for ME works (and, once I'm there, 20 becomes 30 typically and more if I can do it and more if I haven't been working out in a while). I just try to fit it in. We take walks with the kids whenever we can, we have started to get them out bike riding - so soon hopefully we'll all four be bike riding with them. It's NOT easy, but, again, something has to give.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 8, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

15 minutes walking to the carpool pick-up in the mornings. Another 20 minutes walking from the drop-off to my office. Going home on the bus in the evenings, I have the same two short walks in reverse. It adds up to more than an hour of walking per day.

On the week ends I garden (got my tomatoes and basil seedlings in the ground last week end). And I drag DH and the boys out for hikes in the regional parks whenever I can. Since we live in Oakland, hiking in the parks is pretty much a year-round activity.

Posted by: SueMc | May 8, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

It takes teamwork. Both parents work full-time. One child is in part-time preschool; the other is in elem. school, so we have a nanny Mon.-Fri. I wish we had family close by, but we don't so at times, we enlist the help of friends and neighbors, and they do the same.

My husband manages a staff, and works close to home. I am not in a management position, and I have up to an hour commute (you never know with metro these days). At times, both of our jobs can require additional work at night or on the weekends. We try really hard to work when it doesn't affect our family time -- that is, after the kids have gone to bed or early in the morning before they wake up. We also both do a little extra outside of work and family. He teaches Sunday School. I am an officer of an alumni association and am working with the school and students on various projects. I tend to do the PTA stuff (but only minor things).

Hubby has more family duties at night before I arrive because he relieves the nanny and starts dinner. (When cooking we try to make enough so we can eat it at least twice.) I probably do more than he does after the kids go to bed -- bills, etc. But we work as a team to get it all done, and we are now including the kids more on housework and meal preparation.

It takes a lot of energy, too. When I ventured into parenthood, I wasn't too sure how it was going to work, and I remember being quite worried about how we would manage it all. But we do.

Happy Mother's Day!

The kids can have one extracurricular activity during the school year. During the summer, they can do more, but it usually falls into the nanny's schedule (like swimming lessons).

Posted by: SilverSpringMom1 | May 8, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Hope to offer this kind correction -- the multiple-award-winning playwright whose play Legacy of Light is now onstage at Arena and who is referenced in this article is Karen Zacarias (not Maria).

She is a fantastic woman and a friend of mine and always astonishes with how much she manages to get done in a day!

Posted by: scorm | May 11, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

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