- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

Cindy McAlister, a Fairfax County police lieutenant, leaves for work by 8 a.m. around the same time her husband, Michael, arrives home.

Michael McAlister, also a lieutenant with the Fairfax County Police Department, will catch some sleep after he drops off the children, ages 2 and 4, at preschool, then continue on dad duty until late afternoon. About 5:30 p.m., the whole family sits down for dinner together. Then Mr. McAlister leaves to work his 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.

This is the kind of juggling that goes on in the homes of 25 million Americans who do not work traditional 9-to-5 schedules, according to U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. Shift work has long been a standard of round-the-clock professions such as hospital workers and public safety officers. However, statistics show the number of Americans working shifts has nearly doubled in the past 15 years as the nation has moved toward a 24-hour retailing, dining and customer-service economy.

Shift work can be tough on a social life and rough on a marriage. But it can also mean more time with children, more time to pursue hobbies, savings on child care and few crowds when shopping off-hours.

"I am so glad we are doing it this way," Mrs. McAlister says. Since her oldest child, Andrew, was born four years ago, the couple has worked a variety of schedules, including both working nights.

"My husband is getting so much more time with the kids than a lot of dads," she says. "We're raising our own children. In police work, there are a lot of outside pressures, but we can make it work better than not having flexibility. The way we have worked it, it is hard as a couple, but better for the kids."

Susan Wilson is a nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital. She is also the mother of four children, ages 6 to 10.

"I always wanted to be a nurse," says Mrs. Wilson, whose husband, Keith, is a boat mechanic and works more traditional hours. "I knew it would be easier to raise kids."

Mrs. Wilson works 12-hour shifts twice a week. She does housework and sleeps while her children are at school. She wakes up at 2 p.m. and is there for homework, after-school activities and dinner.

"I love being off in the daytime," she says. "I don't miss the children's school activities. If somebody is sick and home from school, I am here."

But it is still not a perfect arrangement, Mrs. Wilson says. When her children were babies, she worked a full-time nursing schedule three 12-hour shifts a week, although the days varied. The only real sleep she got was a catnap when the children napped.

"It was hard," she says. "I was sleep-deprived all the time."

Ann, a nurse at Holy Cross Hospital who asked that her last name not be used, also cut back from a full-time schedule to part time when she was expecting the second of her three children.

"I would take care of the baby all day," says Ann, whose husband is a businessman who works 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. "Then I would go to work all night. I was so tired I would be hallucinating. I work in critical care, and I know my quality of nursing went down. You cannot sleep on the job. I never got more than four hours of sleep at a time."

Working shifts requires planning, Ann says. She now works at least two evening shifts a week. She takes the children to her husband's Bethesda office, where they switch cars. He takes her SUV and the children, and is responsible for dinner, baths and bedtime. Ann will call to say goodnight.

Cutting back has been a good compromise for her career and her marriage, Ann says.

"Working full time, I felt I never saw my husband," she says. "The communication was basically not great. I was tired, but we had bills to pay."

Bad for the marriage?

Shift work can be hazardous to a marriage, says Harriet Presser, a sociologist and director of the Center on Population, Gender and Social Inequality at the University of Maryland. In families with children where at least one partner works the midnight shift, the couple is six times more likely to divorce than couples who work traditional hours, she says.

"In one-third of couples with children under 5, at least one spouse is working in the evening," Ms. Presser says. "It is stressful to work late hours and different hours than the rest of the family. It can alter the quality of the marriage."

In her research, Ms. Presser found that husbands were the primary caregivers in nearly all cases when the wife works nights. The benefits of greater involvement of fathers and reduced child-care costs for the family might be offset by long-term costs to the marriage, she stresses.

"Working nonstandard schedules profoundly affects the scheduling and functioning of family life," she says. "Social interaction among family members builds greater bonds, communication and caring. The lack of time for building such connections, combined with the physical stress of working nights or changing schedules can be detrimental to the quality of marital and family life."

Christina and Eddie Rogers, an Arlington couple with two small daughters, tried working opposite shifts as news editors when their first child, Julia, was born three years ago. The plus was, they saved money on child-care costs. The minus: they didn't see much of each other. When they did, it was to fill each other in on details such as when the baby ate and slept.

"It was very frustrating," Mrs. Rogers says. "We would leave each other notes or talk on the phone, but in a deadline-oriented business, it was hard to talk about more than 'What did she eat?' "

With only one parent there at a time, there was no time to relax, Mr. Rogers says. He says he felt like every minute he was with his daughter, he had to focus on what she needed next.

"Julia didn't get to have us both here," Mr. Rogers says. "It was hard to sit and enjoy [being a parent]. It was always about when she needed to be changed."

Eventually, Mr. Rogers got a job that involves primarily daytime hours. Mrs. Rogers now works part time but often at night.

"I really give more power to parents who work shifts," Mrs. Rogers says. "But I wouldn't want to do it [full time] for any length of time. You need time as a family."

Part of the job

In some professions, shift work is simply part of the job description.

When Andrew and Jacque Hoeffler met in nursing school they knew their future would be juggling shift work and family.

It is quite a juggling act these days for the couple, both of whom are nurses at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Andrew's children from a previous marriage, ages 10 and 6, live with them half of the time. The couple is also expecting a baby next month.

The Hoefflers have tried a variety of scheduling arrangements. They have both worked at night and have worked on opposite days with only one day off together.

When you are new to nursing, this is just the way life is, Mrs. Hoeffler says.

"When you become a nurse, you know going in working at a hospital that there are going to be 12-hour shifts," she says. "No one goes in just working days. I became a nurse because I thought if I ever married and had kids, it would be a good career, but I never thought I would marry another nurse."

The Hoefflers recently weighed their options on how to both work and care for the new baby. Mrs. Hoeffler thought about switching to a doctor's office job, but said she "hated the idea of not seeing the baby until night."

So, like many other shift families, Mrs. Hoeffler will switch to an as-needed schedule. She will give up benefits in exchange for a guarantee of three shifts that she can schedule around her husband's hours.

"Family is a big issue for me," she says. "As flexible as our hospital is, it is hard to find balance. It is a different set of things to deal with when you both are working shifts. It can be complicated, but once you get it set up, it works pretty well."

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