- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004

Laura Henderson returned from a three-week business trip to East Africa 11 years ago and found her then-1-year-old twin sons, Christopher and Geoffrey, petrified that she was going to leave again.

“They cried every time I left the room,” she says. “The next time they saw a suitcase, they cried.”

Soon after that trip, she decided the amount of international travel required for her job as a regional manager for TechnoServe, a nonprofit international development organization, caused too much strain for her and her family.

“It was extraordinarily difficult,” says Ms. Henderson, of Silver Spring. “I decided I didn’t want a 30 percent travel job. That was too much.”

For parents like Ms. Henderson and her husband, Peter, juggling full-time work and family is a daily struggle. Finding the right balance is the key to maintaining a sense of control, psychologists say.

After leaving TechnoServe, Ms. Henderson worked as an independent consultant, which gave her more flexibility. After three years, she began working for the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), a relief and development organization.

The position requires much less international travel than her job with TechnoServe, she says. However, even without the pressure of frequent travel, taking care of three children and working full time isn’t easy for Ms. Henderson and her husband, who is director of the Board on Higher Education and Workforce for the National Research Council.

Accomplishing everything requires a lot of planning and scheduling, says Ms. Henderson, who also serves on the Montgomery County Commission for Women.

“I do sometimes feel overscheduled,” she says, such as when her friends without children go out after work. “It would be another juggling act for me.”

Instead, Ms. Henderson usually rushes home to pick up her daughter, Julia, 4, at preschool by 6 p.m., before charges for after-care kick in. Most of the time, she doesn’t mind having to stick to a schedule, she says, because it won’t always be necessary.

“I kind of somehow accept that this point in my life is quite scheduled,” Ms. Henderson says.

Balancing work and family is a key issue couples such as the Hendersons confront daily.

The percentage of dual-earning couples increased from 66 percent in 1977 to 78 percent in 2002, according to the National Study of the Changing Workforce, a 2002 study by the National Families and Work Institute based on 3,504 interviews.

The institute, which conducts the study every five years, found couples also worked 10 more hours a week in 2002 than they did in 1977, combining for 91 hours a week.

As parents strive to raise well-rounded children, they often spread themselves and their children too thin, says Ruth Peters, a clinical psychologist, author and contributor to NBC’s “Today” show.

The National Families and Work Institute found that along with the increase in combined weekly work hours, the amount of time married parents spend on child care and activities with their children increased from 5.2 hours per workday in 1977 to 6.2 hours in 2002.

Many parents put in a full day at the office, then spend the evening chauffeuring children from one activity to another, catching up on work while sitting through a karate lesson and grabbing a hamburger for dinner.

“If they’re doing homework in the car every night, if it’s become a steady diet of fast food,” you could be trying to do too much, Mrs. Peters says.

In addition to work, parenting and volunteer responsibilities, more employees also are caring for elderly relatives. According to the National Families and Work Institute’s study, 35 percent of workers say they have cared for a relative or in-law 65 or older in the past year.

While some parents enjoy this type of on-the-go lifestyle, others become overwhelmed and irritable, says psychologist Larry Kubiak, director of psychological services at Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center and president-elect of the Florida Psychological Association.

Bill Levey of Alexandria says sometimes his hectic schedule makes him feel “like everything is going to come crashing down on me.”

In addition to his full-time job as an information technology specialist, Mr. Levey is a Virginia PTA Fairfax District director and PTA president at his daughter Elizabeth’s school, Cameron Elementary in Alexandria. Mr. Levey admits he probably shouldn’t have taken another term as PTA president but says “there was nobody else to do it.”

Determining a schedule that fits an individual’s and a family’s needs helps keep parents from burning out, Mr. Kubiak says.

“Part of dealing with stress is realizing what your boundaries are, what your needs are and the needs of the child,” he says. “If there’s an imbalance, there’s going to be stress. Everyone’s balance is different.”

Finding that crucial equilibrium is far from an exact science. Signs that a schedule needs adjustment include irritability, changes in sleep patterns, difficulty making decisions and constant worrying, Mr. Kubiak says.

You can’t do it all

If you have taken on too much, don’t be afraid to delegate, says Darlene Allen, DC PTA president, noting she learned that lesson after a few sleepless nights.

“Some people believe they’re the only ones who can do it and do it right,” Ms. Allen says. “You have to be able to accept that it’s good enough.”

Mrs. Peters suggests dividing the family’s commitments into categories, such as must-do, which includes work- and health-related items; extraneous activities; and children’s activities. Then decide what obligations to cut.

Another option is listing activities and ranking them based on enjoyment and time commitment.

“If you put it down on paper, it makes it more real, and it makes it more available to discuss with someone else,” Mr. Kubiak says.

Setting limits on a child’s activities also can help parents maintain their sanity, although it may be hard to say no to children when they want to explore a new discipline, Mrs. Peters says. When the Hendersons found their sons’ soccer team required too much time, they switched the boys to a different team. The boys also have expressed interest in other sports, including swimming and hockey, but adding those activities just wasn’t feasible, Mr. Henderson says.

“It’s been our understanding that swim practices were literally every night of the week,” he says. “They’re wasn’t any way to get them there without one of us getting a part-time job.”

Use resources wisely

Parents also should explore other available resources when trying to balance work and family, such as car pools and baby-sitting co-ops. Arrangements like these allow parents to drive or watch other people’s children in exchange for having their own children driven or watched later.

Also, many companies have become more family-friendly, says Jodi Grant, director of work and family programs for the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group. Employees should examine their company’s policies to see if they can use their own sick days to take care of a sick tot or elderly parent. Other options to look for are telecommuting, job-sharing and flexible hours.

“Progressive employers really realize that in order to attract and retain employees, both men and women, increasingly they need to think creatively about work-life balance,” says Ms. Henderson, who worked with her previous employer to develop a new parental leave program.

When seeking a new job, parents should look around the office for pictures of children or colorful children’s drawings, says Ms. Grant, who also serves on the Montgomery County Commission for Women. These are signs that other parents work there and that the office is more likely to accommodate families.

Balancing act

Communication also helps when battling the stresses of work and family life. The Hendersons say they frequently go over their schedules to ensure that both can devote enough time to their careers. If a child gets sick, they decide together who can work from home and postpone commitments for that day.

“It’s never easy managing a full-time job and children,” Ms. Henderson says, “but when both mother and father are constantly sort of working together as a team, that can make it work.”

Planning ahead minimizes stress, Mr. Henderson says. For example, his family cooks meals on the weekends that can be reheated during the week so neither parent is saddled with the task of cooking a last-minute meal after a busy day.

Weekly family meetings also can help prevent unnecessary conflicts.

“Sometimes, if we don’t have some sort of regular mechanism for checking in, then things can slide a bit,” Mr. Kubiak says.

Many successful families, especially those with older children, use an erasable white board to keep track of each family member’s commitments, Mrs. Peters says.

“Everyone writes down what they need, and the kids are responsible for alerting someone that they need to be taken somewhere,” she says.

Nevertheless, no matter how much time parents spend planning, sometimes things just don’t work. Meetings run late, and children get sick, and parents say it often seems as if problems always happen all at once.

“When it rains, it pours. When everything falls through, it falls through at once. Take a deep breath and deal with it like you would any other problem,” Ms. Grant advises.

Balancing work and family “is not easy, but it’s possible.” says Ms. Henderson, who adds that having a schedule to follow is a small compromise. “I’d much rather a life like this. I didn’t want to make a choice between children or work. I’m happy to have this balance.”

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