- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

Nikki Darling-Kuria of Frederick, Md., used to commute a total of three hours every day.

“I would get up at the crack of dawn, drive my daughter to her child care in Gaithersburg and then head down to my office in Bethesda,” Ms. Darling-Kuria says. “At the end of the day, I would rush back to Gaithersburg to pick her up at 6 or 6:30. If there was an accident, or snow, I’d be late.”

Ms. Darling-Kuria did this for two years until she had a “Falling Down” moment, she says, referring to the movie in which a character played by Michael Douglas snaps in an L.A. traffic jam.

“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she says.

Now, her commute is a few steps — from her home’s second floor to the first — as she runs a family child care out of her home.

While a 90-minute, one-way commute is longer than average, many Washington-area residents are no strangers to long commutes, says Phillip Salopek, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau.

The average travel time to work in the Greater Washington area is close to 33 minutes, Mr. Salopek says.

“The commuting experience has gotten longer and more stressful in the past decade,” he says.

While long commutes can take a toll on anyone, parents face extra challenges, says Ms. Darling-Kuria, who also is a spokeswoman for the National Association for Family Child Care, a group that provides support to family child care providers.

“It’s not just about you, but you’re concerned about your family, your children. If you’re late, your kids will get dinner and go to bed late,” she says. ?And if you get stuck in traffic … I remember it was raining and my daughter had been sitting in a wet diaper for two hours.”

While some parents, such as Ms. Darling-Kuria, are able to work from home, others can quit completely to stay home with their children, but many in two-income families are left trying to meet the needs of their children while fitting in longer and longer commutes.

“Each family has to figure out what works best for them,” Ms. Darling-Kuria says. “There are many solutions out there.”

Paula Hayes, who has two children, spends up to 90 minutes in traffic each way. She and her husband, Bob Hayes, live in Warrenton, Va., and work in downtown Washington and Crystal City, respectively.

“The way it worked for us, is we really did it together. Bob would drop off the children at day care in the morning and I would pick them up in the afternoon,” says Mrs. Hayes reflecting back a few years. Her children are now 17 and 20 years old.

“I would get all their things ready the night before — I’d put out clothes and special formula when they were really young,” says Mrs. Hayes, who along with her husband, gets up long before sunrise everyday.

“And in the morning it was quite the production process getting everyone fed and out the door,” adds her husband.

Mrs. Hayes says they divided responsibilities according to their strengths.

“I am organized and Bob is more of a drill sergeant. The kids never gave him any problems in the morning,” she says.

Flexible child care, work

But meeting the needs of the children while fitting in long commutes and work hours goes beyond spouses sharing child care responsibilities, several parents say.

Bill Johnson, whose 10-year-old daughter, Holly, goes to Ms. Darling-Kuria before and after school, says a good, consistent child care provider is also key.

“Having Ms. Nikki has meant the world to us,” Mr. Johnson says. “Holly has been coming since she was 3 years old, and we have a very flexible and personal relationship with Ms. Nikki. If I know I’ll be late — if Route 70 is shut down — I can just call her, and she says, ‘Don’t worry — you’ll get here when you get here,’” says Mr. Johnson, who has a 40-minute commute between Frederick and Hagerstown, where he works.

But while the flexibility is great, he says, it’s not the best part of a family child care.

“The consistency and sense of security and stability are what we value the most,” he says.

Besides, Holly, who is an only child, says she’s very close to Ms. Darling-Kuria’s three children.

“They’re like my siblings,” Holly says.

“Yeah, really annoying siblings,” jokes 8-year-old Will Kuria.

Ms. Darling-Kuria drives Holly and 9-year-old Will Varndell to school in the morning along with her own children. In the afternoon, she picks them up, serves snacks and helps them with homework. She also encourages the children to use her computer for research, and play the piano and guitar.

“I try to encourage learning whenever I get a chance,” she says.

She also promotes physical activity and often takes the children on walks to a nearby park, she says.

In the summer, Holly usually goes to camp with the Kuria children.

“I imagine it’s like having siblings without the hassle,” Ms. Darling-Kuria says.

Families also say that having a flexible employer is important in trying to fit in their children’s needs along with work and commute hours.

“Both Bob and I have had very understanding bosses,” Mrs. Hayes says. “They know we’ll get the work done, which is why they’re flexible.”

The Hayeses say they have left work early many afternoons to catch their children’s lacrosse games.

Employers who provide child care is another solution for commuting parents. Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church — which is on Working Mother magazine’s top 100 companies for working mothers — is one such local employer.

“We have a lot of families who commute from places like Woodbridge and Upper Marlboro, Maryland,” says Beth Brooks, supervisor at Inova Fairfax Hospital Childcare Center.

“People tell us they go to work with ease because we’re here. Knowing they’re just five minutes away from their child means a lot,” says Mrs. Brooks, who speaks from personal experience since her own commute from Bristow, Va., takes about 75 minutes, and her 19-month-old daughter is at the child care center.

The center is open from 5:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Cutting the commute

But even with the most supportive network of friends, family and child care providers, the stress of commuting got to be too much for Donna Waters, a mother of two daughters, 5 and 7 years old, in Bel Air, Md.

“I was feeling stressed out and frustrated every day,” Mrs. Waters says. “The commute was a big part of it.”

Mrs. Waters commuted 60 to 75 minutes, one way, from Bel Air to her job in Owings Mills, Md., every day.

“By the time I got home with the girls, there was just no quality family time,” she says. “We had dinner as late as 8 p.m.”

Quitting wasn’t easy for Mrs. Waters — she says she and her husband consolidated debt and made other financial arrangements — but she says it’s well worth it.

“I feel like I’m a better mother and wife,” she says. “And not having that commute has cut my stress from 10 to 2,” on a scale of 1 to 10, she says.

Jeff Statler of Warrenton, who has two teenage daughters, gave up his commute to Reston a few years ago, initially taking a pay cut.

“It’s amazing, when I stopped commuting, it created an extra three hours each day,” he says.

“Now I can sleep later, I see my kids more in the morning and if there’s a lacrosse game, I’ll be there,” he says. “When I commuted I tried to make it to the games, but I can’t tell you how many times I got there in the second half and my daughter had already played the first half.”

Mr. Statler now works out of an office in downtown Warrenton about six miles from the family’s farm, which sits on 70 acres.

Cathy Myers, executive director of the Family Home Network, a national nonprofit organization that aims to give encouragement and information to at-home mothers and fathers, says commuting often is a factor when a parent decides to leave work and stay at home with the children.

“There’s definitely an impact of commuting on family life,” Mrs. Myers says. “Anything that takes time away from your children — people look at that and make changes.”

She says members of her group say affordability and safety are among the reasons they moved out to the suburbs and in many cases commute into the urban areas, creating communities that are more or less dead during the day when parents go to work and children are in school or day care.

“It may take a village to raise children, but it’s not a village if no one is home,” she says. “I think we have to have an honest discussion about how much time our children need from us.”

Mr. Hayes, however, says he thinks his children, in some respects, have benefited from his and his wife’s long commutes.

“I think it’s taught them to take responsibility, to learn to budget their own time, to be independent,” says Mr. Hayes, whose family lives in a 4,250-square-foot house on more than 2 acres.

Still, he cautions parents of young children who are considering a move out to the country while maintaining in-town work.

“Knowing what I know now, would I still have moved out here? Yeah, I would,” Mr. Hayes says. “But there are trade-offs — it’s beautiful and open out here, but the everyday commute is a consideration. I never thought I’d get up at 5 a.m. to catch a 6 a.m. train.”

His wife gets up at 4:15 a.m.

More info:

Books —

• “Starting in Our Own Backyards: How Working Families Can Build Community and Survive the New Economy,” by Ann Bookman, Routledge, 2004. This book talks about the informal networks, such as relatives, churches and other parents, that families rely on for before- and after-school child care. It also talks about strategies, such as flextime, that parents use to find a balance between work and family life.

• “The Mom Economy: The Mother’s Guide to Getting Family-Friendly Work,” by Elizabeth Wilcox, Penguin Group, 2003. This book aims to guide women on how to negotiate flextime, part-time work and telecommuting with their employer as well as other terms that suit their lifestyles and allow them to meet their families’ needs.

• “Two Jobs, No Life: Learning to Balance Work and Home,” by Peter Marshall, Key Porter Books, 2002. This book offers various strategies for coping with the challenges in the day-to-day life of parents who work outside the home. It includes tips on how to manage time better, redefine gender roles and redesign work, including job-sharing and telecommuting.

Associations —

• Family and Home Network, 9493-C Silver King Court, Fairfax, VA 22031. Phone: 703/352-1072. Web site: www.familyandhome.org. This nonprofit organization offers support and information for stay-at-home mothers and fathers. The group’s Web site has various tips on topics such as how to make the transition from career to staying home with children and living on one income.

• Families and Work Institute, 267 Fifth Ave. Floor 2, New York, NY 10016. Phone: 212/465-2044. Web site: www.familiesandwork.org. This nonprofit group does research on topics such as changes in men’s and women’s involvement in family life, the role of technology in employees’ lives and workplace flexibility.

• Afterschool Alliance, 1616 H St. NW, Washington, DC 20006. Phone: 202/347-1002. Web site: www.afterschoolalliance.org. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to ensuring that all children have access to after-school programs by 2010.

Online —

• Workingmother.com (www.workingmother.com), the Web site for Working Mother magazine, lists the 100 most family-friendly corporations at www.workingmother.com/bestlist.html.

• The U.S. Census Bureau Web site (www.census.gov) provides information on local, regional and national commuting trends. Recent numbers are shown at www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/american_community_survey_acs/004489.html.

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