Beating The Clock

FAMILY-FRIENDLY EMPLOYERS AND changes in public policy can help ease the household-stress overload, but individual ingenuity is still the critical survival skill for two-career families in the 1990s. "There's no such thing as routine parenting anymore," says Bennett L. Leventhal, a child psychiatrist at the University of Chicago and the father of three young children. "We have to be very creative, very innovative and very flexible in order to account for the kids' busy schedules and our busy schedules." Here are some suggestions:

Slow down: Families on the higher end of the income scale have the most options. One spouse can cut back on hours for a few years without too much financial sacrifice. (Remember, a reduced schedule also means savings on child care and commuting.) When her first child was born, Maureen Parton, a San Francisco litigator, switched to a job as an aide to a county supervisor because it offered more flexibility. Now she shares that position with two other women and often works only until mid-afternoon so she can pick up her kids, ages 6 and 3, and ferry them to ballet or soccer. Her husband, Jim, also a lawyer, often gets home too late for dinner, but that hasn't stopped the family from eating one meal a day together. At 7:30 each morning, "we sit down and have 30 minutes for breakfast," says Parton. "You have to take the moments when you can get them."

Bargain for time: In the last decade, hundreds of businesses around the country have responded to the needs of working parents by offering alternatives like job sharing, flexible hours and telecommuting. But many employees, especially fathers, are reluctant to take advantage of these options because they think that putting family before work--even with the boss's OK--will mean a permanent switch to the slow lane. Downsizing has only added to their anxiety.

While these concerns are legitimate, the workplace environment won't improve until employers perceive a "critical mass" of parents demanding change. That movement could start with employees who are secure in their standing, especially the office stars. They can bargain for benefits--for example, unpaid time off during school vacations or a reduced schedule (at a lower pay)--that enable them to be around for the important events in their kids' lives. The more experience employers have with staffers who have successfully balanced professional and personal lives, the more likely they are to extend these benefits to other workers.

Stay flexible: Sometimes parents find that it takes three or even more tries before they find the right answer. There's no one-size-fits-all solution. When she worked for a national trade association based in Florida, Jane Blackman, a 43-year-old single mother, struggled every morning to get her daughter, Holly, ready for day care or school. "There were tears all the way because she didn't want to say goodbye," says Blackman, whose position required her to be on call 24 hours a day. In 1991 Blackman took a nonprofit job in Portland, Ore., because she thought the hours would be more manageable. But soon, she says, "my workdays were getting longer and longer... I was back in the rat race." Last year she finally struck out on her own, starting a business, Creative Possibiliteas, that arranges tea parties for local organizations and corporations. She's not making big bucks, but both mother and daughter say the sacrifice is worth it. A major plus: Blackman is always around when Holly, now 11, gets home from school. Says Holly: "I like my mom just the way she is right now."

Be consistent: Steffen Kraehmer, author of "Quantity Time: Moving Beyond the Quality Time Myth," recommends that parents concentrate on "the three Rs of memory-making--routines, rituals and the ridiculous." The first two can start at mealtime: families should make every effort to eat together at least once a day--with the TV off. Those few minutes give everybody a chance to reconnect. Rituals, which could include everything from formal holiday celebrations to making Wednesday a regular pizza night, give kids the structure they need to feel secure in their identity as part of a family. Establishing these traditions provides kids and parents an opportunity to work together; everyone can be part of the decision-making process.

Celebrate everyday miracles: The "ridiculous" moments are pure serendipity, unscripted adventures that should be cherished and celebrated, because they provide the raw material for what ultimately becomes family legend. Like the time Kraehmer and his son Ryan, then 5, were walking through the orchard of their upstate-New York home. Ryan got stuck in the springtime mud, which he called "100 percent yuck." Six years later, it's still a favorite family story. It wasn't "quality" time in the classic sense. But you had to be there.

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