Trading Places

by Karen Houppert

Trading Places

Who’ll look after the kids? Many families grapple with some type of trade-off as they work out the answer that’s best for them  — one spouse steps off the career path to stay home full-time, say, or the parents sign on with daycare or hire a babysitter. But an increasing number of couples have a different sort of arrangement, one that allows their kids the advantages of a stay-at-home parent without sacrificing the income and gratification of a career: They work different shifts so that while one parent is on the job, the other is home with the kids. A recent report in the Journal of Marriage and the Family revealed that one in four families in which both parents work includes at least one spouse who’s a shift worker.

For some parents, such split-shifting arises from the type of work they do; others set their hours this way simply because they want to be the ones caring for their children or they can’t afford to live on a single income. Whatever circumstances lead to split-shift parenting, it’s an arrangement that can be as rife with satisfaction as it is with challenges  — as the three families here have discovered.

Karen Houppert is the author of The Curse, a cultural history of menstruation.

Family Values With a Modern Twist

Craig and jenny spring live in Seattle, work in computers and sales, respectively, and are raising two cherub-faced children on a diet of organic food and homeopathic medicine. But their values are decidedly traditional. "We don’t want to let someone else raise the kids," says Jenny, about Jessica, 5, and Riley, 3. "Our feeling is that we’re the best people to do it."

Adds Craig: "Our first child was stillborn. That loss just made stronger our feeling about having one parent at home." When Jenny became pregnant a second time, he says, "One way or another, we were going to figure out a way for one of us to be home."

So after Jessica was born, the Springs split their parenting down the middle of the day, with Craig serving as Daddy-on-duty until 12:30 PM and Jenny assuming her Mommy mantle for the afternoon. That meant both could still have a career  — which was important to them  — and yet also be stay-at-home parents. Jenny, who had quit working briefly when Craig was transferred to Paris (where Jessica was born and the family lived until she was 6 months old), landed a corporate-sales job with a company that allows her to work from home part-time. Craig hunted around his company for a department and manager that used part-time workers.

The first year, the setup brought unexpected job pressures. "It was hard to say, ‘I have only twenty-five hours to work, so the A‘s get done but the B‘s and C‘s don’t,’ " says Jenny. She also discovered she had to hold her ground. "No employer really wants you to work part-time. You’re always being pushed to put in more hours, and I say no a lot."

Today, she starts her workday at 7:30 AM with a cup of tea, walking down the hall from the kitchen to her bedroom/office and shutting the door. She puts in five hours, then comes out at lunchtime to relieve Craig, who hops in the car and buzzes to his office, where he does software development from 1 to 7 PM "Our schedules are pretty tight," says Craig, who notes that the system works smoothly but only if nothing comes up to throw them, like doctor’s appointments or school field trips. (Jessica goes to half-day kindergarten four mornings a week; Riley’s at preschool two mornings per week.)

"How am I going to do this?" Jenny often says, wondering how she can take another hour out of her abbreviated workday to tend to the kids and still get her work done. Another problem with working out of the house: interruptions from the kids, even though they both know they need to knock when the "office" door is closed.

But the most difficult thing for the Springs is dealing with their different parenting styles, which flourish in the absence of the other partner. "We each feel that we know the right way to do things with our kids because we’re both home alone with them so much," Craig says. "That first year, I really thought that I knew best and that he should listen to me," says Jenny. "It was difficult to step back from that and to realize that even though he does it differently, that’s okay."

And then there are the inevitable errors: Though the Springs aim for an informed and efficient midday switch, it doesn’t always happen. "Some days, Riley will get a bath in the morning and another one in the afternoon," Jenny says. While this could be a serious problem with, say, double-dosing the acetaminophen, that’s never happened. A more common scenario? "Both of us forget to give the medicine," she says, laughing.

So is all this juggling and schedule coordinating worth it? Absolutely, say the Springs, who consider their equal involvement in the children’s everyday lives a big plus. "I love having mornings alone with them," Craig says. "And when the kids hurt themselves, they’ll come to me as readily as they’ll go to their mom."

"Working from home has definitely made this arrangement easier," says Jenny. "For example, I nursed both kids on demand until they were toddlers." Her hands-free wireless headset came in handy for breastfeeding then  — now it lets her "attend" conference calls while making her breakfast.

Most important, the Springs say, their kids are growing up happy and confident. Says Jenny: "I honestly don’t think they’ve ever even noticed that our family does things differently."

Parenting on the Fly

While some parents panic when they get caught in a traffic jam, Northwest Airlines flight attendants Kent and Joanne Brost have occasionally found themselves on the other side of the world when it was time to retrieve their two young children from school. "I was in Tokyo when our flight back to Minnesota was canceled," says Kent. "I was an entire day late picking up the kids  — which meant Joanne, who was scheduled to fly out that day, couldn’t."

For the Brosts, all it takes is a little mercurial weather to destroy the house-of-cards schedule they’ve constructed. "An overnight flight delay can wreak havoc, and then we’re on the phone, scrambling to get someone to watch the kids," Kent says.

Parents of 8-year-old Chance and 6-year-old Callie, the Brosts have been working a split shift for seven years. Their prekids schedule was delightful: They’d pull the same shifts, then have long, lazy days off together. When Chance was born, financial constraints and the odd hours they worked made daycare unappealing; now, when they bid for their shifts (choosing which flights they’d like to work) each month, "we bid our month totally opposite," says Kent. He chooses long, three-day international trips, while Joanne opts for short "turnarounds" so she can be back in time for dinner.

In a typical week, "I’ll fly out and be gone, say, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and then take the kids while she flies Thursday, Friday, and Saturday," Kent says. "If we’re lucky, we’ll all spend Sunday together."

The Brosts, who each have a you-do-what-you-gotta-do attitude about split-shift parenting, are frank about its perils and perks. "The kids benefit from the security of knowing one of us is always around, and I get to spend a lot more time with them than if I had a nine-to-five job," Kent says. The arrangement also bends some gender stereotypes. "When they were younger, I’d take them to Mommy-and-me classes and be the only dad there. And when there’s six inches of snow outside and I’m in Tokyo, she’s out there with the snowblower."

The drawbacks: "There’s no time for us as a couple," he says. "And sometimes it’s hard to sympathize with each other because I’ll be coming home from a trip and I’m tired. But she’s been home all this time, and she’s tired."

Joanne echoes the perennial complaint of split-shift parents  — "It’s a lot like being a single parent"  — and says sleep and patience are often in short supply: "You’re working all day and then you’re home taking full responsibility for the kids." Hard as it is now, it was worse when the children were babies. "I cried the entire first year of Callie’s life," she says. "I was overwhelmed from lack of sleep and from going between work and babies, when most of the time there was no one to relieve me."

She’s not sure split-shift parenting is the answer to the problems of modern family life, but she does think it’s a real advantage that the kids are with one of their parents most of the time. "Though my children occasionally said to me when they were younger, ‘Why can’t we go to daycare like everyone else?’"

From Fires to Forgotten Lunches

As the screen door creaks open on a balmy Florida night, three towheaded boys find reasons  — forgotten cough medicine, the noise, a kiss  — to emerge from their beds. The real truth: Mom and Dad have company, and they’re curious.

Dawn and James Wright, parents of 10-year-old Bryan and 8-year-old twins Stephen and David, give each of the boys their moment and then firmly direct them back to bed. This is "grown-up time," a rare and cherished commodity in their home.

Dawn, a firefighter and paramedic, and James, a fire battalion chief and paramedic, have crafted a complex schedule: They’re each on duty for 24 hours and then off for 48. James works one 24-hour shift for the fire department and comes home to work one 24-hour shift as a single parent while Dawn clocks hours, then they have one day together as a family. "It’s hard, but it’s also an opportunity to spend more time raising our kids," says Dawn.

The Wrights have structured their lives this way out of a mutual commitment to their careers. "I don’t think either of us would have been happy giving up our job," says Dawn. "But twenty-four hours is a long time for a baby  — and even a kid  — to spend away from his parents."

Turns out, it’s also a long time for a breastfeeding mother to stay away from her infant. After her six-week maternity leave with Bryan, she returned to the firehouse. "Having to pump over the course of an entire day was awful," she says. "Either I’d be in the bathroom pumping while trying to hear the emergency radio over the noise of the fan and the breast pump, or I’d be out on call and leaking all over the place." She carried all her spare uniforms with her, and once the rescue team got a patient to the hospital, she’d run in and change her shirt. With Bryan, she kept this up for eight months; with the twins, she stopped six weeks after returning to work.

In the early days, sheer physical fatigue was the couple’s biggest challenge. "I remember taking the twins to the beach one day when they were about eighteen months old," says James. "One went straight for the water and the other went straight for the traffic. I couldn’t sit down. It was a disaster." And when the twins were infants and Bryan was a 2-year-old, sleep was often an elusive dream. "For me, the solution was to keep moving," Dawn says, noting that the three boys rarely made it possible for her to nap by snoozing at the same time. "The hardest part was  — and still is  — in the late afternoon," she says, adding that most stay-at-home parents can look forward to some twilight relief at that cranky hour. "At that point, you’ve been up maybe forty-eight hours, but it’s not like Daddy’s coming home."

Now that the kids are older and in school, the Wrights can sometimes catch a few hours of sleep when they come off duty. Their newest battle: keeping tabs on five diverse schedules. To do this, they each carry a small color-coded calendar. Explains James: "I’m a blue day, Dawn’s a green day, red is our day off together." Since they don’t see each other for 48-hour stretches, they compensate by phone. "We call each other a hundred times a day," James says. "And still, homework and notes to school and appointments get forgotten," adds Dawn. "Somehow, we muddle through."

Describing herself and James as extremely unlikely to be nominated Parents of the Year, Dawn discovered very quickly after having the twins that she had to lower her expectations. "It’s easy to get into that mind-set of ‘I have to get that done today,’ " she says. Then the stress creeps in. "This is when you’ve got to stop trying to do too much and throw yourself down on the floor and just listen to what they’re saying about Pokemon." For her, the trade-off is clear: "My kids aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty secure in who they are and they know we love them. They have a lot of stability," she says.

When things get overwhelming, the Wrights have aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, and 15 cousins nearby to pinch-hit, as well as their "terrific" teen babysitter, who helps out after school sometimes and watches the kids once a week so that Dawn and James can have a night alone. "Movies are out because if you sit us down, we fall asleep," Dawn says. "But we’ll have a drink, or go out to dinner, or just go to the grocery store. Believe me, without three kids in tow, that’s a treat!"

"But get this," she says ruefully, after chronicling all the hoops they jump through to make more time for their children. "The kids don’t see it as cool that one of us is always here; they just get mad when we dare to go out together."

James laughs. "Their favorite whine? We never get to go out on a date with you!"