The Time Crunch:Finding Time for Your Family AND Your Career


Peter Fraenkel, Ph.D.


 Tom, 36, and Cheryl, 35, were two professionals on the fast track to career success -- and to family disintegration.  Like many dual career couples today, the ever-increasing time demands of their work lives, the hectic pace of deadlines, frequent business trips, the constant barrage of phone calls, faxes, and emails to their home study (and their need to respond), and their mismatched schedules were all taking a toll on their marriage and on the quality of their relationships with their young children -- seven-year-old Trish, and four-year-old Jimmy.  Tom, a vice-president of an investment company, rose at 5:00 a.m. to run, shower, dress, make his daughter’s school lunch sandwich, and gulp a quick cup of coffee before running out to catch the 8:19 train.  Cheryl, head of graphic design for a major advertising firm, rose at 6:30 a.m., woke the kids, showered, dressed and got the kids their breakfast, got Trish to the school bus and drove Jimmy to daycare on her way to work.  Once a day they breathlessly connected by phone to “check in,” but these micro moments of electronic intimacy were invariably cut short by some pressing business matter. 

                Although each day they held out the hope that they’d be able to meet for dinner as a family, these hopes were almost invariably dashed by some last-minute work “emergency.”  Typically, Trish got home by 6:00 p.m. (the babysitter having picked up Jimmy and supervised Trish’s homework), threw dinner together for the kids while reviewing a pile of faxes, got them bathed (the kids, not the faxes) and put them to bed (except Wednesdays, Tom’s one night of  “quality time” with the children, when he took over, giving Cheryl the chance to relax -- time she usually spent catching up on work).  Weekends were spent on errands, shuttling Trish to dance classes and Jimmy to a play group – each parent taking one child and one TO DO list, and spending the days largely apart.  By the time Saturday evening rolled around, they often collapsed into bed, too tired to go out or to take advantage of the fact that they had ended up in bed, awake, at the same time.

                In the last year, busyness had given way to bitterness – often directed at one another.  Cheryl vented frustration at Tom that she had to manage most of the childcare along with holding down a demanding job.  Tom felt betrayed by Cheryl in these moments, as she had encouraged him to accept the promotion that, while greatly increasing his income, had thrust many new responsibilities upon him.  Cheryl countered that she had encouraged him because she knew he’d have been miserable passing up the opportunity, and she’d suffer as a result from his sulking moods; and on and on.  When the children started crying during their fights, Tom and Cheryl decided to seek professional help.

                Sound like a couple you know -- maybe you?  Over the past twenty years, across socioeconomic classes, there has been an increase in time devoted to work and a decline in leisure time, resulting in a time crunch for many families.  This time crunch affects partners' time with each other, and for those who are parents, time with children.  Both single and dual earner couples experience this crunch, but the challenges for dual earner couples may be greatest, what with juggling the multiple demands of two jobs, commuting, childrearing, and commitments to extended family and community.  There are numerous theories and studies that seek to explain the flooding of family life by work.  Some claim that we have become a nation of workaholics, or of people who prefer the social structure of the workplace to our “messier” relationships with our spouses and children.  Other studies point to the decrease in job stability and increase in layoffs (despite the decrease in rates of unemployment) which raises anxiety (especially when we have children to support) and keeps us staying late at the office to prove how indispensable we are.  In fact, a 1992 New York Times survey found 82 percent of workers said they would work longer hours, if needed, to keep their jobs.  Interestingly, although Department of Labor statistics show almost a twofold increase in company flextime programs over this decade, relatively few workers take advantage of these programs.    

                Although some persons use work as an escape from family relationships, the vast majority of working parents find themselves caught between two ways of providing care for their children: insuring stable and adequate financial support, and spending adequate time with them.  For instance, a 1995 national study by the Families and Work Institute found women indicating that their "greatest family concern" was the family not having enough time together -- this despite both men and women defining success at home as having time together with the family.  And when asked if they would elect to spend more time with their children or work to make more money, most woman said they’d work.

                In fact, while both men and women working parents struggle to balance work and family responsibilities, women shoulder the majority of the juggling act.  Women do far more “trip chaining” – executing complex sequences of activities before, during, and after work to keep the family gears moving: shuttling children to and from school, lessons, play dates, and doctors’ appointments; depositing and picking up laundry; shopping, and so on.  And for those couples in the “sandwich generation” -- simultaneously raising children and caring for their own elderly, often infirmed parents -- the female partner typically receives the bulk of the burden.   

                While women do more multitasking, men do more of the business traveling that takes them away from home, often for extended periods.  Although for some, the work may be exciting, and the potential for national or international travel may initially seem a glamorous job perk, so-called Frequent Business Travelers (or F.B.T.s) many soon tire of the grind and accompanying separation from partners and children.  Such travel drastically reduces the amount of time partners have for each other, and also limits or entirely eliminate a sense of temporal regularity or rhythmicity in their lives together -- rhythms of time apart versus together, rhythms of sharing household chores, and so on.  In addition, the transitions of the traveling parent's departures and returns can be extremely stressful for the marriage and for children.
How can parents cope with the pressures of work and career while still nurturing children and sustaining family relationships?  Here are some tips:
Create “sacred times” for you as a couple -- a weekly date (even if you stay home), a morning meditation time, a nightly “decompression” talk about the day’s events (even if only ten to fifteen minutes, and even if you’re physically apart); and so on.  Be creative and be consistent!  Some couples balk at the idea of scheduling intimacy.  These couples suffer from what I call the “myth of spontaneity” -- the notion that even when their lives are completely overscheduled, somehow, they will just find the time to connect.  Typically they don’t, and then blame each other rather than acknowledging their busy lives and being proactive in making intimacy happen.  Even if you’re not spending as much time together as you’d ultimately prefer, knowing you can count on regular sacred times of togetherness can keep you connected while you work to change the balance of work and couple/family time. 

                      Try using Sixty Second Pleasure Points across the day – fun and even sensual activities that a couple can do that last only sixty seconds or less!  A quick massage, sharing a piece of fruit, an embrace, dancing (that’s why they invented pop music – short tunes for busy couples!), and when apart, a quick phone call, or an affectionate, amusing email or fax.

                      If one partner (that is, the woman!) is shouldering more of the little details of family life, sit down together and see if the other partner can take over some of them.  Sometimes small changes in who does what reap significant decreases in stress.

                      Arrange sacred times with the kids as well – but remember, kids can’t handle emotional shorthand as well as adults – they need more time!  The quality of “quality time” greatly diminishes when it’s too short.  Think about doing some mindless chores with the kids while having a conversation -- it’s a great way to teach them skills and responsibilities while connecting.  Many kids don’t like to have adult-like face-to- face conversations anyway!

                      Try to arrange regular family time.  Several studies including ours at the Ackerman Institute show that families highly value having at least one meal together daily, and many pull it off.  Schedule other times that everyone can count on for fun.

                      For both the couple and family times, make sure you turn off the beepers and cell phones, and ignore the phone and fax.  Nothing gets in the way of time together than the erratic interruptions of work dispatches through modern technology!

                      Ultimately, if you wish to have more time from work for family, you may need to think carefully about the financial and career goals you’ve set, and make difficult choices to pare down work.  You may be surprised to find, after some initial grumbling and suspicious (maybe envious!) sidelong glances from your co-workers or boss as you leave only one hour past the supposed end of the workday, that you don’t lose your job!

The key to all these tips is regularity -- creating a rhythm of family life that acknowledges realistic time pressures from work but that prioritizes and fits in time for all the relationships in the family.