The Modern Family: A quest for work-life balance
ETERNAL SEARCH: Finding that work-life balance is the quest of Daniel and Kristi Richard, along with the two children: 3-year old Ellison and 1-year-old Nolan. (Photo by Collin Richie)
It’s well past 10 p.m. on a Monday night and Kristi Richard is still awake—and working.
Not because she isn’t tired. For Kristi and her husband, Daniel, this is life in the modern world of juggling work and raising young children. Like so many other working parents across Baton Rouge, the couple spent the bulk of their day sandwiching office work between shuttling their small children to and from daycare. Then there’s the evening marathon of parenthood: playing with the children outside; grabbing a quick dinner while feeding their two toddlers; plopping the youngsters into the bathtub before wrestling them into pajamas; combing their hair and brushing their teeth; giving 1-year-old Nolan a bottle; reading two books to 3-year-old Ellison and; finally, putting both children to bed. With luck, Nolan and Ellison will fall asleep quickly.
Quiet descends upon the house around 8:30 p.m. Kristi and Daniel finally get a moment to themselves, only to pick up where they left off at work. Kristi, an attorney at McGlinchey Stafford and adjunct LSU instructor, finishes memos and checks email on her laptop, while Daniel, a controller at Louisiana Scrap Metal, works on financial reports in their office alcove.
Scrolling through her inbox, Kristi comes across an interview request for this story. The topic: Stressed working parents. Kristi smiles and fires off a quick response:
“The fact that I’m emailing this at 10:40 on Monday night because I am still working I think speaks to how fun the elusive work-life balance is! Ha.”
Kristi’s late-night reply reveals what most other working mothers and fathers know all too well: Parents today increasingly struggle to find enough time in the day to fit in everything from spreadsheets to diaper runs.
The work-life balance, Kristi mentions, remains as elusive as ever. But now rather than one spouse staying home, many young couples today both work and often choose to delay having children instead—as evidenced by the historically low U.S. birth rates over the last two years.
Family dynamics have changed. In nearly half of all two-parent households today, both parents work full-time jobs, a sharp uptick from previous decades. And parenting roles have shifted in an egalitarian direction, as men and women share more home and childcare duties, which in the past were the mother’s primary responsibility.
What hasn’t changed quite as much, however, are demands outside the home, as studies show most workplaces and schools still operate as if one parent stays home.
“While older generations often had to choose between work and home, younger generations are trying to do both but with a great deal of pressure, especially with workplace expectations,” says LSU sociology professor Heather Rackin. “Companies are changing at a slower rate than partners. If a child has to go to the doctor, many companies are set up under the assumption that someone at home can take care of that. School schedules also do not align with two working parents.”
Young, career-driven couples are catching on. In those crucial early years of their professional lives, they have to consider whether having children at that point in life is the wisest decision. The compromise seems to be to wait, as more people are putting off starting families until later in life, if they even decide to do so at all.
Kristi and Daniel Richard were once those people.
‘WE’RE JUST EXHAUSTED’
The Richards were married 12 years before having their first child. Granted, as high school sweethearts, they wed at 20 years old. But each devoted themselves early on to career aspirations. Daniel earned his accounting degree, followed by an MBA and became a CPA in 2010. Meanwhile, Kristi obtained a dual law-MBA degree before joining a firm with a seven-year membership track.
They didn’t even consider kids until their early 30s, and even then, the idea of starting a family didn’t appeal to them.
“We were set into a lifestyle,” Daniel says. “For years we worked hard trying to make names for ourselves. We had freedom, flexibility, and we could travel. We had a pretty good life at the time.”
Then the unexpected happened. One month after the 32-year-olds decided they weren’t ready for kids, Kristi found out she was pregnant. The news came as such a shock it was difficult to even tell their families, who would be more excited than they were—especially Kristi, who still had career goals to accomplish, like making partner in three years, building her book of business and becoming an expert in her field.
“Kristi, it hit her hard for work,” Daniel says. “She wanted to be an attorney since she was four years old. Having a child was an extreme change for us.”
Everything worked out, of course. After their daughter Ellison was born, they even decided to have a second—a son, Nolan. Kristi still made junior partner in three years, although her path to senior member may be delayed. If anything, Daniel made the most sacrifices. He took another job at a company with stable hours so he could help shuttling kids to daycare and take on other household responsibilities.
Still, the stress and the fatigue working parents talk about, it’s real, and the Richards might know it better than most, because unlike other south Louisiana natives, their extended families don’t live next door. So they must manage, almost exclusively, by themselves.
“You always feel this guilt,” Kristi says. “If I’m at work, I’m not with my kids. But if I’m with my kids, things still need to be done at work. You never feel like you’re giving 100 percent on either side.”
“And we’re just exhausted,” Daniel adds.
This appears to be the case in particular for parents with professional careers. A 2015 Pew study finds the more educated parents are, the more difficult they say it is to balance work and family life. The reason could be that educated people tend to have salaried jobs and work more hours outside the office than do hourly workers.
On the other hand, professional jobs tend to offer more flexibility. That has been a saving grace for the Richard family. Both Kristi and Daniel credit their employers for being understanding when it comes to childcare. It’s one way workplaces have seemed to evolve to accommodate working parents, although not all are so generous.
Where working parents may find less flexibility, however, is in school schedules and extracurriculars as kids get older. When you add homework, school events and sports to the mix, weekly routines get a whole lot busier. And there seems to be growing social pressure to be able to do it all, particularly among mothers.
“Intensive parenting has become the norm,” Rackin, of LSU, says. “It’s the idea that a child needs to be part of all these activities, and parents must put so much time and resources into their children.”
(Photo by Collin Richie)
“In our roles, you’re never really off. We have a limited window of time to spend with our kids and you have to muster up the energy because you’re putting in 40 to 60 hours a week for work.”
DEREK FITCH, with wife, Lauren, and their three children: 6-year-old Beckett, 4-year-old Rivers and 1-year-old Adley.
FIELD TRIPS, LUAUS AND T-BALL
While everyone else is probably eating lunch, Lauren Fitch is picking up her 4-year-old son Rivers from daycare, changing him into a swimsuit and dropping him off at swim lessons before returning to work, as the chief operating officer of Faulk & Winkler.
She then passes the proverbial baton to her husband, Derek, who leaves work at CSRS to pick up Rivers and return him to daycare. Later that day their oldest son, 6-year-old Beckett, has swim lessons as well, but that’s when the grandparents step in. If there’s one major advantage the Fitch family has when it comes to childcare, it’s that their retired parents live in Baton Rouge.
“We rely heavily on grandparents and the village mentality, for sure,” Derek says.
And it’s not just swim lessons. The Fitchs, who are in their mid-30s, have three children, including 1-year-old daughter Adley. Between their two older boys, they have T-ball, coach’s pitch and soccer in the spring, flag football and soccer again in the fall, and basketball in the winter. In the summer, the kids go to several camps, from Kidcam at Our Lady of Mercy, where Beckett is a student, to sports camps.
Then there are events during school hours. Twice in May, Lauren had to be at school during the work day—once for a field trip and then again for an end-of-the-year luau. She couldn’t make “Muffins with Mom” though, so she had her mother-in-law fill in. It’s a lot to keep up with, especially on top of their own work schedules.
“We use the calendar like it’s going out of style,” Derek says.
“We send each other calendar invites,” Lauren adds.
With good communication, a support network (a.k.a. grandparents) and flexible workplaces, the Fitchs make it work. When Derek took his job with CSRS, he says he negotiated not his salary but his hours, which more young parents are doing these days.
They’ve also made lifestyle changes. Happy hour with friends is simply not a thing anymore, Lauren says, and their new circle of friends are parents of their children’s friends.
Also, to keep up with household duties, the Fitchs hired a housekeeper and landscaper. But they admit that even with help and flexibility, having two professional careers is demanding and can make juggling work and family life difficult.
“In our roles, you’re never really off,” Derek says. “We have a limited window of time to spend with our kids and you have to muster up the energy because you’re putting in 40 to 60 hours a week for work.”
The stress of it all is taking a toll on young American families. The 2015 Pew study found 56% of all dual-working parents say balancing work and family is hard, and those who do are more likely to say parenting is tiring and stressful. What’s more, of full-time working parents, 50% of fathers say they feel as if they don’t spend enough time with their children, compared to 39% of mothers. Meanwhile, 59% of working mothers say they don’t have enough leisure time. More than half of working fathers say the same.
(Photo by Collin Richie)
“I know her. I know when to ask, ‘Do you need a break?’ I have to make her go out with friends and have time to just let Tia be Tia.”
BARRY WHITTINGTON, with wife Tia, and their two children: 4-year-old Harper Kyle and 1-year-old Barry III.
CAN YOU HAVE IT ALL?
Barry Whittington Jr. has wanted to be a father his whole life. When he was a kid, and he was asked what he was going to be when he grew up, his answer was a dad. He even had names picked out. His wife Tia says she has evidence of this in an old journal Barry kept in grade school.
Today that childhood dream is his reality. Barry, 33, and Tia, 31, have two children: 4-year-old Harper Kyle and 1-year-old Barry III. Not only that, but as a varsity basketball coach and algebra teacher at East Ascension High School, Barry spends his whole day working with kids. But when his schedule gets hectic during basketball season, he feels like he sometimes misses out on time with his own children.
“We’re both passionate about our careers,” he says of himself and his wife. “But my first passion has always been to be a father. When I’m in season and I get home late and the kids are already asleep, I’m missing the best part of my day.”
On the flipside, his wife spends a majority of her time with their children. Tia owns a boutique in Gonzales, called H. Kyle, after her daughter. In the morning after she drops Harper off at school, she runs errands with her son and then opens her boutique at 11 a.m. By around 2 p.m., her in-laws pick up Barry III and Harper from school. But for most of the day, her 1-year-old is with Tia at her boutique.
“I felt guilty at first when I had to bring him with me to work,” she says. “Do customers think less of me?’”
And it has to be difficult, as one might imagine, for Tia to manage a store with a small child at her side and then go home to the same scenario. She doesn’t say much about it, though her husband can tell when it gets to be too much.
“I know her. I know when to ask, ‘Do you need a break?’” Barry says. “I have to make her go out with friends and have time to just let Tia be Tia.”
Like the Whittingtons, more young parents today are sharing the load of responsibilities, or at least trying to, especially when both work full-time jobs. It’s one way to ease the stress, which could be why more parents are able to both hold professional positions.
Experts say better policies like paid family leave or after-school child care could also help. But the vast majority of parents simply figure out the balancing act on their own, and often with the help of grandparents.
Kristi Richard would simply ask for a pause button. She says professional workplaces haven’t evolved yet to allow for parents to take a break without it derailing their career. When men or women today take a step back from work after having children, it can be difficult for them to pick back up where they left off.
“They often get stuck in a limbo of career uncertainty or immobility,” Kristi says. “I think that’s why many parents who both work feel they must choose to leave professional jobs.”
Kids don’t stay little forever, she says. Parents today don’t want to miss out on that. Should they have to choose between being present for their children or keeping pace on their career trajectory? Kristi believes you can do both. It’s just a matter of reprioritizing your life and your timelines for reaching professional goals. Having children did not derail Kristi’s career, but it did slow her trajectory, and that’s OK.
“We often hear that you can’t have it all,” she says. “I don’t know if I fully agree with that. I think you just can’t have it all, all at one time.”