Best of Scene

The juggling act: Families use creativity, stamina to balance work and home

By: Amy Cockerham
Stephanie (Lund ’95) Miller and her husband, Jeffrey Miller ’93, ’96 are in many ways typical new parents, but they are also a bit of a novelty.

PLU economics professor Lynn Hunnicutt scoops up her 2-year-old son, David, at the end of his day in Trinity Lutheran Church’s day-care program. Hunnicutt said easy access to quality child care – Trinity is less than a block from her office – makes balancing work and family much less stressful.

Stephanie works at Parametrix, an environmental engineering firm in the Northwest. She is writing the environmental impact statement for the beleaguered Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project in Seattle, a project so hotly contested that every word bears close scrutiny for its possible interpretation.

Her husband, Jeffrey, is the assistant principal of North Star Elementary not far from their Puyallup, Wash., home.

The couple, in their mid-30s, has spent the 10 years since they graduated intensely focused on their careers. They recently became parents for the first time. Little Jacob Miller is six months old, and his parents clearly adore him.

The Millers are typical in that they have found a creative way to balance work and parenting, but are atypical in that both have extremely accommodating employers.

Stephanie works about 35 hours per week, 12 of those from home. Jeffrey worked out a 20-hour-per-week flex-time arrangement at his school, and is Jacob’s primary caregiver. During the two or so days when both parents are at work, Jacob goes to the home of a close friend (and fellow PLU alumnus) who also has small children.

Their schedules are at times hectic, and the whole arrangement is patched together out of creativity, energy, sympathetic employers and no small amount of determination to do right by their son.

“It’s a pretty privileged position we’re in to be able to do this,” Jeffrey acknowledged.

In many ways, though, the Millers are an exception. For many families, the tax rate on second-earners, scant paid leave available to care for new children, and a dearth of attractive part-time work all add up to one parent – usually the mom – staying home.

In 2003, 5.3 million American women were full-time stay-at-home mothers, while about 980,000 men described themselves the same way.

Julie (Hankel ’96) Christian is one of them. Less than a year ago, she and her husband, Aaron Christian ’97, welcomed their first child, Evan. Julie, an English teacher at Hockinson High School outside Vancouver, Wash., opted to take a year off to be with her new son.

Before Evan was born, Julie and Aaron calculated how much it would cost to put Evan in day care in order for Julie to keep working. When faced with early, hectic mornings, thousands of dollars spent on day care and homework to grade in the evenings, Julie said it just didn’t seem worth it.

“I’d be making $10,000, and I’d be working really hard,” she said.

According to campus academics – and several major studies of the world’s industrialized nations – the seeming trend toward stay-at-home motherhood has more to do with the availability of quality child care and family-friendly work policies than women’s preference for working, child rearing or some blend of the two.

Norris Peterson ’75 is dean of the division of social sciences and an economics professor at PLU. He notes that while women’s workforce participation rates have fluctuated over the last 20 years, the only notable increase in stay-at-home parenting is seen in affluent families.

Part of the problem, according to Beth Kraig, chair of PLU’s Women’s and Gender Studies program and a professor of history, is that a fundamental aspect of the fight for women’s equality was overlooked.

“It was so obvious that men had more opportunities and choices than women,” Kraig said. “I think people have realized that all along, we needed to be seeing that men lacked certain choices, too, such as the choice to be the nurturing parent.”

She points to the lack of job-share and flex-time options and substandard child care as a big part of the problem.

“Everybody should be able to (stay home),” Kraig said.

“Fathers should be able to do it as much as mothers should be able to do it, and ideally, fathers and mothers could do it in a flex-time model so that the child would have the impact of both parents there. We really need to revive that part of the discussion.”

Lynn Hunnicutt, another PLU economics professor, was also the beneficiary of a supportive work environment. For a time, when several of the economics and social sciences faculty had young children, a portable crib was a permanent fixture in the office suite where they work.

Hunnicutt pointed out that staying home for more than the semester PLU gave her as maternity leave was never an option. Higher education, she said, is the kind of field in which extended absences can spell disaster to the tenure aspirant.

“But I love my job, and there was no way I wasn’t coming back,” Hunnicutt said. Her older son, Matthew, 7, is now in school. The 2-year-old, David, attends daycare at Trinity Lutheran Church, just across the street from campus.

Hunnicutt said her children are a great balance to a challenging job. Regarding a very contentious faculty meeting she said, “Afterwards (Provost Patricia O’Connell Killen) and I were walking up the hill and I said, ‘It’s a good thing I have kids because pretty soon I won’t even be thinking about this.’”

Social change to help families balance work and home is happening, though slowly. In a tight job market, human resources professional organizations are beginning to see that helping parents remain in the workforce makes sense not just socially, but economically.

Kraig said she was encouraged when, this spring, the Washington state legislature took up a bill that would have provided five weeks of paid leave (up to $250 per week) for new parents. Although it ended up receiving the signature of Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, the funding for the measure is still up in the air.

With all the hectic scheduling, doctor’s appointments, daycare-pickups and end-of-day exhaustion that so many parents face, advocacy for policies to address the problem fall by the wayside, Kraig said.

“The struggling family doesn’t have the two hours in the day or the five hours in the week they could use to get together and form a parents’ rights lobbying group to push for quality, locally supported day care, or to push the state to regulate early childhood education and day-care centers,” Kraig said.

“It’s as if we so undervalue the importance of early childhood education that we leave it to the whims and circumstances of the individual parents,” she said. “And many PLU grads will have more wherewithal because they’re in that 25 percent who have a college degree.”