Local Families' Balancing Act
Practicing the four-thirds principle
Published in January, 2011
Joe Wywrot's weekday morning essentials-crayons and coloring books-might seem unconventional for a civil engineer. But they sure come in handy on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays: Wywrot is also a husband and father of two who works part-time and stays home part-time with his children, Julia, six, and Leo, four. Joe's wife, Rosie, a Spanish teacher at Franklin High School in Livonia, does the same, and their well-oiled system has eliminated the need for conventional child care.
The concept of mothers working part-time is nothing new, but having both parents do so is giving the term "teamwork" a whole new meaning. "Both Rosie and I have come to the realization that neither of us would have wanted to be either full-time parent or full-time worker," says Joe, thirty-eight. "There would be too much lost one way or the other."
Joe credits a magazine article with being the catalyst that ultimately led them both to work part-time.
"It was basically this theory called the four-thirds principle," he explains. "The basis was that between you and your partner, you basically work the equivalent of four-thirds of a job. So one person might work two-thirds and the other person two-thirds, or one person works a full job and the other person works a third of a job, and that's supposed to give you a good balance both financially and emotionally with being able to have enough time to do everything you might want to do."
Rosie, thirty-seven, teaches the first three classes of the day, which allows her to arrive home every weekday by noon. Joe, on the other hand, works thirty hours a week at JJR downtown. He puts in two full days at the office (Tuesdays and Fridays), and he works about four hours in the afternoon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. On Joe's full days, Rosie's sister or parents come to the house to watch Leo, who is not yet in school every day.
When the Wywrots return home, the give-and-take continues.
Joe says that it takes a lot of "tag team efforts" to keep the household running smoothly. "When one of us is doing something, like cooking or laundry, or if one of us needs alone time, the other will interact with the kids."
At first, Joe says, they weren't sure how feasible the balancing act would be. After six years of doing it successfully, they've learned that compromise at work is an integral piece of the puzzle. "I think that most of the people in my office are used to it and my schedule," he says. "And most at least understand that I will still get done what needs to be done in the time that I am available."
But Joe's unconventional schedule doesn't mean he doesn't work additional hours; he does. And that requires a more delicate balancing act. "Since I make it a priority to be home for dinner every day, the extra hours I might work will be after bedtime," he says. "So I try to limit them, since I am not very productive at the end of the day."
For all the juggling the Wywrots do Monday through Friday, it's a different story on the weekends. "We try to do things as a whole family," says Joe. And it's a whole different ballgame in the summer, when Rosie is off from work and doesn't have to leave the house at 5 a.m.
"We make up for a lot of time during the summer," says Joe. "But by the end of August, I usually say, 'Goodbye, Summer Rosie' with regret."
The balancing act is nothing new to First Steps Ann Arbor's Marj Hyde. Since becoming director of the young-parents support group in 2001, Hyde has seen more dads participating in programs with their children. "Now, we have a lot of juggling by parents who are working split shifts or different days so they can do things," Hyde says. "The 1950s model of a stay-at-home parent and a working parent is way a thing of the past.
"There are families out there, of course, that have a stay-at-home mom or a stay-at-home dad-and they are participants in our program," says Hyde. "But many, many parents-[including] the one that would have been the stay-at-home parent-are working part-time in a variety of ways."
Perhaps nowhere in Ann Arbor are these trends more apparent than at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, where Laura Pershin Raynor is a youth services librarian. She says it's not unusual for the branch's Tuesday morning Preschool Storytime to attract 100 parents-many of whom are dads.
"What I've seen, having done this since the '70s, is a total shift in the amount of fathers we see every week at Storytime-and the amount of patchwork that's going on with parents in terms of child care," says Raynor. "It's a combination of change of the guard-'I'll do Monday morning, you do Monday afternoon'-mixed in with some part-time babysitting, nannying, or child care. But with these economic times, there's less of the extra child care, of course, because of the cost."
What stands out the most for Raynor is how creative parents are with time management-"how they use their time, and how they think about their children's time, and quality time with their kid, and also the difficulty in doing that." She appreciates it especially because she not only witnesses parental role-flopping-she's lived it with her own daughters.
After staying home for several years after her daughters were born, Raynor returned to work full-time at the library while her husband, Ken Raynor, remained home with Molly and Emma. "For me it was a real adjustment in terms of what I was giving up, even though I saw the total benefits," remembers Raynor. "My husband was so patient, he had different interests, he brought a different energy. It was just a magnificent time for him and our kids."
Raynor believes the quality time shared by Ken and their younger daughter, Emma, now twenty-three, had a lasting impact on the nurturing of Emma's passion: photography. "My husband loves photography, and because he had that time with her, teaching her how to see beyond the surface … I don't know that this would have happened if my husband was working full-time," Raynor says. Similarly, she spent more time with their elder daughter, Molly, during her formative years. Now twenty-six, Molly loves to write-just like her mom.
Even the most dedicated parents can't perform the balancing act on their own-they need supportive employers. Until recently, those were few and far between.
Mary Brake, fifty-four, an EMU engineering professor and mother of three, chose to work full-time and utilize child care for her now-adult sons, Andy, Brian, and Charlie, when they were growing up. Brake says her decision was predicated partly on preference, but also on necessity. Brake's husband, Bob, a U-M research scientist, also worked full-time. "In the mid-'80s there wasn't family leave … those sorts of policies didn't exist anywhere that I know of," Brake says. "So moms who worked had to find day care, and if you had a relative in town, you were very lucky."
Brake considered herself lucky to find a local woman who offered quality day care in her home. There was one tiny drawback: all children had to be picked up by 5 p.m. "I didn't have a backup plan, and I didn't want to lose this child care," Brake recalls. "I would watch the clock and race out of there at ten to five. At night I would dream that I would be at work and suddenly I would realize it was six o'clock and-oh, no!-I hadn't picked up Andy."
And sometimes, when the babysitter was sick, Brake became the personification of ingenuity. "I remember one time, Andy was five and I didn't have a place for him to go, so I brought him to class. I sat him in the back with a can of pop and a bag of M&Ms, which lasted for my fifty-minute lecture … it was very weird to be talking about this technical stuff and there's this little kid in the back of the class. I never did that on a daily basis or anything, but you do what you have to do."
But Brake feels that the alternative-working part-time or staying home full-time-wasn't really an option. "Often part-time jobs don't come with benefits, and you really need that when you have children. And part-time jobs are hard to find, no matter what you do. Or part-time jobs are so low-paying that two part-time jobs don't equal one full-time job. I know different women who have cut back their hours to spend more time with their children and get paid three-quarters of their salary, but they're still putting in over forty hours a week. That's a scam against women. It's a lot less pay for a couple less hours. I used to think that we wouldn't be able to make ends meet [if one of us did that]. Living in Ann Arbor is expensive," Brake says.
Over the years, Brake has seen employers become more accommodating to parents. As a U-M professor in the 1990s, she made history as the first to benefit from the school's "modified duties policy" while pregnant with her youngest son.
The policy, which went into effect in January 1991, provides faculty relief from teaching in cases of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. "It basically meant that you didn't have to teach the semester you gave birth, because they were finding that women would come back a week later to teach class," Brake says. "I know several women who have done this."
Regardless of whether a mother works full- or part-time, Brake acknowledges that a father's participation is integral in making it all come together. "Dads with wives who work are more flexible because they have to be," she says. But even with a supportive spouse and workplace, Brake would still choose to work full-time if she were starting her family today. Despite its challenges, navigating parenthood amid the demands of a full-time job provides a different sort of balance.
Brake represents a shrinking minority. A 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center found that just 21 percent of working mothers with minor children (ages seventeen and under) considered full-time work ideal, down from 32 percent in 1997.
Ann Arbor residents Erin and Michael Miller made the decision early that one of them would always be home for their daughters, Juliet, seven, Elise, three, and Maggie, two. Erin, thirty, currently works from nine to five Monday through Friday. Michael, twenty-nine, works evenings and some weekends. "You have to just know that you can make it work and that there are going to be a lot of balls in the air and that you can juggle them all," Erin says. "For us it was a priority that at least one of us is home with the kids-it was also a necessity because child care is so expensive."
Conversely, parents who work part-time and stay home part-time must contend with having less time for each other. But Joe Wywrot says that there's a way around that challenge, too. "I think the main thing that makes our system work is the strong relationship Rosie and I have. We see each other for fifteen minutes at lunchtime, and then when I come home at the end of the day it's the dinnertime hour, then we're putting the kids to bed, and then Rosie and I have about half an hour to talk. Then she goes to bed. But I think that if we didn't have as good of a relationship as we do, then we wouldn't be able to make it one day … I think the strength of our marriage is what makes us able to not see each other as often as we'd like to."
Still, he thinks the trade-off is worth it, and he doesn't hesitate to recommend it to others, including a friend of his who lost his job around the time he and his wife were expecting their first child. "It was hard for him to understand this, but I told him it was a blessing in disguise that he gets to spend the first year with his daughter at home," says Joe. "He would have liked for it to be otherwise, but it's something you'll never get back, that time. You can't put any monetary value on that. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
[Originally published in January, 2011.]
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