March 4, 2007
Working it all out | Jumping back into the paid workforce
Seattle Times staff reporter
Real Parents is an occasional series looking at the lives of ordinary families.
A working friend gave Catherine Springman three tips when she rejoined the world of paid employment after eight years as a stay-at-home mom:
• Say no often.
• Say maybe even when you mean yes.
• And take a break for yourself now and then.
It was hard advice to follow at first. Now, several months into the transition, the Bellevue mom of two is trying to shed some of the "no" guilt (The kids! The dog! Neglected friends! All those worthy causes!) and cram in a little personal time.
"Guilt is a big element here," she says, "but you can only do what you can do."
That means no more chocolate-chip pancakes on school days. For dinner, Dad cooks mac-and-cheese and frozen peas instead of mom's chicken and mashed potatoes. Getting Chelsea, 10, and Samantha, 8, to play dates, sports, choir and Scouts requires precise scheduling.
But Mom's paid job also brought newfound appreciation for all she used to do.
A family transition
The so-called mommy wars pit working mother against stay-at-home mom, but in reality, many moms move in and out of the paid workforce. The support group Mothers & More dubs it "sequencing."
"Women are having children later, after they're established in their careers, so they do have something to go back to," said Beth Herrild, co-owner of the Bellevue consulting firm Quest for Balance. "It's a huge transition for the woman, and also for the family."
"I always assumed I'd go back to work when the kids were in elementary school," said Catherine, who formerly ran a company with her husband, Kurt. "I finally decided, 'OK.' It was time for me and my family and the bank account.
"A stay-at-home mom is on 24/7," she said. "I always said it was the hardest job ever, and I still think that. No one ever says, 'Hey, you did a fifth load of laundry — great job!' Personally, I felt I was not getting any respect as a stay-at-home mom. But I did come to appreciate the flexibility and spontaneity it allowed."
Fitting it in
The challenge was clearing out time to work in an already busy schedule.
"Even though I was a 'stay-at-home' mom, I wasn't home a lot," Catherine said.
Since Kurt's job involves frequent travel, Catherine needed a flexible part-time job. She works 30 hours a week in sales for RealTime Productions. They're both based at home (in separate upstairs-downstairs offices); she makes one or two weekly visits to RealTime's Seattle office.
Initially, she felt divided between her two personas. In her head, she was still a stay-at-home mom, but one who worked during the day. "I was unrealistic what I could still be involved in," she said. She gradually pared her commitments but kept her volunteer positions as a room parent and Girl Scout leader.
"It's hard to make that tradeoff, cut back all the things you want to do, all the things you have been doing," Kurt said. "It's a painful process, realizing you simply can't do everything."
"Making time for ourselves and as a couple — those are the things that fall by the wayside when the schedule gets full," Catherine said. "We're still struggling with that."
Sundays are designated family days, with outings such as a bike ride or trip to the zoo (during the winter, they spend most weekends around snow while the girls ski race).
"Otherwise, what we've found is the weekend ends up being all about running errands and makeup stuff around the house," she said.
Before starting her job, Catherine compiled all the family's chores and activities in a big spreadsheet. The family sat down to set priorities and divvy tasks.
"It was a lot of the things Cathy kept on top of that weren't identified," Kurt said. "They were just taken for granted. They just got done."
"It's not just the doing, it's the thinking of it," Catherine explained. "It's not just making dinner, it's planning what to have, figuring out who will be home and when, going to the grocery store and getting things out in time to thaw."
Now everyone spends a few minutes each night before bed picking up stuff around the house. Catherine sorts dirty laundry into piles, Kurt puts loads in the washer and dryer and the girls fold towels and their own clothes. The girls make their own lunches and sometimes breakfasts. A house cleaner comes once a week.
"It has made us make the girls more responsible, which is how it should be anyway," Catherine said.
Managing "our insanity"
The girls like visiting Mom's work, but "it's sad 'cause we don't get to see her as often," Samantha said.
Most afternoons, Catherine takes a break when the kids get home to check in and make them a snack. But there are also times when she has to tell the girls "later, later."
At first, "Everything at work was a challenge. Everything is new. Then home is a challenge, and you're trying to get a handle on that. By the end of the day, I was mentally and physically exhausted."
Half a year later, it finally feels like "our insanity" — as Catherine dubs it — is manageable, with both rewards and compromises.
"There's a perception that other people have everything together," Kurt said. Adds Catherine: "You wonder, 'How can they do it and we can't?'
"Then you start asking questions, and you find out they're just like you. I kept looking for a magic formula, but there isn't one."
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