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Split-shift Families

How do couples raise kids and nurture spouses in a society that works24 hours a day?

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1999


It 6:30 p.m., the reunion taking place inside a sandy-colored suburban Dutch Colonial resembles that of many families regrouping at the end of the day. Linda Griffiths is returning from work to an enthusiastic welcome from her husband, Brian, and their two sons.

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But any semblance of a typical routine ends there. Mr. Griffiths is going to bed. As a Boston police officer on the midnight shift, he has spent the afternoon caring for six-year-old Kerrigan and 20-month-old Colin. Now he must catch a few hours of sleep before leaving for work at 11:15 p.m.

"It's not the traditional 'Dad's home, let's all have dinner,' where you sit down, say grace, and eat together," says Mrs. Griffiths, an executive assistant in Cambridge, Mass. Her husband adds, "As soon as I hear that door open, I spring up and hand the kids over to Linda: 'Here you go.' "

One-fourth of all two-earner couples in the US work very different shifts. For couples with preschool children, the figure rises to one-third, according to Harriet Presser, director of the University of Maryland's Center on Population, Gender, and Social Inequality. As the United States moves toward a 24-hour, seven-day economy, employment specialists expect more families to find themselves on nonstandard schedules. The impact on family life can be profound.

For families like the Griffithses, split shifts allow parents to care for their children, reducing the need for day care. But like proverbial ships passing in the night, many couples seldom see each other for sustained periods.

Sitting in their cheerful living room on a rare afternoon together, as Kerrigan plays with a basket of toys and Colin toddles around the coffee table, offering his bottle to a visitor, the Griffithses describe the cooperation and flexibility such schedules require.

"It's almost like being a single parent," Mrs. Griffiths says. "You're juggling to get the kids off in the morning. At night you eat supper and give them baths. You're housebound."

The family must also find time together. "Last Saturday we went out to dinner at 5," she says. "We were home by quarter of 7. If we went at a typical time when people go out for dinner, Brian would be ready to go to sleep."

Mr. Griffiths works nights by choice. For others, nonstandard hours are mandatory. "If you want to stay in the area, this is not a choice," says Ray Gavin of Addison, N.Y., an inspector at Corning Consumer Products and a shift worker for 35 years. His wife, Karen, an employee at the same plant, has logged 23 years on shifts.

Often, as one of them pulls into the parking lot, the other is leaving. "We chat about the kids, the mail, what's for supper, then go on our way," says Mr. Gavin. Noting that his wife had to work on Christmas, he says, "She got home just before midnight. We exchanged one present, gave each other a kiss, and went to bed."

Holidays represent only one challenge. "It's at least as tough trying to celebrate the Sabbath," Gavin adds. "We've had one Sunday that coordinated this year, so we could grab a couple kids and go to church."

Yet Mrs. Gavin takes a pragmatic approach. "Pay is the reward," she says. "I enjoy my job too, so that helps. And my department is pretty flexible if you've got a problem."

Janie O'Connor, a shift-work specialist in St. Paul, Minn., finds that couples who succeed with shift work make a concerted effort to communicate. "Where it works - and there are lots of celebration stories - they are conscious of the attention they need to pay to each other," she says. Some even block out time on the calendar: "Let's talk on the 4th, let's spend two hours together on the 11th."