Split-shift Families

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

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.

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."

In other cases, Ms. O'Connor notes, shifts are "a good arrangement to hide a bad marriage. There's no nurturing of the partnership. The shift schedule gets blamed for a lot of things. It's like they're single marrieds."

For those on rotating shifts, in particular, "there's a lot of juggling going on," says Steve Mardon, editor of Working Nights newsletter at Circadian Technologies in Cambridge. "People have to come up with their own systems." To help them do that, his company publishes a Working Nights Family Calendar, with colored stickers to paste on, indicating Night, Evening, Day, 12-hour, Off, Holiday, Vacation.

The Gavins use four magnetic boards on the refrigerator for messages. The Griffithses rely on phone calls, voice mail, and notes. She explains, "Brian will leave a note: 'Linda, sign this.' I'll leave a note: 'Why?' If he's not too tired, we'll talk when I get home. Sometimes he'll say, 'You didn't tell me that.' I'll say, 'Yes I did. You were on your way to bed.' "

For a year Kasandra Castleberry of Arlington, Texas, the mother of two sons, ages 2 and 3, worked Wednesday through Sunday nights as a technical analyst for The Sabre Group.

"I wanted to be home during the day with my babies while they were little," she says. But what was "good for the kids" turned out to be "hard for the marriage." She explains, "I'd come home at 7 a.m. Especially on weekends, I'd want to go straight to bed, so I could wake up at 12 or 1 and have some time to spend with the family. But my husband wanted to stay in bed too. I'd be like, 'How inconsiderate, I've been up all night.' But he'd say, 'It's my weekend too.'"

Last month Mrs. Castleberry returned to a day shift. "You just feel out of sync a lot when you work nights." Yet the schedule offered advantages. "I spent a lot of time with my kids. I think they're still trying to adjust now to not having Mommy home as much."

Ms. Presser at the University of Maryland finds that when parents work different hours and each has a fixed schedule, almost all fathers take care of children. Although stereotypes hold that father care is more common in middle-class families, she says, "the actual doing is disproportionately among the working class."

While father care may be good for children, Presser cautions that shift work may increase marital instability because of late hours. "If it means the marriage is going to break up, it's not good in the long run," she says.

Presser also says latchkey children remain underestimated because of split shifts. Since a shift-work parent is home during the day, children are not counted as latchkeys. "Kids are coming home from school," she says, "and a lot of parents are sleeping," leaving children unsupervised.

Kim Gutherz of Pascagoula, Miss., works nights as a critical-care nurse at two hospitals. Before she was divorced, her husband cared for their daughter while she worked. Now Ms. Gutherz picks up her daughter at 3, and they spend time together before dinner. The teenager sleeps at her father's house, five minutes away.

"I love night shifts," Gutherz says. "It's worth it, because I don't want her to do with less than what two-parent families have. So essentially I have to come up with two incomes."

Guy Singh, a technician at a power plant in Chesapeake, Va., works seven days on and seven off, in 12-hour shifts that rotate every three months. With two sons, he says, "I miss a few things that go on at school, but during my week off I make up for it."

There are trade-offs and challenges. But many shift workers are philosophical. Just before heading to bed a little after 6 p.m., Brian Griffiths smiles and says simply, "You adapt."

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