Commuting moms weigh advantages of the long haul


Melinda Grochowski, mother of two, has mixed feelings about the hourlong commute between her home in the northern Virginia suburbs and her job in downtown Washington. On the plus side, she sees the trip as a welcome opportunity to read and relax. "It's the only time I have completely to myself," says the 30-year-old meeting planner.

On the downside, though, she's troubled by the time and distance from her 3-year-old and 20-month-old children." I worry that if something goes wrong with my daughters at day care, I won't be able to get there right away," she says. "I'm not always at my desk, and even if I am reachable, public transportation runs infrequently during the day."

On balance, however, Ms. Grochowski is satisfied. "I like where I live, and I like where I work," she explains. "I think of my commute as the price I pay for having the best of both worlds."

The ranks of working mothers who commute to their jobs are growing fast. And, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, American workers in general -- already squeezed for time -- are spending more precious minutes and hours commuting."

People are living farther from work, and roads are increasingly congested, explains economist Laura Leete-Guy, one of the study's authors. The researchers found that between 1975 and 1985, the average annual commuting time rose 23 hours -- from 181 to 204 hours per year. "The more mothers work outside the home, the more they are subject to this phenomenon," says Ms. Leete-Guy.

In from the suburbs

The typical commuter is likely to be the parent of small children. Young couples often choose to live in suburban areas because they offer more space, good educational and recreational facilities, and a comfortable family lifestyle. "As real-estate prices have gone up, baby boomers have moved farther and farther away from metropolitan areas to find affordable housing," says Stephen Kreimer, executive director of the Association for Commuter Transportation in Chevy Chase.

Now that both parents of young children typically work, the distance between city and suburb can be problematic. Still, many women say that the trip to and from work -- while sometimes a hassle -- is well worth it. Since there is a wider range of jobs in downtown areas, the possibilities are greater and salaries are generally higher.

Some commuters even revel in the stimulation of city life. "I like getting out of my sleepy suburb and coming downtown," says Kate O'Rourke, a computer analyst who commutes from Long Island, N.Y., to Manhattan every day.

Quality commuting time

Many mothers say that they ease the aggravation of commuting by making the best of their time in transit. "It's not that bad," says Michelle Healy of her hour-and-40-minute commute from Pasadena to her job as a newspaper reporter in Arlington, Va. "Some days I get work done. Some days I read a magazine. Some days I just close my eyes and take a nap."

Others find commuting a good transition between home and work. "It actually reduces my stress level," says Paula Apfelbach, a traffic manager for an ad agency in Burlington, Vt., that's a 25-minute drive from her home in Richmond. "I drive through the beautiful Vermont countryside. I turn on the radio and listen to classical music. It's peaceful and relaxing. It's a great opportunity to unwind before I go home and launch into my second job: taking care of my 3-year-old."

Covering the home front

Important to commuter moms is the peace of mind that comes with knowing their child is in good hands. "When there's no way you can get home quickly, you need to have someone you can totally rely on," says Michelle Healy. She's especially lucky: Her mother-in-law takes care of her daughter, who's almost 3, and her own parents are available as backups.

"If my train is delayed, or I'm late leaving the office, I can just call my mother-in-law and let her know," Ms. Healy says. "She's always happy to accommodate me. That takes away a lot of the stress."

Without the luxury of a family member to baby sit, other commuting parents have also found child care that meets their needs. One option -- though still relatively rare in American business -- is a child care center at or near the workplace. "Parents like being close to their children in case of an emergency," says Jeanie Almo, owner/director of Kids First on K Street, one of the 22 day care centers in downtown Washington.

Shuttling the kids

For commuter moms with school-age youngsters, the most formidable challenge is managing their children's bus schedules from a distance. This involves finding ways to transport kids to and from soccer games, karate classes, play dates and orthodontist appointments.

Some creative solutions are cropping up. A few progressive school districts and parks departments help by offering shuttle services that carry children to and from extracurricular activities. Such services, however, are still rare, and most families are left to fend for themselves. For those who can afford it, the ideal solution is a full-time housekeeper with a driver's license.

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