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Families race with time Pressure: Nowhere in Maryland are there more dual-career families than in Howard County. The most immediate casualty of the time crunch as they try to balance priorities: the family meal.

It is not yet dawn when Terry Proctor's day begins. Her husband, Steve, nudges her as he leaves for work. By 5: 45 a.m., the Elkridge couple must sort out their children's schedules for the day.

Will Terry's work take her out of town today? Any chance Steve will get off early? Their three children need rides to day care, school, athletic practices, tutoring sessions and periodic medical appointments.

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Like thousands of other Howard County families, the Proctors manage all this before, after and while at work and during their half-hour commutes -- he to Adelphi, she to Baltimore.

Howard is home to a higher percentage of dual-career families and a higher percentage of out-of-county commuters than any other jurisdiction in Maryland. Its unemployment rate is the state's lowest. Its home prices are the Baltimore region's highest.

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As a result, many county residents report living in a pressure-packed time crunch, as they juggle demands of work, school and family. For some, free time is a distant memory.

Across the country, surveys show many feel they are working longer hours -- and have scant time for other priorities, family and friends. Women feel the pressure more than men, studies show.

But the surveys also show that television viewing deceptively eats up a good chunk of that limited leisure time -- cranking up the time pressure even more.

"People do feel enormous stress, especially if they're dual-career parents with children," says Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Merck Family Fund in Takoma Park. "That is definitely the most stressed group in society. There is no doubt that the people who are struggling to maintain material security and be good parents are experiencing a very high level of stress."

Virginia Horvath knows that all too well. For more than six years, the resident of Columbia's Owen Brown village directed a day care center in Elkridge -- where she daily saw working parents' exhaustion, stress and guilt.

"These people have lost their sense of humor completely," says Horvath, married with two children. "Parents would come in complaining, not smiling, unhappy and late."

Often, the three to four hours between day care and children's bedtime represent the bulk of time they spend with their parents on weekdays. And this time is crammed with other demands as parents try to fit in meals, laundry and moments of decompression from busy workdays.

For many parents, such as the Grossmans of Columbia's River Hill village, day care is the glue holding them together.

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Barbara and Doug Grossman both report to work by 7 a.m. Before they leave each morning, Stacey Johnson, a day care worker, comes to their home to wake their two children, prepare breakfast and take them to her day care center, where they later are picked up by a school bus. "Stacey is my god," Barbara Grossman says. "I could not put words on how important she is to us."

These days, day care centers increasingly shuttle children to and from school, provide homework help and serve meals. Many are open 12 hours a day, and children as young as 3 arrive when they open and leave when they close.

"It breaks my heart to see these children here, tiny children, for more than eight hours a day," says Judy Brewer, office manager at the Columbia Montessori School.

Says William J. Doherty, who runs the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota: "Children are certainly the biggest casualties of our work-obsessed lives."

With a median family income of $61,000 a year, Howard residents often can more easily afford to pay for child care. That's about $16,500 more than the state median and $27,000 more than the national figure, according to the 1995 census.

Day care can cost as much as $150 a week per child. Increasingly popular alternatives, such as hiring au pairs, can be even more expensive.

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In Ellicott City, Richard and Dawn Nash hired an au pair two years ago when their younger child started kindergarten. Because they both commute an hour to work in Crystal City, Va., their children -- Joey, 6, and Nicole, 8 -- would have to leave the house by 6 a.m. if they went to day care.

So the Nash family now pays about $10,000 -- nearly 10 percent of their combined annual income -- for the services of Fiona Kerr, a student from Scotland. Says Dawn Nash, "It's worth it."

In many families, such women as Nash feel the time pressures the most. A few years ago, the Navy budget analyst began having what she calls stress-induced panic attacks. Regular exercise now helps her control her anxiety.

Virginia Horvath faithfully sees an acupuncturist each week for stress-reduction.

Another mother, Holly Gillum of Long Reach village in Columbia, says she keeps meaning to take a weekend to go out of town with friends -- but she "just can't seem to get away."

In Elkridge, Terry Proctor steals away to her bedroom an hour or two ahead of her husband each night to find some quiet time.

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"There is very little time I have that is just my time," she says. "I have no place to retreat to. I can go in the bathroom and I'll get one, two, three kids who need to come in right away and get something or talk about something."

Since 1970, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of American families with preschool children in which both parents work year-round, full time has tripled, from 7 percent to 24 percent.

Yet working women still do the bulk of household work, studies show. And more women report that work-related stress negatively affects their families' lives.

"Women report they feel major guilt," says Betsy Taylor of the Merck Family Fund. "They feel they should be doing more at work, doing better as parents, etc. But they come home from work and they're so wiped out, they can't do it. They're doing so much, but it's not enough."

Horvath has had enough. Last week, she left a job she loved as day care director of Kids Habitat in Elkridge to spend more time with her children and organize her house. "I can't be a mother, a lover, a homework helper, a director and more," she said. "For six years, I put everything I had into my job. I can't do it anymore. I could never get on top of things and I was pulled in every direction for too long."

Her husband, David, who works 50 hours a week, says he does not feel the same stress because he doesn't cook, clean or do laundry.

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The Horvaths acknowledge they are luckier than many because they can live on David's income running a software company. Studies show that many Americans increasingly are doing the same thing -- or would like to.

Seven in 10 Americans earning more than $30,000 a year say they would give up a day's pay each week for an extra day of free time, says John Robinson, a University of Maryland sociologist who heads the "Americans' Use of Time Project." A 1995 Merck fund study found that one in five Americans had voluntarily reduced work hours or declined a promotion to have more time with family and friends.

The time studies also show something else in play here -- something other than work and family demands.

According to Robinson's study, time-saving machines have actually increased Americans' free time over the past 30 years to about 40 hours a week. But, he notes, 40 percent of that free time now is consumed by watching TV.

"For every extra hour of free time Americans have gained since 1965," he wrote in a recent article about leisure time, "they spend an extra hour watching the tube."

Many Howard residents aren't surprised to hear that. "The TV is always on," says Terry Proctor of Elkridge. Adds her husband, Steve: "Sometimes it's on just for noise -- as if we need more noise around here."

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Research also shows that rising expectations play a big role in the misperception of shrinking leisure time: Such technologies as cellular phones, computers and modems lead many to try to accomplish more each day.

More affluent Americans -- those who can afford more elaborate entertainment in their leisure time -- often feel the most pressure to do more, says David Popenoe, a sociologist who focuses on family issues at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"At a time when we had very little money and little technologies or transportation, you would be pretty much homebound," Popenoe said. "People had no aspirations to fly around the globe or go to Disney World. Today, things are different. "

In many time-stressed Howard families, the most immediate casualty of the time crunch is something once considered sacrosanct: the family meal.

Breakfast often is toast or yogurt eaten in the car en route to school or work. Lunches are bought on the run. Dinner -- two or three times a week or more -- consists of ordering takeout food.

According to a national survey conducted last year by the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain, almost half of all families have dinner together only several times a week. One in 10 get together for evening meals only several times a month.

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On a typical evening in the Proctor home recently, 4-year-old Thomas ate a dinner of Lucky Charms cereal in front of the television at 8: 30 p.m. His older siblings, Katie, 13, and Michael, 11, had fast-pitch softball and football practices that night and had eaten at their grandparents' house. Their parents still had not eaten by 9: 30 p.m.

As often as not, the family orders take-out, says Terry Proctor, and dinner "goes in shifts." Asks Steve Proctor: "A home-cooked meal where we all sat down and ate together? I really, really don't remember the last time we did that. We don't have time."

In Elkridge, the Horvaths also frequently order out for dinner -- so much that they have memorized the phone number for their local Domino's pizza outlet.

The Nash family of Ellicott City eats together just about every night, they say, but only because they cook their workweek's meals on weekends and re-heat them during the week.

The diminution of the traditional evening meal has left many families dissatisfied, says Doherty, the Minnesota family therapist.

"People are not happy campers," he says. "Mealtimes are things that people seem to miss the most. Dinner used to be a code word for family time. No television, no video games, no telephones. This doesn't happen enough anymore."

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As a first step to grappling with the time-pressure problem, Doherty urges his clients to reinstitute the dinner hour. He says the effect can be dramatic. But that's not possible, in the minds of some Howard parents, whose schedules are so crammed in part because they want to give their children so much -- tutoring, music lessons, organized sports. They work hard to pay for it. Their families' days are longer because of it.

Even if many parents can no longer carve out quiet times for themselves, even if they scarcely see their extended families or their friends, many still say it's worth it.

"This is the kids' time right now," says Richard Nash, an avionics specialist for the Navy. "This is but a fleeting moment. There will soon come a time when the kids won't want us to read to them at night, when they won't be around so much. Until then, we're going to do all we can."

Pub Date: 11/11/96


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