About two and a half years ago, my job situation changed and I took on a massive commute. I make a 50-mile 2 & 1/4 hour one-way trip by subway and train (sometimes bike & train) to get to work. Given my field, the point I’m at in my career, and the situation of the rest of my family for work & school, this is the right choice for now. Fortunately I don’t have to go physically to the office every day (I go 3-4 days per week), and I have generous friends near my lab who let me stay with them overnight once a week, which eases the commute burden. We’ve arranged our lives so that it’s do-able, but it is still hard.
The commute itself is not so bad — I can work on the train, read my book on the subway, or exercise on my bike (when I ride to the train station, which is honestly not that often). It doesn’t feel like time wasted, and I actually enjoy it. The real problem though is lack of flexibility. When my job was in town, if Angela needed to stay late or couldn’t cover one of her usual drop offs or pick ups for the kids, it was easy for me to cover for her (and vice versa). But now, if I need to cover pickup on a day I’m at the office, I have to leave work at 1:15pm. Which means I just can’t go, so every schedule wrinkle has to be dealt with in advance, and the demands on Angela’s flexibility to cover minor changes have increased. I still take a day home per week with my kids (which makes up for some of the other very late and very early hours that I’m gone), and we’ve worked things out such that there are still days I do the kid-transporting, but we have lost our ability to easily adjust when something changes (and yes, this extra commute burden is part of why our writing here has been so minimal lately…or rather, nonexistent).
Angela has been struggling with some health issues. She’s fine, and is getting better, but making the 5-mile-round-trip-with-some-hills-bakfiets-double-pick-up bike ride twice each week (on H’s hebrew school days) hasn’t been possible for her for the last few months. She was doing it by bus, but that took a lot longer and then the evening was very rushed and unpleasant, and the kids got to bed too late. I tried to figure out if I could do the hebrew school pick up if I got my bike parked in just the right spot and caught the right train, but the timing just didn’t work, at least not without a solid last minute back-up plan if I ended up stuck on the red line at ten to six. We arranged a few one-off pickups by other parents, but it’s hard to keep asking over and over, and the logistical burden felt greater than just taking the bus and dealing with the late evening.
One evening I was out with my friend J. I told him about our pickup struggle, and my frustration about not being able to just cover it. He said, “Wait, why don’t you guys pick up our kid at the daycare right by your house and we’ll pick up H. We have to pick up our older kid at hebrew school anyway. Then we can come by your place trade kids. That would actually be better for us because C (J’s wife) could leave work a little later.”
Since this plan was mutually beneficial, it seemed like it might actually work in a more stable way, so we tried it. For about a month, we’ve been picking up our friends’ 3 y.o. at a daycare right near our house, and they’ve been picking up our 2nd grader at hebrew school a couple miles away twice a week.
And it’s working. Our friends say it’s easier (or at least not worse) from their end (and I trust they’ll tell us when/if that changes, especially now that Angela is feeling somewhat better and our need is less acute). From our end, the change has opened up some breathing room in our week, and provided some needed relief from the logistical (and physical) burden of getting through our week.
Angela brings the two younger kids home from pickup (by bakfiets, the 3 y.o. loves the bike ride), gets a jump on dinner, and I walk in just as our friends are arriving to trade kids. Even though there are often 6 people (besides me) in the house when I walk in, it feels less tense and less chaotic. The kids are happier. Angela is happier.
This change has been a lovely thing for our kids. There are a total of four kids in both of our families. We see each other pretty often in various constellations, at hebrew school, and at our religious community (the Hav), and socially with other families and friends. In all of that coming and going, I now realize that our younger two kids have never had time together just them. Now, twice a week, they get a relaxed 45 minute chunk of time to play together at our house without older siblings around. Our son is about a year and a half older than their’s, and it’s been lovely to see him start to see J & C’s kid as an actual person, and to get some time as “the big kid.” They play beautifully when they aren’t distracted by trying to get the older kids to include them. J & C report that the bigger kids chat pleasantly on the way home, and that it’s a different dynamic than pickup with their own two kids competing for parental attention.
I’ve been thinking about why we had to get to such a frustrated place to realize this arrangement was sitting right before our eyes, that we could actually team up with another family to make both of our evenings easier. I’ve wondered about this before, like the times another parent takes H after school because we’ve had a schedule snafu (or we do the same for them), and the kids have such a great time I leave thinking “we really shouldn’t wait for things to go haywire to do this.”
We think and talk a lot about community. One of the reasons we choose to live without a car is that it helps us connect with and build our local community, just by living our everyday lives. Living carfree sometimes means our life is easier than it would be without a car (say when we aren’t stuck digging our car out after the snowstorm), and sometimes means our life is harder (that double pickup wouldn’t have been a problem if Angela isn’t feeling well if she could just drive). Sometimes it means we rely on friends with cars (say, when they come to visit us from the suburbs instead of us going to them, or when C does the hebrew school pickup by car).
But for of all our talk of community, it’s still hard to ask for help. I don’t want to burden other people, especially other parents, who are pretty much all as stretched thin in the evenings as we are, especially if part of the reason we’re sruggling in a situation is that we’re still insisting on going without a car (though, even if we wanted to, we still can’t afford one anyway).
In this arguably small arrangement, this twice a week that we have someone else’s kid on our bike, and they have one of ours in their car (or on the bus), I see a part of how community is built out of the challenges, that we got to build this connection a little more deeply because something was too hard for us to do on our own. I see now that this has been true on a larger scale over the last couple of years, which have been hard ones for our family, on several fronts — hard, but really good. I feel like I’ve let so much go: any PTA meeting ever, attendence at shabbat services, social groups and projects that I used to help organize, writing here. I’ve been knocking myself for these failings, for not doing my part to build the communities that I say I believe in. But I can see also that friendships have been forged more deeply in this time, and that counts too. For this, I am grateful. For this, and for the way our friends’ son comes happily with us at pickup, grins all the way back to our house on the bike, and then slips peacefully into discussion about the proper way to build subway stations out of magnatiles and wooden railroad tracks.