Sorry, I Have to Catch My Train

July 30th, 2010 · 13 Comments · Rituals

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said this in the past eight years. The words probably give my coworkers the chills (or a clinical case of the eye-rolls) because unless the story I was working on was going to the printer or the magazine I was working for was breaking a big story, like, for instance, how to clean a cutting board (God I love Real Simple) I was on my beloved 5:39 train (or, latest, my 5:59) that rolled me into my suburban station at exactly 6:05 every single night. Which meant that I was weaving up the hilly streets of my neighborhood by 6:09, walking in the front door at 6:15 (with two searching little faces looking out the brightly lit front window unable to see me approaching in the dark) and in my kitchen prepping dinner 15 minutes later.

I think people at work came to know two Jennys: the relatively harmless Jenny who was around most of the day, and the post-4:30 Jenny, who made militaristic, monosyllabic decisions, who barely looked up from her work to even smile if someone decided to come and gossip (Come on! You couldn’t have told me about Katie in Legal at 3:00?), and the one who would start sweating if a meeting was called at any point between 4:30 and 5:21, the exact minute when she’d begin her sprint to Grand Central Station. (Only sometimes looking back to see coworkers, and once even a boss, glancing at their watches as she’d fly down whatever taupe-colored hall she called her office.)

She…I mean, I.. was lucky enough to work for and with mothers who were engaged in a similar race against the clock, and she…I mean I…was lucky enough to work in a job where I had some control over my hours, but I’m sure I was the subject of the office gossip myself more than once for my (let’s face it) selfish habit of ditching meetings/projects/brainstorms mid-conversation. But I made a pact with myself, I wanted to scream. I need to be home for at least a few hours with the kids. I need to be home for dinner. I just need to!

It goes without saying that I feel validated for my behavior as soon as I walk in my house to report to my real, if slightly diminutive, bosses. And more recently I felt validated when I worked on this quick hit-list of family dinner advice with Mark Bittman. There’s no magic button that’s going to make dinner happen, he says. “You can reduce the time spent cooking to 20 minutes if you plan ahead, but you can’t reduce it to zero. You need to make some time for it…If the problem is time — if you are getting home at 7 and want to put the kids at 8, I don’t know what to say. If you want the night be a bath and a book, that’s up to you. But to have dinner, you have to decide to make the time.”

Even if you have to make a few sacrifices along the way.

The illustration is by Kim Robertson and it ran alongside a piece I wrote for the New York Times about working mom juggling. It has been thumbtacked to every one of my office bulletin boards since 2004.

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13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Amanda // Jul 30, 2010 at 11:04 am

    That is my life in a nutshell. One of the nicest things my boss ever said to me was that she loved to hire moms because they were so efficient at getting their work done quickly and without drama. We know how to manage our time very well. I was so grateful to hear that because I do worry that I am looked upon as lazy or not commited to my work when leave at 5 pm on the dot to catch my 5:10 train and barring any delays I get into SF at 5:45, and am in the door at 6 pm, cooking by 6:10. This is where planning my meals ahead of time saves me so much stress. Anytime the nagging question “What are we having for dinner” pops into my head, I can calmly look at my filofax (yes, I still use a paper calendar) and notice that tonight we’re having Jenny’s Back Pocket Pasta with Tomatoes for dinner. :)

  • 2 kim. // Jul 30, 2010 at 11:35 am

    I think this post is interesting on several levels. Dinner & time with your family was/is your priority. For some people, it might be the gym, or dinner with friends or a favorite tv show that gets them out of the office door at a decent hour. I used to stay at work all hours into the night (and take work home, too)…then, I started realizing that my friends were dropping like flies, I was getting fat (too much take-out, not enough work-out) and that I was losing ‘kim’ and becoming a corporate robot…so I started setting limitations on my work schedule (MUST leave on time Fridays, MUST leave before 8 every other day, MUST leave with enough energy to hit the gym and cook dinner…) Not only did I get ‘kim’ back, the time outside of work that I spent with myself and my friends led me get back in touch with myself and I became healthier and happier (and, I eventually changed jobs).

  • 3 Trish O // Jul 30, 2010 at 11:49 am

    this is my life as well…but the funny thing is i am a stay at home mom. But what rings true for me is that you really do have to make time for making dinner no matter what your life is. I have found that I have all day to get things done but at the time i am to make dinner my family life hits overdrive. We have practice, homework, gym, etc. Hubby gets home and wants to play. It is easy to just get some takeout or eat while running out the door. So I have to plan or it does not happen. PS, I also think tonight looks like Jenny’s Back Pocket Pasta with Tomatoes. Thanks Jenny for keeping me keeping on. I love your blog!

  • 4 Grace Freedman // Jul 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Thank you, thank you for this post! It rings so true. We have to decide to make family dinner happen and find a way to fit it into our busy lives, work outside the home, work at home, stay at home, whatever. When it was just me at home with the little ones, I still found it important to set a routine time for dinner. That gave my partner a reason to get out of the office and home at a specific time. Now dinner was not always at that time and he couldn’t always make it, but the general routine was set. Once you start it, the family dinner habit is a keeper.

  • 5 Lis // Jul 30, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    I totally agree with Trish. Even as a stay-at-home-mom, I have to plan carefully in order to be able to get dinner on the table so that we can all eat together instead of my husband and I sitting down to a meal, exhausted, at 9 p.m. I never thought something so mundane could feel like such an accomplishment! I feel like I’m running a restaurant kitchen while I juggle getting it all ready, but then it’s time to sit down, with a glass of wine, fork in hand, toddler busy munching, baby bouncing…and it’s so worth it.

    Thanks, Jenny!

  • 6 Vicki // Jul 30, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    I completely agree with all the posts. I have been a full-time working mom, stay-at-home mom and now launching my own consulting business. No matter what your role, planning and making dinner is always a matter of setting boundaries and keeping priorities straight. That goes for most things in life. As women we often have a problem (feeling guilty) for making our priorities stick. But the older I get the more I stick with this mantra, “No is a complete sentence!” ….now on with my dinner prep!

  • 7 Ellen // Aug 2, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Thank GOD for Grand Central Terminal. I’m pretty much the luckiest person ever–interesting job I can leave every.single.day in time to catch the 4:46. And if we haven’t done a good job of meal planning/grocery shopping, I can always pick up ingredients for a real dinner at the Grand Central Market — which takes only three minutes out of my day.

    Sadly, my husband often isn’t home until after our daughter’s bedtime, so she and I cook and eat together and save a plate for him. Does it count as a family dinner when it’s just the two of us? I guess it doesn’t matter, since it can’t be helped for the time being.

  • 8 Ingrid // Aug 3, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    OMG – you got to work with Bittman?!? I love him! Will you tell him he is the biggest Mensch out there (excluding my dad and grandpa)…
    As for the running out the door to get dinner (aka. time) with kiddo and S.O. – yes, yes, yes…Never got it before (since work was my life and eating = hospital cafeteria) – but now I do :)

  • 9 Diana // Jul 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I’m not a mom, but I want to leave work at 5:30 too. Can’t all NYC working women just make a pact to get the hell out of the office? Kids/no kids, pets/no pets, whatever, everyone deserves a work/life balance.

  • 10 oilandgarlic // Jul 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    The world would be a much better place, work-wise, if we could all agree not to set up meetings at 4:00 or later. Yes, I know sometimes it can’t be helped but most times, it’s a lack of awareness or concern about time.

  • 11 Raluca | WhatWouldGwynethDo // Jul 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    This post is exactly why I left my big agency job in PR four years ago and now work from home as a consultant. It wasn’t necessarily my issues that were the issue, it was the whole work environment — useless meetings at 5pm when everyone (not just moms) are burnt out, disapproving looks while I ran to my car at 5:02pm, all of the above. The truth? I work even harder now as a freelancer, but it’s on my schedule…and I finally learned to cook as a result! Thanks for the great read!

  • 12 Jeannette // Jul 6, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    I’ve got no problem with anyone (mom or not) leaving work at that hour provided deadlines are met AND clients are serviced, most importantly, that person leaving does not leave someone else in the lurch because they need input, etc. from the person leaving OR they have to cover for that person–the worst-case scenario.

    I’ve worked in places where working moms were incredibly efficient and considerate of their co-workers (this means you DO NOT play the mom card to trump the lives of other workers who do not have children). I’ve also worked with women who seem to think that the mere fact that they are parents means they are entitled to set their schedules based on their needs rather than that of a client or co-workers working on a team-based project. Work IS about the work. That’s tough for all of us, including those of us who have to stay to do work and miss out on stuff in our private lives as well.

    I’ve worked in offices where it was just assumed that I would “stay late” to finish up whatever wasn’t done by the “commuters” because I lived in the city. I can’t tell you how many dinner engagements, social events, etc. I missed because the so-called “team mates” had to run for their trains to get home.

    It is possible, in well-run organizations, that do not provide a service to clients, to get things done by a decent hour so ALL can go home. But let’s be honest, there are too many fields where that simply is NOT the case.

    If you voluntarily choose one of those jobs, please do not try to opt out with the “parent” or “commuter” card. Parenting and commuting are your choices. They are not a “get out of work” free card to be played whenever you feel like it.

    Conversely, I think many organizations should let more folks work from home–especially if the employees have established relationships and proven track records. If they are productive workers in the office, they will most likely be even more productive at home because they can start work and not worry about commuting delays, etc.

    everyone may not be able to telecommunicate or not every day, but it’s an option that should be explored.

    FYI: Calling meetings at the end of day, unless there is a client-related or other true emergency, is a sign of poor planning and organization. Same thing with early A.M. meetings when people are hard-pressed to physically get to a place even earlier than normal “business” hours.

    Companies and managers need to focus on productivity and results, and how to make it easier for people to work together professionally to expedite goals and project completion.

  • 13 Eliza Jane // Jul 9, 2012 at 8:39 am

    What a great article – and great pact! I’m not a mom and I still leave work at 5:30 every day. I’m always one of the first out of the office, but I feel it’s more important for me to *be* 30 than to sit in the office an extra couple of hours and not have a life.

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