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.