Working Four Shifts a Day... And Lucky

I vividly remember reading Arlie Hochschild's The Second Shift in a freshman year sociology class at Penn. The lives described in the book, those of working women putting in full days at their paid jobs and then coming home to put in more [unpaid] hours of child care and housework, sounded nightmarish and exhausting to me. I felt sorry for those women, who, simply due to the bad luck of being born in the wrong era -- when the work of the feminist revolution was not yet complete -- had so many extra burdens to bear. I was, however, pretty smugly secure, in the way that only an 18-year-old Ivy Leaguer can be smugly secure, that this was not a problem I'd ever have to face.

First, I figured any man I'd marry would probably have taken the same sociology course and, therefore, would understand fully the challenge of dual-career families and would be an equal partner to me in all areas. And anyway, I figured that the whole concept of household drudgery was on its way to obsolescence. Wouldn't the robots be handling all that stuff for us?

Fast forward 25 years and several life-changing epiphanies later, and I find that I am working not only the first and second shifts, but the third and fourth shifts as well. And I consider myself lucky to have the privilege.

My work day begins at 7:00 a.m., the moment my kids walk out the door and head to the bus stop. Technology enables me to work from home much of the time, so I often log onto email and begin my work while still wearing pajamas and mainlining coffee. That "shift" of phone calls, documents, and professional tasks ends at 3:00 p.m., when the boys get home from school.

My second shift, that of snack time and homework supervision and transportation to sports and activities and dinner preparation and attempts at teaching meaningful conversation skills, basic civics and table manners and bedtime reading, runs from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. (My iPhone is ever-present during this shift because, when you're self-employed, there's no such thing as being totally "off" from clients. Still, I try, with some success, to limit interruptions.)

Then, from 9:00 until about 11:00, I'm back on the computer, catching up with the work emails and issues I missed while hanging out with my sons.

After that comes the fourth shift. I'm filling out the forms required for one kid's sports team and another kid's class trip, responding to electronic invitations, reading the school newsletter and recording important dates on the family's electronic calendar, like birthday parties and the summer camp registration deadline and the school events that require certain colors to be worn on certain days. I'm posting a job listing for a new babysitter on several job boards. And, mostly, I'm shopping.

Online shopping, especially via Amazon Prime, enables me to fully devote those first- and second-shift hours to the tasks at hand. I don't lose billable hours to making a Target run. And I don't have to drag my three kids along on errands. Instead, I've time-shifted all those "to do" items to the hours when my kids are sleeping and my clients aren't working. With a few clicks, I purchase classroom supplies, birthday gifts for the kids' friends, household items, clothes, shoes and pretty much any cookbook ever published that promises to provide recipes for fast, healthy dinners my kids will eat. Everything is delivered to my doorstop in a couple of days.

When I lived in Chicago I also did my grocery shopping during that fourth shift as well, via Peapod. In Wisconsin, that task is back on the weekend agenda, at least for now, though my favorite store has just launched an app that might eliminate the need to walk its aisles in person.

If I wrap up the fourth shift by 11:30 or midnight, I might still have some time to read something for pleasure or watch a little time-shifted TV or (!) have an actual conversation with my husband. Of course, no matter how late I stay up, I'll still have to be awake by 6:15 to make breakfast and help the kids get ready for school.

I can imagine my 18-year-old self reading this schedule (having barely made it to class on time after rolling out of bed around 10:00 a.m.) and feeling both pity and contempt for the over-earnest martyr describing it. Filling out school forms is a thing, seriously?

But, the truth is, as present-day me, I feel lucky to be able to work this way.

While my life feels exhausting, it is also deeply engaging and fulfilling. And, while the balancing act is often stressful, my family and I are incredibly insulated from real stresses. We're safe, we're healthy, we're well-fed and well-educated.

So we are, absolutely, the lucky ones: winners of life's lottery.

That, of course, is the whole problem.

If, like me, you are a woman lucky enough to have the skills and training that put you in a position to support yourself with technology-driven work of the mind, rather than physical or service-sector labor, and if, like me, you marry a man who can carry the family's financial load while you slowly build up an entrepreneurial venture like the consulting firm I now run, then you might have a shot at working the four shifts a day I now do.

Otherwise, your shifts might involve one of barista-ing and one of checkout line-ing and one of just plain worrying over the childcare arrangements that are supposed to cover those two shifts as they change, unpredictably, from week to week. And then you'd work on finding the time and energy to manage that fourth shift of housework and spelling words and soccer practice.

The truth is that the "unfinished revolution" Arlie Hochschild wrote about more than 25 years ago is still unfinished. Women are still bearing incredible loads of work and family responsibility. And, while some of this imbalance comes from personal choices, much of it is linked to the old stereotypes and expectations that still haunt high-achieving professional women.

"Paradoxically, wives who earn more also do significantly more housework and child care than their husbands do, perhaps to make their husbands feel less threatened," say economists Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica of the University of Chicago and Jessica Pan of the National University of Singapore in a study detailed in a recent New York Times article.

When "success" as a working mom is a "threat," what incentive is there for us, as a society, to lend a hand to the working moms who truly are struggling?

We all deserve the paid sick leave, living wages, predictable work hours, resources for quality childcare and real, skill-building training required to succeed in the modern economy. And also: we need a model of success that doesn't feel like punishment.