What's the most precious commodity of all? If you're a working parent, it's not money, and it's not material possessions. It's time. Nearly all working parents are desperate for more time with their families -- and for more help with the pressures that are a daily part of their lives. To which we say: Spend a little time on the Web.
Don Vickery, 34, systems administrator at Toyo USA Inc., a purchasing firm in Houston, no longer has to worry about whether Nathan, his 22-month-old son, is enjoying his time at day care. He can see it with his own eyes. Vickery uses Watch Me! (www.watch-me.com), a Web service that uses digital feeds from day-care centers to keep parents and children connected, even while they're apart.
This issue of @Work is designed to help you get your life at the office to mesh more smoothly with your life at home. It identifies Web sites that will help you locate a sitter, or figure out what to have for dinner. It describes an online discussion group that lets expectant mothers share concerns and advice with other pregnant women. It even offers a comparison of great sites for your kids to visit -- including one that answers such important questions as "Where does bad breath come from?"
"Where Do I Find Child Care?"
Lots of executives will tell you that there's nothing more challenging than hiring top technical talent. They haven't been looking for nannies. More and more children in the United States are being cared for by nannies or au pairs -- which helps to explain why there are now about 1 million U.S. child-care workers, according to the International Nanny Association. The job of deciding which of those 1 million workers is right for your child makes finding a good C++ programmer look like child's play.
One place to start your search is A NaniNet (www.nannynetwork.com), a robust site that lists hundreds of nanny agencies around the country. What makes searching A NaniNet (which is produced by Home/Work Solutions Inc.) better than leafing through the phone book? For one thing, it lets you customize searches. Do you need a live-in nanny, a full-timer who will live outside your house, or a part-timer? A NaniNet lets you search by this and other criteria. It also lists private investigators who perform background checks on nannies.
If you need a nanny, but you want to avoid agencies -- which often charge big placement fees -- try 4Nannies.com (www.4nannies.com), also from Home/Work Solutions. The site offers a database with information on hundreds of nannies who seek employment, and the service is priced below most other recruiting resources. (As a parent, you pay $189 per month for access to the listings.)
Of course, you may be looking for day care rather than in-home care. CareGuide (www.careguide.net) is a San Francisco-based company that provides detailed listings of more than 76,000 child-care facilities across the country. The site can also help you decide which kind of care is right for you. Anthony Hall, 38, who supervises a call center for BellSouth Entertainment in Atlanta, used the service to find child care for his three-year-old son. "I was able to narrow my search by focusing on part-time child care available within the block of hours when I would be at work," explains Hall, whose work hours are unpredictable.
"What's for Dinner?"
For parents, no question can feel more urgent than "Who's going to care for my kids while I'm at work?" And when parents get home, no question can feel more annoying than "What's for dinner?" After putting in 10 hours at a workstation, few people have the energy -- or the creativity -- needed to stand over a hot stove and prepare a meal.
Believe it or not, the Web offers intriguing solutions to this problem. The Betty Crocker Web site (www.bettycrocker.com) has a "What's on Hand?" feature that will save you time-consuming trips to the store. It provides lists of basic ingredients -- Swiss cheese, spaghetti sauce, asparagus, ham -- and prompts you to check boxes next to the items that you know you have. Then it provides links to recipes that match the greatest number of "on hand" ingredients. Talk about fast food! You can log on from work in the afternoon, find a recipe for a meal that your kids will like and that uses items already in your pantry, print out the recipe, and cook the meal when you get home.
Other busy parents might want to take more drastic Web-based measures, such as using a full-service online grocery site. Peapod (www.peapod.com) is a recognized leader in this field. It delivers to nearly 100,000 customers, most of whom have kids, in big markets like San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, and Houston. You can order almost anything over Peapod that you might buy at a neighborhood grocery store, and you can give detailed instructions to your Peapod shopper -- by noting, for example, exactly how ripe you want your bananas to be. The site remembers your personal shopping list and your previous order.
"You can specify which brands you'll accept substitutions for and which you won't," says Susan Bratton, 37, director of interactive advertising for @Home Network and a Peapod customer. "I use it when I'm too busy to make a trip to the store." One big plus: The service is pretty cheap. (A typical fee schedule is $4.95 per month plus a $5 charge per order.) One big catch: You have to order 18 to 24 hours in advance of your desired delivery time, and someone must be at home to receive your groceries.
"Where Am I Going to Find Time to...?"
There is one thing that working parents crave and that no outsourcing service can give: contact with other people in similar situations. Maybe you need a virtual shoulder to cry on, or a cyberpal with whom to swap advice and share war stories. "The Balancing Act," on ParentsPlace (www.parentsplace.com/messageboards), is a round-the-clock bulletin board for working moms and dads, although it's used mostly by women. "Day care drop-off was hard this morning," laments one recent visitor -- and others respond with support and advice.
If you don't have time to participate in an online community, but you'd still like to draw on some Web wisdom, then check out the focused discussion at the Working Moms' Refuge (www.momsrefuge.com). In the "Art of Juggling" section, you can pose a work-family problem and get a response from "master juggler" Cathy Feldman, 51, who has edited several books for working women. Recent topics have included working at home with kids, strategies for beating "morning madness" (the harried rush to get everyone, including yourself, off to work and school), and ways to find care for a sick child when you can't stay at home.
"Are We Having Fun Yet?"
Enough about child care, outsourcing, and online support groups. Parenting isn't just about solving problems. If raising children weren't fun, why would anybody do it? The Web also offers lots of great ways for you and your kids to use online resources to have more fun in the offline world.
Have you and your kids finally outgrown "Goodnight Moon"? Then check out the "Books Every Child Should Read" on the HomeArts Network (www.homearts.com/depts/relat/bookintr.htm). There you will find a roster of luminaries -- including poet Maya Angelou; Maurice Sendak, author of "Where the Wild Things Are"; and Captain Kangaroo -- weighing in on which books you and your kids shouldn't miss.
If it's movie night at your house, stop by Screen It! (www.screenit.com) -- a useful site that your kids will wish you'd never found. It offers movie reviews for parents on current kids' flicks and other releases. The site ranks movies according to various offenses, including violence, guns, drugs, alcohol, sex, nudity, and even "bad attitude." Then it provides details about each offense. The site also assesses what kind of role model each main character in a movie would be. It even suggests topics that you can discuss with your kids. The entry for "Home Fries" offers this choice item: "That Drew Barrymore's character is pregnant after having an affair with a married man at least twice her age."
Wait a minute! Didn't we just say that raising kids was supposed to be fun?
Action Item: Want More Time? Organize!
One way to spend more time on activities with your family is to waste less time on scheduling those activities -- to become so organized about carpools, Little League practices, and band rehearsals that you make every minute count. Two new Web-based tools can help. The first, eGroups.com, will turn your coffee-stained, out-of-date telephone lists into a state-of-the-art email list. An Internet service based in San Francisco, eGroups.com provides an easy-to-use interface that lets you set up a private discussion group. As with a traditional email list, you can organize the site so that anyone on the list can post a message, or you can limit posting privileges to select people. You may never need a phone tree again.
Family Shoebox, a Web community produced by KOZ Inc., of Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, lets families maintain private Web-based calendars. Parents and kids can track who's doing what when, and it's easy for them to access that information remotely.
Coordinates: eGroups.com, www.egroups.com; Family Shoebox, www.familyshoebox.com
Sidebar: Apart, But Still Connected
Many parents drop their kids at day care and spend the rest of the day worrying about whether the kids are having fun. Don Vickery doesn't worry anymore. To stay connected with Nathan, his 22-month-old son (below, in circle), he uses Watch Me!, a Web service that provides images from day-care centers in 15 states. "I like being able to see him during the day," says Vickery. At $20 per month, this peace of mind comes cheap.
Nathan's day-care center features digital cameras that feed snapshots every 30 seconds or so to a Web page that Vickery keeps open on his desktop. Watch Me! has at least one practical use: Because Vickery can see how long his son has napped each day, he always knows what kind of night his family is in for. The site also has at least one entertaining use: "I can capture and download the best screen shots," Vickery says.
Coordinates: Watch Me!, www.watch-me.com
Sidebar: 9 Months, Lots Of Questions
"The weird thing about being pregnant," says Deborah Smith, 32, an information architect at Organic Online in San Francisco, "is that you're kind of in a vacuum. You're always wondering, 'Is my body doing something strange?'" Of course, the nice thing about being pregnant is that lots of other women are going through the same experience.
Smith, who is expecting her second child, uses ParentsPlace.com to fill the vacuum with information from experts and with advice from fellow moms-to-be. She logs onto the site's daily "Pregnancy Calendar." Working backward from a woman's due date, the site produces a calendar that "tells you each day what's going on with your fetus," Smith says. She also checks in with the March 1999 "Expecting Club," a bulletin board with advice from mothers-to-be who are at the same stage of pregnancy. "It's so specific, it's pretty amazing."
Coordinates: ParentsPlace.com, www.parentsplace.com (www.pregnancycalendar.com)
Katharine Mieszkowski is a Fast Company senior writer, is based in San Francisco.