Family Values

Thanks to the punishing demands of the new economy, marriage has become more complex, more stressful, and more difficult. These couples have designed marriages that work.

Bryan Levey and Lisa D'Annolfo Levey, 39 & 36, Woburn, Massachusetts
After the birth of Skylar, software engineer Bryan Levey decided to downshift his career and only work four days a week. His wife, Lisa, now pregnant with the couple's second child, cut back on her work as well. They may have fewer possessions as a result, but they have abundance in their lives -- an abundance of time, security, and flexibility.

Jeffrey Lutzner and Jessica DeGroot, 39 & 39, Philadelphia
Some women imagine their weddings, dreaming as kids of the dresses that they'll wear or of their first dances. Jessica DeGroot spent years imagining her marriage -- how she and her husband could combine professional achievement with active parenting. The result? A marriage that tests norms and pushes the envelope.

Roger Mummert and Robin Mummert, 46 & 46, Syosset, New York
It's a role reversal that makes plenty of sense, but that takes a lot of confidence to pull off. Roger Mummert has been a work-at-home dad for the past 10 years. Meanwhile, Robin Mummert has pursued a fast-track career in the fashion industry. Both appreciate the roles and responsibilities that the other has taken on -- and both are a bit jealous of each other.

Jessica DeGroot was born in 1961 into the sort of family that formed the bedrock of American society. Her father was a physician and a research scientist. As she remembers, he left each weekday at 7 AM, returned at 7 PM, and then retired to his study after dinner to pore over medical journals. Her mom raised five kids, ran the household, and volunteered in the community.

These were the conventional design specs for most marriages back then. The husband went to work. The wife stayed home. Not all couples stuck to the formula, of course, and not everyone got married. Yet by 1961, the single-breadwinner family had become the presumed norm, hardwired into the formula of how the world operated.

Then, without much warning, things changed.

Over the next three decades, women stampeded into the labor market, punctuating and reinforcing one of the most emphatic cultural transformations in history. Suddenly, men weren't just married to women; they were married to fellow workers. By 1997, both parents worked for pay, either full-time or part-time, in two-thirds of marriages, up from about 35% of marriages when DeGroot was young, according to a University of Chicago analysis.

Imagine the opportunity promised by such an upheaval. This change liberated women to consider new roles and paths in society. But it also liberated marriages from their old definition -- from any definition. As women were released from the confines of the home to work, men were freed, in theory, from their old breadwinner duties. Men could do household chores and get involved with their kids -- or else feel guilty about not doing so. The structure and strategy of marriage was suddenly wide open to reinterpretation.

But today it's clear: For all of the rhetoric about new gender roles, the ghosts of a past generation still linger. Yes, men cook, and women run marketing departments. But surveys consistently show that husbands' careers still take priority over those of their wives -- and that women still rule at home. Employers fill manuals with "family-friendly" policies, but when it's crunch time, married workers are pressed into action as if it were 1961 and everyone still had a wife at home. Through policy and culture, the workplace reaffirms the old divide between men and women, and therefore between work and life. "We are living in a half-changed world," says Cornell professor Phyllis Moen, 58, who has studied working couples for 20 years.

So for most people, the reality is this: In the absence of societal support, marriage has simply become more complex, more stressful, and more difficult. It is harder to stay sane when you have to negotiate two lives, two careers, and the care of children or of elderly parents -- not to mention an intimate human relationship. Even mundane decisions become opaque and multilayered, like a 3-D chess game. You have to work late tonight? Well, who's going to pick up the kids, cook dinner, and do the laundry?

Can this marriage be redesigned? Re-enter Jessica DeGroot. Now 39, she's an activist, a feminist, a mother, and a wife. Her fledgling ThirdPath Institute, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, aims to change the way people think about marriage, family, and the workplace. As a society, she believes, we are on precisely the wrong track, allowing an archaic workplace to dictate the rules. DeGroot wants to help couples come to terms with their values and their priorities, nudging them to explode old boundaries and explore liberating alternatives. In workshops and through publications, she urges husbands and wives to map out innovative plans for themselves. She gets them to start rethinking work on their own terms and helps them to design the support communities that will make new solutions sustainable.

In a perfect world, she imagines, men and women won't operate in separate spheres. They'll enjoy truly egalitarian marriages, sharing both the responsibility and the reward that comes with caring for others. They will be equally dedicated to meaningful careers, and they will have equal opportunities -- because employers will appreciate and account for the fact that both men and women have obligations outside of work.

But that's in a perfect world. It's a long way off. In the meantime, DeGroot will help couples push at the edges of an imperfect world. She will help them imagine new rules. "We're not asking for the moon and the stars," she says. "We're just looking for something that makes sense. And we don't want to wait for corporate America to change on its own."

Marriage Vows (I): Role Reversal

"This is the high point of my day." It is a sunny September afternoon, and Roger Mummert is padding down his driveway in shorts and bare feet. "It's Vinny, the mailman. Vinny and I can talk for four or five minutes."

There is Vinny, and the UPS guy, and sometimes a FedEx-delivery person. There is the school-bus driver, who today yells out, "I wouldn't let her off without giving me a smile," as Mummert's daughter Lily, 8, glumly disembarks.

Mummert, 46, has been working at home ever since he was laid off from his job at a publishing company. He is a writer and the owner of a communications business. He produces reports on economic and social trends for manufacturers and trade associations, and writes about food, wine, and travel for magazines. Occasionally, he does radio and television appearances.

"But all that," he notes, "is constricted by the responsibility of meeting school buses." For the past decade, Mummert also has been a stay-at-home dad, the primary caregiver for Lily and her sister, Sophie, 11. His wife, Robin, works full time as a sales executive for a New York fashion-accessories company. "I've been working at home for 10 years," Roger says, "and I haven't missed a thing. Well, I did miss one spring concert, and I still feel a sense of loss about that." He's grinning, but not joking. He was once the only man at the PTA's Breast Cancer Awareness Night. Every winter, he hosts a "latke festival" for 100 friends. "I've been there for the scraped knees. I've been part of the kids' lives at school. It has been wonderful."

"But during the past two years," he continues, "I've started to envision a different arrangement. Every once in a while, when I'm stuck in traffic between Hebrew classes and dance lessons, I think that it would be nice to be someplace else. I have an enormous itch to get out there, to get on the road. I worry that maybe I've missed the boat with my own career. There are opportunities that I only have a sense of and that I haven't really gotten to explore. I'm very happy being involved in the children's upbringing. But at the same time, I have a ball and chain here. Someone has to meet those buses."

Robin has her own regrets. She's been in the fashion industry for 20 years. She loves her work, and she's proud of her ample salary that, among other things, has made possible the recent renovation of their house in Syosset, New York. "What we have going sounds like the perfect setup, and it is," she says. "I'm lucky that it's my husband caring for our children.

"But I am jealous. I'm jealous that Roger is there with them all the time. The schools have functions at 11:30 AM or 1 PM, so I miss things. Our daughters say, 'Mom, why can't you take me off the bus?' or 'Why can't you work at nights, like others moms?' That's hard to take. Roger is a terrific father. He's very involved in the community, which I don't think I would be. He does soccer and the PTA and the driving. And all of that makes me nuts."

Sophie recently asked for help with a homework assignment: an essay on the maxim, "Life is a balancing act." In response, Robin described her own balancing act. "From 10 PM to 6 AM, I said, I'm Robin -- but I'm asleep. From 6 AM to 7:22 AM, I'm Mommy. I become Mommy's Career until I get home at 5 PM, and then I'm Mommy until 9 PM. It's very hard to be Mommy one minute and Mommy's Career the next minute. And Daddy doesn't fit into this schedule at all. What about time for him? Or for me?"

The Professional is Personal

Jessica DeGroot and Jeffrey Lutzner first met at a friend's house party on 22nd Street in Philadelphia. She was 26, and she was working for a child-care resource-and-referral service. He had just quit Temple University's medical school. On the dance floor, he joked about the tiny purse that she was carrying, but he admired her good looks and her dry sense of humor. She was impressed when he made a three-course meal without a cookbook on their second date. "I thought, Hmmm, that's pretty interesting." She smiles now at the thought.

To understand DeGroot's agenda for the ThirdPath Institute, look first to her own marriage. For sure, it's not the standard arrangement: Over the course of 10 years, she and Lutzner, both 39, have designed and built a union that appears to be shared equally -- explicitly and self-consciously so. The marriage inspires DeGroot's work, and her work feeds the marriage. Together, they are her life's work.

Some women imagine their weddings, dreaming as kids of the dress that they'll wear and the music that they'll dance to. DeGroot spent years imagining her marriage. As an undergraduate at Hampshire College in the early 1980s, she wrote a senior thesis that was rooted in interviews with working women about the tension between their jobs and their families. She knew that she wanted to work and that she wanted to achieve at work. She also knew that she wanted to be an active parent. And she knew that she wanted a spouse who would regard her as an equal partner.

After the birth of her daughter Jocelyn in 1990, DeGroot entered the MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School to study organizational change and workforce diversity. This was actually an advanced degree in marriage. "She was totally atypical at Wharton," recalls Stewart Friedman, 48, one of DeGroot's professors and mentors there. "For me, she was a breath of something really different." DeGroot understood that the emerging noise around work and life in corporations was about more than just employee attraction and retention. For her, it was about redefining gender roles, about demarginalizing family, and about changing the workings of the workplace.

Lutzner had also thought about his marital future. His vision wasn't as highly evolved as DeGroot's -- he was a guy, after all. But one of the reasons that he had left medical school was the prospect of life without a life. He knew too many doctors who seemed miserable. "I knew that I wanted to be involved with my family," he says. "I didn't want to be invisible" the way his entrepreneur father had been. "I didn't have a road map for this, but I knew that I wanted to try to figure it out."

So they did, devising a strategy that revolved around their shared vision and then amending the process through continuous trial and error. Their basic framework: Both were free to pursue meaningful, paid work, but not work that became controlling. They would be content, in fact, with making less money than they could -- and with a lifestyle that reflected that choice. They would divide parenting and housework duties equally. They would acknowledge, too, that everything changes all the time. Kids grow up, career opportunities arise, and stuff happens. So over time, the strategy would have to change too.

Sounds easy, but it wasn't. Even now, this marriage is a highly choreographed dance, with each week requiring careful planning and explicit scheduling. "We've had huge fights along the way," DeGroot admits. They've visited a family therapist. "But we're fine-tuning something that we already fundamentally agreed on."

Today, DeGroot and Lutzner both work out of their three-story Victorian home in Philadelphia. DeGroot is developing ThirdPath, and Lutzner is running a growing door- and window-manufacturing business. They take turns getting Julian, 4, and Jocelyn, 9, ready for school in the morning, and they alternate shifts looking after the kids in the afternoon. On any given weekday, one of them will work from 8 AM to 5:30 PM, and the other will work for about five hours. Most nights, both of them return to their offices from 9 PM to 11 PM, after the kids have gone to bed.

Lutzner uses the evening hours to email suppliers in the Far East and his manufacturing managers in Guatemala or to phone customers on the West Coast. He has figured out whom he can talk to on his cell-phone while he's walking the dog or while the dishwasher is running. But more important, he has figured out what tasks can be put off. He realizes that deadlines are often self-imposed. "I've gotten better at putting things off until later," he says. "I ask myself, is it more important to do chores and spend time with the kids, or to get work done? Well, a lot of the time, work can wait."

Sure, there are drawbacks to the arrangement. But their careers are growing, and they live well enough. They know their kids intimately. They've learned that they are good parents in different ways. Lutzner is better at playing with the kids, DeGroot is better at listening without lecturing. Because they spend so much time with Jocelyn and Julian during the week, they don't feel guilty about going out on their own nearly every Friday.

It is a marriage that tests norms and pushes the envelope. It is the product of imagination and of endless experimentation. But it doesn't have to be unique. "Friends tell me that I'm lucky because I have a business that allows me to do this," Lutzner says. "Well, am I really just lucky? Or am I smart enough to recognize that this is how business can be done?"

Marriage Vows (II): Convergence

Dale Skeen lovingly surveys the backyard of his home in Atherton, California. The place is drop-dead stunning -- a perfectly proportioned Tuscan villa plopped into the heart of Silicon Valley, complete with a swimming pool, Romanesque statues, flowering trees, and a manicured lawn. The summer evening is soft. "In a place like this," Skeen muses, "you can almost forget that there are millions of people outside of the gate."

JoMei Chang joins Skeen on the terrace, interrupting his reverie. Where Skeen projects a sense of calm, his wife is intense and outgoing. Of the two, Chang is far more likely to dominate a conversation or to fill a room. "She's a very competitive young woman," says Bob Halperin, 72, an advisor at Greylock Management who has worked closely with the couple.

Chang, 48, and Skeen, 46, met at a technical conference 18 years ago. He was a professor at Cornell, she was a researcher at Bell Labs. Both had PhDs in database systems. They dated for three years, seeing each other mostly on weekends, then agreed to move to California together. They married there on Jan. 1, 1986 -- a day Chang's Taiwanese mother, consulting the Chinese calendar, predicted to be the most fortuitous.

In 1985, they helped launch Teknekron Software Systems, cashing out when Teknekron was acquired by Reuters in 1994. "We learned that when you make your first $10 million and you don't have to work for a living anymore, you have to face the truth about yourself. What do you want to do with the rest of your life?" What they wanted was to start another company. Together. Without taking a single day off, they cofounded Vitria Technology Inc. Chang became chief executive officer. Skeen was chief technology officer.

Six years later, Vitria, which makes infrastructure software for e-businesses, boasts 800 employees and an annual revenue growth of 400%. And Chang and Skeen pursue a life where their three shared passions -- their company, beautiful design, and each other -- blur relentlessly into one another. For them, work and life are indistinguishable, a single, merged sphere.

It isn't that they think of nothing but Vitria. Although they don't have children and don't discuss the prospect of having them, both are consumed with redesigning their weekend house in Pebble Beach. They love to garden. They read. But all roads, it seems, lead back to their company.

Office blurs into home and home into office. Chang and Skeen regularly host staff meetings at their house at nights and on weekends, and they plan to convert a carriage house into a formal conference room. And they make no apologies for their lifestyle. "Work and home are intertwined," Chang argues. "We recognize it's inevitable, so we don't even try to stop it." More than that, "When you build a startup, the whole thing is about passion. What's better than to share your deepest passion with your spouse? We're business partners, and we're also married to each other. I feel fortunate for that."

Indeed, they revel in rare intimacies. "When you work so closely together, you get the chance to see sides of each other that you wouldn't see otherwise." Skeen says. "You see how your partner excels. If you have a traditional relationship, your spouse could be a hero at the office, but you would never know that."

This is a couple that is more emotionally and intellectually aligned than most. They don't compete. Their egos aren't on the line. They can imagine nothing, they say, but working together for the rest of their lives.

Do Try This at Home

Consider your life. What is most important to you? What are your dreams? How do you want to spend your time? How much achievement, wealth, and material stuff is enough? When you look back on your life at the end, what will make you feel that you've been successful?

This is the challenge that DeGroot presents to couples before each ThirdPath workshop. Sound marriages start with coherent individual priorities: Husband and wife must define for themselves what it is they want from work, parenting, and each other.

Then they must forge a shared vision. They must come to terms, DeGroot says, with differences in their individual definitions of parenting roles. What makes someone a good mother or a good father? What about a good worker? Couples have to rationalize their competing individual priorities. They need to agree on how they will allocate their time.

Folks, don't try this at home. Well, okay, do try -- but know that it's treacherous marital terrain. Most couples aren't accustomed to raising these types of questions, so mutual discomfort arises when the subjects come up. Roadblocks emerge early on in ThirdPath sessions. Some women stumble over their notion of motherhood, which they equate with the job of primary caregiver. They are afraid of surrendering preeminence in the home and control over parenting decisions. And, truth be told, they don't really trust their husbands to do the job right. Men are stuck in their own rut: While most welcome the chance to claim bigger roles in the home and to build strong relationships with their children, they fear that they'll be less valued by society if they don't put their careers first.

Another sticking point is money. Couples may value spending more time at home. But to do so at the expense of material comforts can be scary. In this realm, husbands and wives often collude to destructive effect. Men value their ability to provide economically as a true measure of their worth as fathers. And women worry about derailing their husbands' careers for fear of the financial fallout.

Exactly how couples address their dilemmas is the question that pervades ThirdPath workshops. DeGroot asks participants to think strategically -- first about their goals for child care, and then about their goals for their work. Her message is that nothing is inevitable. At work and at home, we have the power to shape our destinies.

Designing a child-care solution is a pretty straightforward process. DeGroot proposes four basic models for marrying work and kids: A traditional arrangement, in which one spouse stays at home full time; the "one-parent flex" model in which one spouse works flexibly or part time; a full-time care system that requires paid care while both partners work; and so-called shared care, in which both spouses work slightly less than full time, each contributing to dependent care and house chores. Figuring out which model is right is a matter of coming to terms with fundamental questions about time, gender roles, and lifestyle. Rethinking work, though, takes some doing. Many knowledge workers have the option of choosing where and when they do their jobs. But few workers are able to control the flow of work itself, or the organizational norms that dictate work practices.

What a redesign actually achieves, DeGroot says, depends on the tolerance of the workplace and the flexibility of the worker. Employees can telecommute or shift their work hours, or they can change how they work by delegating tasks or by working more efficiently. Depending on their status in the labor market, they can seek jobs elsewhere or become their own bosses.

Bryant Simon and Ann Marie Reardon of Athens, Georgia are redesigning their work styles on the fly. Simon, 39, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, enjoys work that is extremely flexible. Aside from the 10 hours that he spends in the classroom each week, he can do his job at any time. That freedom allows him to care for his young son, Benjamin, most mornings.

The problem is that Simon himself is less than flexible. "I'm kind of a grind," he says. "I like getting up with Benjamin -- I don't care how early. But at 8:15 AM, my internal clock switches over and I have to start work." In the midst of writing a history of Atlantic City, he has felt challenged to change his nonstop work style in a way that accommodates his desire to stay involved with Benjamin.

Ultimately, it is Reardon, 34, who has truly redesigned her work. Although she earned more money than her husband when she worked full time, she cut back on her shifts as a pediatric nurse practitioner. She has also started working night and weekend hours to minimize the time that Benjamin spends with sitters. The arrangement is chaotic and guilt ridden on both sides, but it serves the family's central objectives.

No solution is perfect, of course, and every option is subject to constant change. This is DeGroot's final lesson. Priorities shift as families expand and age. A work design that made sense for a family with infants may not accommodate a family with teenagers. Indeed, Phyllis Moen's studies at Cornell show that men and women work distinctly different hours and have shifting priorities as their family's profile changes.

Perhaps we should view the marriage as a time-phased portfolio of activities. Changing jobs, shifting home responsibilities, and new personal opportunities all tug at a husband and a wife over the course of a lifetime. But work-life strategies can accommodate each new scenario. Ned Corcoran, 43, for example, recently left his post as Massachusetts's deputy secretary of transportation for a private law practice. Why? By making a lot more money, he created the prospect of future flexibility for his wife, Alison, 40, VP and general manager of Generation i at Polaroid Corp. At some point, she may choose to work less or choose to do something completely different.

But for now, combining their two intense, full-time jobs with raising three kids has made the Corcorans crazy. Reardon and Simon are going nuts too. So are DeGroot and Lutzner, in their own way. Portfolio theory doesn't eliminate the madness. The ThirdPath Institute doesn't promise quick fixes. Craziness is just part of the deal.

Marriage Vows (III): Reengineered Careers

Six months before his son, Skylar, was born in 1997, Bryan Levey walked into his manager's office at Wonderware Corp., the software outfit where Levey had worked for 14 years as an engineer. He asked his manager for a two-month paternity leave, and he added, "When I come back, I'm pretty sure it's going to be for four days a week." Levey intentionally didn't frame this statement as a request. He waited for an objection, but it never came. Rather, his boss welcomed his good sense.

Levey, 39, had just reengineered his own career. Now he stays home and cares for Skylar one day a week. His wife, Lisa D'Annolfo Levey, 36, normally works four days a week as well -- although she is putting in fewer hours and consulting on contract now that she is eight months pregnant with their second child. Like DeGroot and Lutzner, they alternate feeding, bathing, and playing with their son when he's not in preschool.

"We're a little weird," Lisa says. "We define our time carefully. If it's not your night to be responsible for Skylar, you can do whatever you want." But the Leveys think that the arrangement makes them both better parents, in part because it gives them time for themselves and for each other -- time when they don't have to be "on."

Lisa and Bryan are well-educated, accomplished professionals. They're in demand. Bryan just said no to an entrepreneur friend who was searching for a CTO for his growing company. "Wouldn't that be exciting?" Bryan muses. "But it would throw everything out of balance." The Leveys believe that there will always be opportunities in the workplace. They also think that more couples could live and work the way that they do, given the will.

But they understand why others don't. What they've accomplished has taken foresight and willpower. "We're very intentional about our lives," Lisa says. "We've been putting the pieces together for 12 years," ever since they were introduced at a football tailgate party. They have mapped out their life and career changes months or even years in advance, each time carefully calibrating and adjusting for the implications. "This doesn't just happen to you," she says. "There are trade-offs."

In order to work part time, they have lived below their financial means consistently and have saved aggressively. They certainly have abundance in their lives, but it is an abundance of time, security, and flexibility. So they live in a modest house with purple trim on a quiet street in Woburn, Massachusetts (by design, what they could afford if they chose to live on just one salary). Most of their friends have bigger homes than they do. Bryan will sometimes walk into a friend's house and marvel at the spacious dining room or at the great work room. He has to remind himself, "I like the way we live. That friend may be more successful financially, but what price has he paid for it all? You have to redefine success. I'd have to say that I'm successful too, because I'm enjoying my weekends and because I know how to burp a baby."

And yet when the director of development left Wonderware recently, Bryan decided at the last minute to put in for the job. He knew that he was qualified and that he could do the job well. He was annoyed when he learned that he had applied too late.

What troubled him more, though, was the response of the supervisor who was handling the search. "Oh," the manager said. "Your name never came up." Bryan was stunned. Had his part-time schedule taken him that far out of circulation? Was he suddenly less valued? Ten years earlier, he was a fast-track 28-year-old who was managing 40 engineers. And now?

He has mixed feelings about not getting the job. It would have forced him to return to work full time, creating tension at home. He wouldn't have been happy. Yet the supervisor's throw-away remark still haunts him. "It really bothered me," he says.

Can These Marriages Be Saved?

Can Jessica DeGroot save America's marriages? She dreams of creating a national network of ThirdPath affiliates to run workshops and deliver publications to help stop the insanity. Mostly supported now by private donors and by a grant from the Roy A. Hunt Foundation, she hopes that the organization will eventually bring in more revenue through workshop fees, royalties, and other related forms of income.

ThirdPath is challenging the intertwined inertia of history and economics. Men and women continue to resist any divergence from traditional, gender-based family roles, largely because organizations still reward employees who stick to the old way of doing things. And employers see no reason to change the rules until family roles force their hands. Egalitarianism loses in marriage. Women lose. A classic chicken-and-the-egg standoff.

There are signs of modest progress in the workplace. Perry Christensen, a senior consultant at Boston-based WFD, notes that a division of American Express Co. focuses on building personal goals -- including marriage, family, and community -- into its performance-management system. Some work groups at other companies have also incorporated employees' family priorities into project-planning calendars. General Electric Co. has experimented with programs that support husbands and wives who are both employed by the company.

Some academics, too, see incipient social phenomena that they believe will help drive change in the corporate sector. "I'm optimistic," says Joyce K. Fletcher, 54, a professor at the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons College Graduate School of Management in Boston. "What Jessica is doing was unimaginable 25 years ago. Now society is ready. If there really is a chance to have both career and family without killing yourself, people want to try it."

DeGroot thinks that there are enough people out there who want to make a change to spark a shift not just in the workplace but in community organizations and in public policy. She thinks that there is the will to alter gender roles and to improve our methods of caring for kids and for the elderly. She believes that there is some big idea out there that will eventually transform society.

She also knows that such a transformation will take a while, which is why she has a more modest aspiration for now. "I just have to get enough people to live this model that people don't look at me like I'm crazy." As for tonight, she simply aspires to get dinner on the table. It's her turn to cook.

Keith H. Hammonds (khammonds@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact Jessica DeGroot by email (jdegroot@thirdpath.org).

Add New Comment

0 Comments