I am writing this essay at 9 p.m. That’s not unusual for me. I write and edit a lot of things at odd hours. I started working this way when my first kid was born seven and a half years ago, and now as I’m expecting my fourth, it’s become the rhythm of my life. Working a “split shift”–some during the day, and some at night–lets me work long hours and still do family dinners and play with my kids. As I talk to other working parents, I’ve become increasingly convinced that this modern version of a second shift is far from crazy. Indeed, it’s often the key to that alleged impossibility: having it all.
This is really a matter of work/life math. While we could all be more productive during the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday, when you add small people and a household into your life, these 40 hours are rarely a true 40 hours. In the past few weeks, I’ve had a doctor’s appointment and so have my kids. I had to get new tires on my car. I went to a Halloween parade. My 7-year-old had a morning off from school when we didn’t have a sitter. I transported another kid to a post-school playdate. We had a new dishwasher delivered and installed during an 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. window. My husband and I split many duties, but even if I kept my nose to the grindstone during every non-interrupted minute, it would be hard to work more than 30-35 hours during the classic workweek 40. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, the average married mother with kids under age 6 and a full-time job logs just 33.88 hours of work and work-related activities per week. That doesn’t even meet the technical definition of full-time, which is more than 35 hours a week).
It would be nice if some productivity trick could let you do as much in 34 hours as you could in, say, 45, but in the long run, that’s unlikely. In any case, working 45 hours is more likely to lead to the kind of paycheck that can support a family. Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Earn More, has calculated from census data that people working 45 hours per week earn more than twice as much as those who work 34 hours per week.
To meet my income and career-advancement goals, I generally need to work 45-50 hours per week. If I can only log 35 hours by working until 5:30 p.m. most days, I have a few choices. I could keep working every night until 8:30 p.m. and not see my kids. Or I could stop work at 5:30 p.m., hang out with my family until 8:30 p.m., and then get back to work.
So that’s what I do. I’m far from the only one. I recently completed a time diary study of 1001 days in the lives of professional women and their families while researching a book. All these women earned six figures and had kids at home. They worked, on average, 44 hours per week, despite the presence of dentist appointments, preschool volunteer shifts, and the like. About 45% made this work by doing a split shift like mine. In some extreme cases, I saw women leaving work around 3:30 p.m. to get their kids at school, and then scheduling conference calls (often with people in other time zones) from 8-10:30 p.m. They weren’t just catching up on email. They had literally moved the latter chunk of their workdays to the night.
Of course, if I saw this strategy in 45% of time logs, that means that 55% of high-earning moms didn’t do it. Some kinds of work don’t lend itself to this; if you’re doing procedures on patients, you’re probably not going to schedule one for 9 p.m. A split shift requires doing work that can be moved around on dimensions of time and place.
Some people were also just philosophically opposed, which I understand. There’s a certain simplicity when work is work and home is home, and never the twain shall meet. Split shifts cut into leisure time and, if you’re not careful, sleep. Since I usually work from 8:30-10:30 p.m., and I rarely watch TV. I’m fine with that tradeoff, but not everyone is. Since I write for a living, I have an adequate creative outlet. But if I had an office job, I might want to knit or scrapbook at night. My husband generally does a split shift too, but if he worked fewer hours, he might reasonably expect me to spend a bigger chunk of my late nights with him.
There are ways around these problems, though. I’ve started arranging our childcare so I can work through the evening at least one night per week. If I work until 7:30 p.m., then I can often relax that night instead of going back to work. As my kids get older, they sometimes sleep in on weekends. That means I can get up early on those days and use that time (at least until the baby arrives). Two hours on Saturday morning is one split shift I don’t have to work on a weeknight.
But overall, this schedule is a great tool in the work/life toolbox. Sending emails at 9:30 p.m. gets a bad rep, but next time you get such a missive, don’t assume you have a workaholic on your hands. You’re probably just working with someone who’s found a way to get it all done.