AJR  Features :     FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   July/August 2000

Maybe You Can't Have It All   

One newspaper editor decides work and child rearing don't mix, and opts for more time with the kids. But she hopes to return to the newsroom.

By Amy Dunkle
Amy Dunkle, former editor of the Brookings Register in South Dakota, is now a stay-at-home mom, freelance writer and columnist.     

THE FINAL CLUE I needed a break from nearly 20 years in newspapers came during the drive to pick up our two youngest children from day care. It was a nondescript February day in South Dakota--cold, gray, dreary and dark at 5 p.m.
Work had been lousy, but not spectacularly so. Still, I nursed feelings of having had the life sucked out of me. I watched the cars drive by in the oncoming lane. For an instant, I thought how nice it would be if someone hit me and I landed in the hospital for a few days.
It wasn't until I repeated this to my husband that I realized how bizarre it sounded.
"You've got to take a break," he said. "Just call in tomorrow. That's what normal people do."
"They'll blow by deadline," I countered.
"So what?" he said.
So what, indeed.
At the start of my career, I dreamed of a plum beat at a big-city paper. But my baptism into the field took place along the back roads of New Hampshire. There, I fell in love with community journalism and all things local. Delusions of fame and fortune fell by the wayside as I succumbed to the lure of small-town life.
It was a strange attraction--zoning plans, town meetings, school budgets, car fires and hit-and-run fatals. But nothing--not the low pay, the boring meetings, the strange hours--dampened my enthusiasm. I loved this and could not bear to walk away.
At least, not until that February day. For the first time in two decades, I imagined a big story breaking and my not being there--and not missing it.
In the next instant, I thought about what a former colleague told me after the birth of my second child. The ex-boss greeted the news with the comment: "She just ruined her career."
I was offended at the time. A child of the 1970s, I grew up with the idea that you could have it all. Well, perhaps in some fields. In journalism, however, it can be a foolish concept leading to insanity.
So in March, after eight-and-a-half years as editor of the Brookings Register, a 5,600-circulation, six-day paper in Brookings, South Dakota, I quit to stay home with our four children, all under 10.
In my time on the job, I had withstood one buyout, four publishers, four ad managers, four circulation managers, two business managers, two press managers and God knows how many mailroom managers.
At the same time, newsroom staff turned over and the budget shrank, item by item. There was more to do and fewer people to do it.
We battled the politics of covering a small Midwestern community, where everything truly is personal. The DUI? He's a former co-worker's husband. The assailant? Your day-care provider's nephew. Fire department embezzlement comes courtesy of a neighbor's longtime friend.
Where, then, does the family fit in?
School conferences, soccer games and softball practice are juggled with copy deadlines, management meetings and special sections. Early mornings mean hair goes unbraided. Laundry gets done around the clock. Stitches in a kindergartner's forehead provide a welcome excuse to skip out of a budget session.
I plead guilty to doping up a child with a 100-degree fever and sending her to day care, praying that she'd last out the morning until the final page is sent to the image setter. In a pinch, with my husband out of town, I have copyedited while soothing an ill baby on my shoulder. The older children have taken turns parked in front of the office television, feeling fluish and wrapped in winter coats.
I have shooed away toddlers underfoot as I typed up an editorial for the next day's paper, so I could spend the morning finishing a special section on new car models. And throughout it all, my unwavering loyalty stayed true to the mission of producing a quality product.
Now, with some distance between me and my job, the picture falls into better perspective. The stress and the demands of home and work did not dim the appeal of journalism, but they did finally force me to take a breather.
In hindsight, I don't know how I held out for as long as I did, balancing the dual, deeply embedded passions of family and journalism. It is an all-too-familiar battle that plays out in countless souls.
Buster Olney, who covers the Yankees for the New York Times, has felt some of the same strong tugs.
Last November, Olney, 36, and his wife, Lisa, welcomed a baby girl into their lives. Leaving for spring training was heartbreaking, Olney says. "I was away from home for seven weeks, and although they came down to visit in the middle of it, the time away was awful, thinking that when Sydney woke up in the morning and looked up out of her crib with her big smile, I wouldn't be there to smile back," he says.
Olney, who has also covered the San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets for other papers, had thoughts of writing a book this summer. Two weeks into spring training, however, he decided "what I really need to concentrate on...is creating and redefining the hard lines between work and home life.
"I work because I love it and because it's second nature, but I have worked hard this year on not checking the scores on days off," he says. "Instead, I'm doing things like cleaning and fixing...so that when I have time with Lisa and Sydney, it is unfettered time, with undivided attention."
Bobbi Lower, 45, who about two years ago left a reporting job at KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, says her stress stemmed from trying to juggle everything. She and her husband have a son and a daughter, 15 and 9.
After her son was born, Lower says she found most day-care providers insisted on having children picked up by 5:30 p.m. "But I worked until 6:30 because of the 6 o'clock news, and that was if nothing went wrong," she says, explaining that her husband, then a pharmacist, worked retail hours, which meant he was often on the job until 10 p.m. "I was so lucky to find someone who I could call and say, 'Something just happened....'
"But, there are decisions you have to make. Do you want to anchor the 10 o'clock news? I said, 'No.' "
After 21 years in journalism--print and broadcast--Lower now works in public relations at a hospital.
Ultimately, the hard lesson is the one most of us hate to accept: You cannot have it all. Or, at least, you can't have it all at the same time.
The dilemma is equally frustrating from the management standpoint.
Some of the options that work in other fields--extended maternity leaves, job sharing, four 10-hour shifts--sound good, but are not always practical in the newsroom. Children get sick, perform in school concerts, play T-ball. But the news never stops, and deadlines keep rolling.
I hate to think, however, that dropping out is the only solution. It shouldn't be that journalism and parenting are mutually exclusive.
Half the battle is for the employee to set priorities and determine the level of sacrifice. For Kevin Wooster, a 48-year-old reporter for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, that means drawing the line at his children's sporting events.
"I get to every game," the father of two teens says. "That's one place where I don't miss. There have been some knock-down, drag-out fights with my bosses on that.... But, if there's a track meet, I'm going to the track meet."
The other half of the responsibility rests with employers, who have to decide what they will do to retain good staffers. A willingness to understand and be flexible goes a long way. Computers at home with office-compatible software and a remote server would ease a lot of strain.
My choice has brought some sanity and a sense of control over my life. Last week, the kids and I gardened for the first time. Yesterday, I spent three hours of the morning at my daughter's track meet.
Today, the two little ones and I will take a leisurely stroll to the park. I volunteered to help out with a class picnic Friday.
I like to think that I will return to the newsroom in a few years, and that when I do, I will be both a better journalist and mother.
But for now, I am content to slow down, breathe deep and let each day take me where it will.