Juggling: the only way to survive

So much to do, so little time. Ann Treneman finds that life is hard for working families

HANNAH MARIE DENT knew that something had to change when, during her afternoon shift at the Golden Wonder factory in Scunthorpe, she forgot to put the salt in the crisps. Her mind was elsewhere - worrying about whether her three children were home from school. "I got into trouble for that and I thought, this just isn't on," she says. Her solution was to switch to the night shift and, despite all the exhaustion and scheduling complications, she is convinced it was the right thing.

"I really do like this much better. I can get my housework done. I've got more time for the kids. I can read with them and do their spelling and homework. And we can go to open evenings and school plays," she says.

It also means that she and her husband, Shaun, run what is almost a round- the-clock shift system. They figure that, all in all, they have about a half an hour together during the day. "It doesn't do much for your sex life," says Shaun. Hannah Marie says she's not too bothered about that.

Tomorrow night, the BBC's Having it All season ends with a programme called Juggling (the Dents are one of three couples who star in it). At first I thought there was some mistake with the title. Even the word is a blast from the past. It belongs to the Eighties era of power shoulders and Dallas reruns. Those were the days when people aspired to juggle, and women's magazines carried articles about how to do more in less time.

She magazine was "for women who juggle their lives". Then its editor, Linda Kelsey, left her job after finding the juggling too stressful, and the magazine's motto changed. People started to talking about simplifying their lives and the women's glossies started to fill up with articles on yoga.

But in the real world, our lives in the Nineties have become more, not less, complicated. Employment trends show that we are working longer hours and have much less job security. Time is the most valuable commodity for many families.

Stress expert Cary Cooper says: "It is the relationship between the husband and wife that troubles me, Is it a coincidence that we have the longest working hours and the highest divorce rate in Europe?"

Two out of three families now have two incomes. Most women with young children work, both out of choice and necessity. For instance, Hannah Marie supported Shaun through years of study to become a health and safety expert and still provides the family's main income while the business finds its feet. The Dents may seem extreme in some ways, but their circumstances are not unusual.

W. Stokes Jones, editor of Planning for Social Change, said: "Juggling didn't go away. It just became the norm. It is now par for the course. That's the way with trends. You can tell when they really take hold - they become invisible." And lucrative. He notes that the three fastest growing retail markets are takeaway food, domestic help and childcare. All are a the tools of the juggler.

Shaun Dent, at 37, tries to cheat time in many ways. He keeps his car clock set 15 minutes ahead. He asks me if I'd like a tea or, even better, a quick tea (evidently this is the powdered kind). When I ask him about juggling, he just looks exasparated. "I think it's past juggling. It's just what we do." Hannah Marie nods. "It's like normal life now."

Just listening to their schedule is exhausting. Hannah Marie's day ends at 6am, just as her husband's begins. They meet in the kitchen, where one or the other is making up the packed lunches for their three boys, aged between eight and 13. She goes to bed then and Shaun gets the children up and takes them to school before going to work.

Hannah gets up about 1pm and does the housework and some accounts for Shaun, before picking the children up from school and cooking their tea. When Shaun gets home, at about 7pm, he makes dinner for the two of them. She reads with the kids and, at 9pm, starts to get ready for work. Hannah figures she has almost no free time. "But I do always watch Coronation Street,"she says.

Clare Paterson, who created the Having It All series, says that the whole thing started because she was so interested in juggling. "It's the messy bits in our lives that are the most interesting. It's the school run and the pick-up. It's not the meal but the food preparation that is interesting," she says.

She and her husband have three children. "Even at the weekends there is a constant negotiation over who is going to do what,"she says. "My husband will say, `What are the plans for the day?'" The only real plan is to somehow get through it! And I just really wondered how other families coped with that."

The film features three families of five. Anna and David are both lawyers and live in a lovely big house in Kent. Jody is a final-year student barrister and is married to Tom, a prison officer. And then there are the Dents in Scunthorpe. "I was interested in looking at the similarities and differences," says director Peter Gordon. "But the similarities far outweigh any differences and they always are around the key issue. They are always asking: Are we doing the right thing by the children? There is a lot of guilt."

Nor does money change things that much. Anna and David, for instance, can afford any amount of help, but often their only real chance to talk mid-week is during a shared car journey." When you compare Anna and David and Hannah and Shaun - even though there are probably hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of difference in their earnings - what they are actually saying and feeling is very similar," says Peter Gordon.

He adds that it seems to be generally agreed that it is the woman who makes the main concessions and that work, for everyone, was an area of calm compared to the chaos at home.

Novelist Maeve Haran ushered in the superwoman backlash a few years ago with her bestselling novel Having It All, in which her heroine trades in a high-powered job to spend more time with her children and less time writing lists. In some ways the book mirrored her life but, with three children and a full-time writing career she still knows a lot about juggling. "Oh, God yes. I'm just writing a list now as a matter of fact. If I didn't juggle, I wouldn't survive," she says when I ring. "But in one generation we've become much more child-centred as well as more career-oriented, so it's no wonder we all make so many lists."

Shaun and Hannah Marie say that our interview is the longest time they've spent together for ages. I ask about the future. Shaun says when his business becomes more successful then he might be able to come home earlier. Hannah says she'll never give up work "It's my independence and I've always said my kids wouldn't go without."

Juggling is on BBC2 at 9pm tomorrow

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