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To Commute or Not to Commute

Apr24

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I love reading all the advice on your column because I have a, what I view as, unique dilemma, and everyone around me seems to be biased one way or another, I thought I’d reach out to you and your readers for help!

I am pretty spoiled in the sense that my mom watches my 6 month old at my house every day so that I can work. The problem is that I currently have a 45 minute to an hour (depending on traffic) commute… one way. The two hours of wasted time in the car are really starting to weigh on me. My husband and I are considering moving closer to work so that I can get more time with my daughter/work out/sleep/anything other than be stuck in a car all day. Moving would inevitably mean putting my daughter in daycare instead of having my mom watch her. I am struggling with the guilt of choosing strangers to watch her vs. wanting to see her more during the week and/or have time to do other things.

I have talked myself in circles with the pros/cons and cannot seem to make a decision. Any insight would be wonderful!

Thanks in advance.

Well, the good news is that you’ve finally found someone who ISN’T biased one way or the other. The bad news is that I have absolutely no idea what to tell you. I’m so unbiased I’ve swung around and joined you on the indecision train, because this is a tough call.

I’ve had commutes like yours in the past. D.C.-area traffic is no joke. Our morning and afternoon “rush hours” basically span four solid hours, highways slow to a crawl just based on volume, a minor accident turns everything into a parking lot, and God forbid you try to drive anywhere in the rain or snow, because everybody panics and we’re all going to die in our cars so let’s just give up and slam on the brakes for no particular reason. (There’s a stretch of the Beltway that frequently backs up at a certain time of day because the sun shines in people’s eyes. The first time I heard that on a traffic report I thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but no. It’s a Thing.) In other words, I completely, wholeheartedly understand the time and mental toll a commute like that can take. It’s maddening and frustrating and utterly draining.

I’ve also used daycare, and while I would never classify it outright as a “bad” or “lesser” option, and would quibble with the idea that it’s letting “strangers” care for your daughter — you do get to meet them and learn their names! you’ll probably be completely in love with them in less than a month! — I  WOULD agree that it’s certainly not as convenient (OR FREE) as having a relative show up at your house every day. You’ll be swapping commuting time for drop-off/pick-up time, you’ll have a deadline at the end of the day to stress over, and you’ll possibly end up taking a lot more sick days. Both for your daughter (I assume your mom will still show up even if the baby’s running a slight fever) and for you (daycare/school germs are also a very real Thing; you guys will get a lot of bugs the first year).

If I were you, I’d probably rewrite that pro and con list with the long-term picture in mind, rather than just the short-term changes.

1) How stable is your job? Do you see yourself working there in 10 years or do you think you’ll eventually move on and look elsewhere? What are the odds there will be layoffs or a move to a different office location? (I’ve been surprised by both of those things, and both times it happened not long after I moved to be closer to the job!)

2) If you did decide to look for another job, would moving put you closer or farther away from other options? My husband’s company has an office about 45 minutes away from D.C., and we briefly considered moving closer to it because the real estate prices are so much lower. We opted not to because it would put both of us at risk of a seriously hellish commute if either of us changed employment, since 99% of job options are closer to where we live now. If the opposite is true for you, disregard and put this in the “pro” column.

3) (Here is where I awkwardly bring up the obvious Other Choice of simply looking for a different job closer to where you are now. I’m guessing you have already evaluated and rejected that option, which is fine, but I figured I better at least mention it before 25 people bring it up in the comments.)

4) How long is your mom planning/willing to babysit every day, if you were to stay? You’re only a few months into this arrangement, so if you haven’t had an honest talk with her about her long-term plans yet, do so. Would you be putting your daughter in a preschool/aftercare program in a year or two anyway, or is your mom really on board for providing daily care until kindergarten?

5) Speaking of kindergarten: Schools. What are they like where you live now, and where you’re thinking of moving? Same district, different cluster, different reputation? Fewer or more preschool/private options? Super important.

And one last tip for the short term: Map out your imaginary commute in the new target neighborhood, complete with a drive to and from whatever daycare you’d likely use. (Make one for your husband, too.) Take it for a test drive during rush hour. How much saved commuting time is lost again — or isn’t — when you add in the daycare pitstop? (I suppose a nanny could be an option, though one that’s usually pricier than daycare.) It may be the commute of your dreams, or it may feel like you’ve traded in one commuting grind for another.

I don’t think you have anything to feel guilty about re: wanting to ditch a hellish commute and reclaim your free time and sanity. Perhaps by looking more long-term, and not JUST at the mom vs. daycare debate, you’ll see that one neighborhood option offers other benefits to your family that the other one doesn’t. I hate to drag out this old cliche, but oh, they grow up SO FAST. She’ll be past the stay-at-home-baby/daycare age before you know it, and you’ll be looking at preschools and regular schools and all kinds of other activities. Move where you want to LIVE, I guess, if that makes sense. And if you decide that really LIVING requires you to not spend two hours a day in your car, embrace that life without guilt.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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24 Responses to “To Commute or Not to Commute”

  1. Claire Apr 24 at 11:32 am Reply Reply

    As a compromise, would your mother be on board with continuing to watch your daughter if you moved 30 minutes closer to work? That way, you have a shorter commute and your mom could still come to your house every day? Instead of all-or-none, you’d split the difference?

  2. Kerry Apr 24 at 11:38 am Reply Reply

    One more if-it-was-actually-an-option-you’d-probably-have-done-it-already idea: I leave for work before my daughter gets up in the morning and often come home during her afternoon nap, which makes the time I’m missing while driving slightly less precious. Maybe your boss could be convinced to let you come in at 7 (and then leave early too), or your daughter could be convinced to shift her schedule later. 

  3. Trish Apr 24 at 11:54 am Reply Reply

    Yes, yes: Amy hits it just right as usual. Living where you want to live in the long term (with all the considerations she described) will make the most sense. One thought: Telecommuting? Maybe you have already thought of this one too, or maybe it’s not possible for your specific job? I am a full time telecommuter, both kids in daycare, but I used to have the hellish commute you described. (Kids in daycare + hellish commute = not much time with kids on the weekdays = sadness.) The daycare is close to home so we don’t have to travel far (for health reasons my mom cannot provide care to my kids). I see so much more of them this way!! BTW, I view the idea of “strangers” caring for your kids as one more canard that gets lobbed at WOHMs but is meaningless drivel (a lot like the canard for SAHMs: “what do you DO all day?”). You will not put your children in the care of people whom you do not have total confidence in. Amy is right, they will not be strangers, even at the first drop off. I would describe our relationship with our kids’ teachers as a close working one. We have a singular goal to ensure they are well cared for when not with us, and we are all working toward that. Amy is also right about the illness. If you go with daycare be sure you or your husband have sick leave, or that your mom is willing and capable of caring for her when she is ill. The first six months expect one illness per month, about six the second year. (Mileage varies depending on the kid, too.) After that they almost never get sick, which is great, but there is no free lunch. They will be sick now or when they are older, unless you put them in a bubble.

  4. Tiffany Apr 24 at 12:03 pm Reply Reply

    I so feel you- I commute from one side of DC to the other, a distance of less than 6 miles, and if I time it wrong, it’s still a 45 minute trip. Right now, a job 3 miles closer would be seriously attractive to me for exactly this reason- I hate wasting so much time that I could spend playing with my baby. 

    But let me weigh in on the daycare thing- when I first went back to work, I had that moment of panic about strangers! watching MY precious baby! But the truth is, Amy’s right. They don’t stay strangers for long. My son has HUGE smiles for his teachers when he arrives in the morning, and they have HUGE smiles for him. 

    But a thing that Amy didn’t mention is… he gets to spend his day with other babies. Some are his age, some are a little older or younger, but they all have different skills and it’s like I can SEE the wheels turning in his head when he sees a slightly older baby crawling, for example. Even though babies really play next to each other more than they play WITH each other, the same-age socialization is good for him. 

    And Amy is totally right about the daycare germs. If you go that route, for the first year you WILL get sick a lot. Buy some disinfecting wipes, wash your hands a lot, and try to avoid the worst of it. (The worst of it is stomach viruses, not colds. I laugh at colds now.)

    • IrishCream Apr 24 at 3:43 pm Reply Reply

      So true. My children’s teachers at their daycare/preschool are not strangers. My girls adore them, and they truly love my girls. I don’t feel one iota of guilt when I drop my kids off every morning–I know 100% that they will be safe, cared for with love, and that they’ll get to do all kinds of cool activities that we wouldn’t have the resources to do at home.

      Since you’re not in a position where you have to move right away, you can take some time to research different childcare options closer to your office, and see if you find a place that feels right for your family. It might make your decision easier if you had more information about what your options would be in the potential new neighborhood.

  5. Hillary Apr 24 at 12:36 pm Reply Reply

    MOVE! Speaking from experience, I moved a block away from my job and it was a fabulous decision. Whenever people bring up “Lean In” I counter with “Move In” as a better career move. Those 2 hours you’re spending in the car are not only totally useless time, but it is time your child is awake! By moving down the street from work, I go from a 40 hr/week professional to a mom in 5 minutes when it used to take an hour each way to switch modes. I agree with Amy that you shouldn’t move if the new neighborhood is undesirable or the job is not long-term. But otherwise, I highly endorse reducing your commute. Being close to work and kids is also nice if someone is sick, if you forgot something important at home, etc.

  6. MR Apr 24 at 12:44 pm Reply Reply

    Don’t do it.

    As a mother who has had a nanny who came to my house, then switched to daycare, and who used to have a long commute, I’d really urge you not to move and to keep your mother as nanny. I know the commute SUCKS. But, moving and switching to daycare actually won’t give you more QUALITY TIME with your daughter. My nanny did my girls’ laundry, made their lunches, got them dressed, did their hair, gave them their baths, and did occasional errands for me (like, dd just had a growth spurt and no longer fits in any of her pants, could you please run to Target for me and pick up 5 pairs? or dd has a birthday party to go to this weekend, could you please run to the store and pick out something for a 3 year old girl?). When she moved away and I had to start getting them ready in the morning, packing their lunches, doing their hair, giving them baths, dropping them off, doing their laundry, etc, it actually lessened a lot of time spent with my girls. I mean, I’m technically with them more, but I don’t count the time when I am frantically rushing around trying to get them out the door (because Holy Heck that is a CHORE) or when I am trying to get laundry done, etc as quality time. I used to just get to come home and hug them and play with them or read to them. Now I have stuff that I have to get done instead. I know that when you start going back to work it seems like you don’t spend nearly enough time with your child. But, I can tell you from experience, moving and having to do daycare won’t give you more time with her. I’d encourage you to try to reframe your commute as that “me” time every mom needs. I don’t even turn on the radio because it is pretty much the only time of uninterrupted silence I get all day. I try to use that as the time to clear my head and relax, so when I get home, I can focus on the kids more.

    • jodie Apr 24 at 4:09 pm Reply Reply

      Just want to +1 these points.  I did daycare (an amazing daycare!) with a short commute with my first and had the option of my mom nannying with my second two with a long commute.  I’m amazed at how much more fun time I get with them each night than I did my oldest.  My mom does laundry when they are napping, often grabs odds and ends at the market and bathes them during the day.  My nights are sitting down to dinner (which she’s often started for me) with my two speaking age kids and joking and laughing and then playing with the baby until she goes to sleep.  It’s weird to feel like I have more time with them than I did my oldest, but the hurry and get ready grind + pick up/drop off time made a huge difference in quality of life.

      Staggering your schedule to leave before they wake up helps too.  I get a solid 1.5-2 hours with the baby and 3-3.5 with the big kids because of it.

    • Mary Apr 24 at 5:12 pm Reply Reply

      I was going to say the exact same thing, followed by what Leah said, if you do move, it will probably need to be within 2 min of your work to be worth leaving behind what is a essentially a super-flexible nanny situation.

      Just the overhead involved with dropping our kids at daycare involves about 30+ minutes over what a “come to our house” caregiver would require, and then another 10-15 for the pickup. I have the opportunity to test this out a few times a year when my kids are sick, our employers offer a “back up care” option which is a free highly qualified nanny who comes to our house. The difference in how our day plays out is remarkable.

      The bigger picture is really so complicated. Daycare people are not strangers and the save the guilt for not seeing her during the day, not for who is watching her. Buying and selling homes is huge, maybe you are renting and it’s a much easier change. I’m actually quitting work this year. It’s a nuclear option, but honestly, we’re tired of the constant pick up and drop off and all that baggage.

  7. Rachel Apr 24 at 4:10 pm Reply Reply

    I would definitely do the test drive with pit stop for daycare. It’s possible that this would definitely be quicker, but it’s also possible that you might have a ten minute drive from work to daycare, ten minutes to pick up your child, and a ten minute drive home, meaning your commute isn’t really all that different. If I were you and this test drive could be completed in under 20 minutes, I’d probably try to move. If it took longer, I’d probably stay and try to see my commute as relaxing time, listening to the radio or audiobooks.

    Personally, I am all about less commuting. I used to have an hour-and-a-half train journey each way to work, and when I got to start telecommuting, it felt like I was given half my life back (although I spent much of it sleeping). On the other hand, any amount of commuting can seem like a lot. When I was in high school, the twenty-minute drive there seemed like forever. I know someone who lived on a fairly small island and was saying that she had to quite going to some kind of weekly event because the other side of the island was too far away (it was 10-15 minutes). It’s all relative. You may hate a 5-minute commute just as much as you hate your 45-minute commute.

  8. Brooke Apr 24 at 4:58 pm Reply Reply

    Is there anything you can do to lessen the commute? Like ask your employer if you can work 7am – 3pm instead of 9am – 5pm?  Or perhaps leave work a bit early and make up the work at home after the children are in bed? Or on a Saturday morning before the children wake up? I’ve done all of these things to help reduce a 1 hour commute to 30 minutes.

  9. Caroline Apr 24 at 5:02 pm Reply Reply

    I know I don’t live in the USA but the principles are broadly the same, and it’s why I switched to freelancing from home. It’s not well paid, obviously no particular prospects (though I am using marketable skills so could get back into the workforce) BUT when my kids are finished with school, I am home. Yes, it does sometimes turn into a juggling act, of course, but the stress and headache of daycare costs (not that I have any issue with it in principle at all, don’t see it as ”2nd rate” or ”strangers”) just that it’s time, money and inevitably balls get dropped along the way. We were able to just about manage on my earning less, and whilst it’s not perfect, the thought of spending hours in my car every single day is what makes it worthwhile! Could you telecommute once or twice per week perhaps? Even once each week would lessen the load.

  10. Sarah Apr 24 at 6:50 pm Reply Reply

    i LOVE my daycare. I trust my daycare provider more than my doctor. 

  11. Mona Apr 24 at 9:21 pm Reply Reply

    We do both types of care- my retired parents watch our kids (one kindergarten age, one toddler) three days a week, and the toddler goes to an in home babysitter we’ve used for four years. I can say that days when grandma and grandpa are here make for much less hectic mornings and evenings, and more “quality” time. My commute is only 20 mins, but becomes 40+ on days I drop off and pick up from the sitter. I’m not sure you’d be picking up much net time with
    your child. Plus- oh, the wonderful quality bonding with grandma and grandpa. And coming home to less laundry. It’s golden.
    You will definitely face more viruses for a couple of years with daycare, our oldest was in daycare for about 8 months and was sick all the time- so we were sick often as well. I think that naturally gets better around the time they’re three or so, but something else to consider.
    I’m a big fan of grandma care for at least part of the time- so many great benefits for all concerned!

  12. Dee Apr 24 at 9:34 pm Reply Reply

    As someone who started commuting 30+ minutes recently, I second the notion to try to make the commute me time. I love reading, but don’t get to do it much anymore and now listen to Audible while I drive. I now look forward to my car time, and I get to read/listen 2-3 books a month which is amazing.

    Also, very small child in daycare is tough. When they get sick daycare sends them home and you have to take a day off, sometimes next day too. My son is a bit older now and he really enjoys going to school and seeing his buddies, but at 6 months they are better off staying home with nana.

    For what it’s worth I had a daycare that was 10 minute walk to my apartment and work. My day went like this: wake up, get ready for work and get baby ready for school, come home, short play, dinner, bath, sleep. I would then do a chore or two before plopping in front of a TV exhausted. My commute was 30 minutes from home to daycare to work, and I got very little quality time with my baby…

    I do want to second Amy’s school comment. They grow up so fast, and school ratings do not change much

  13. Jeannie Apr 24 at 10:26 pm Reply Reply

    I have used the same (wonderful, much loved, at-work) group daycare for seven years through two kids. My only contribution is that before kids I had a  15 minute, door to door commute. When dropping off both my kids at two locations, my commute is closer to 45 minutes. Sure, I am with the kids and we have some awesome conversations in the car, but it would be very sure just how much time you would save moving closer and switching to daycare — especially if your mom takes care of things like dinner prep, errands and laundry which I need to do when I get home. Just my two cents. 

  14. Kaycee Apr 25 at 12:38 am Reply Reply

    There is lots of good advice here, but I have one more suggestion. If you do continue with the long commute, I suggest listening to really, really good audio books while you drive. That saved my sanity during the hundred mile commute I had to make several times a week during my two years of grad school. Traffic jam? Yay! I get to hear another chapter!

  15. Katina Apr 25 at 1:46 am Reply Reply

    I say you stay put.  I agree with Amy’s comment, once you go through the stress of getting your daughter ready and out the door each morning and driving and dropping her at day care, and inevitably still driving to work, even if it’s short, you may not save that much time.  Just my 2 cents!  You are so so lucky to have your mom close to watch your daughter everyday.  Have you approached work about having some type of more flexible schedule?  I leave early on Tuesdays (because my nanny has to leave for school) and just that longer afternoon with my little one totally helps me get through the long week.  I also commute, average 30 mins on a good day, bad 45+.  Good luck with your decision!

  16. Jen Apr 25 at 10:19 am Reply Reply

    I don’t know what daycare options are like near your home or work, but one thing to consider that I haven’t seen mentioned yet is the need to drop what you’re doing and go to daycare for illnesses/injuries. My job is closer to both our home and daycare, so whenever we get the call that my son’s fever isn’t going down so I need to get him, or that he’s vomited, or something similar, I’m usually the one who needs to leave work and go bring him home. 

    We don’t live near family, so when we moved here (for my husband’s work) we chose to live in a neighbourhood we liked, with good schools, put our son in daycare very close by our house, and I work about a 20-minute drive or 15-minute cycle (there are bike-path shortcuts) from home, while my husband works a 35-45 minute drive away. 

    Because my work involves occasional travel, or odd hours, or I just get sick sometimes, even though I’m the closer one, my husband is just as involved in the pick-up/drop-off dance. 

    And don’t forget to factor in all the things your mom may be doing while you’re out of the house, that you would lose by moving. 

    We drove ourselves crazy on our system for a year, before hiring a nanny/housecleaner to come in for two half-days a week to do our laundry, vacuum, dust, bathrooms, and do a couple of the daycare pickups. And FINALLY we feel like we have the right amount of *quality* time together as a family. 

  17. Annie Apr 25 at 3:40 pm Reply Reply

    My husband and I have two young children and demanding jobs. Quality of life is a big deal to us, so much so that we made a cross country move last year, from DC to Denver. We gave up a lot, and gained so much more. Whatever quality of life means to you and your family, seek that out. It sounds like you’ll be turning down something good in any scenario, and those decisions are always tough. Good luck to you! I hope that whatever you decide brings you peace and happiness.

  18. Grammy Apr 25 at 4:05 pm Reply Reply

    I had a full-time job outside the home my entire life up until I retired. Everything Amy said and the other moms have added pretty much covers it, but I do have two suggestions to add to your list of things to think about:

    Is reading for pleasure something that is high on your list of things to do? That’s going to diminish a lot while your daughter is young — the draw of a little girl wanting to brush your hair or hear The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the zillionth time is too great to turn away. I wish they’d had audiobooks when I was a young mom commuting for two hours a day.

    The other thing regards diminishing stress for you in a way you might not have thought about yet, the convenience of having your mom close enough to school (whenever she starts) to pick up your daughter so you don’t have to worry about those occasional times when you’ll be late getting home from work. My grandson goes to preschool about halfway between where his parents live and we do. It’s easy for everyone if there’s an unexpected late meeting at work, or even if there’s an accident on the highway and his parents will be late getting to the school — they never have to worry about “late charges”. Grandpa and I have also picked him up in the middle of the day when he started running a fever at school. That convenience has been a benefit to all of us. And his teachers are the most wonderful, caring people in the world — they were only “strangers” for the first couple of days.

  19. Sara Apr 25 at 5:26 pm Reply Reply

    Another vote for trying to shift your work schedule to earlier hours to avoid the worst of the commute! I halved my commuting time by shifting to a 7-ish to 4-ish schedule. The shift changed my life, I say with no exaggeration. Telecommuting one day a week? It can’t hurt to ask. Having your mother nearby is such a gift. My parents watch my kids a couple days a week and not only am I incredibly grateful for the flexible, free, and loving care, there is nothing like watching that relationship develop between your parents and your kids. We love our daycare, too, but they are neither flexible nor free. Good luck working this out!

  20. DontBlameTheKids Apr 25 at 8:11 pm Reply Reply

    This was us. First we shifted our days, so I was done by 4. It’s worth noting that we did daycare from the start, so the baby was in the car with us two hours a day. Not ideal. We did this for 4.5 years.

    Six months ago, we moved ten minutes away from work. We left an excellent school system for a good elementary school, but we will have to think of something else for middle school and high school. It’s been worth it for us (so far).

  21. Shannon Apr 29 at 10:42 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t have advice, but wanted to commiserate. I have an 85 mile commute that is 90 minutes at best and was 3 hours tonight (at off-peak times; damn you rain). I certainly appreciate my audiobooks and podcasts and NPR listening, but I still find the commute, traffic, and stress mentally and physically exhausting. I love the idea of visiting daycare centers and testing out potential commutes. You might find something that absolutely feels right, or you might find reassurance that your current situation is the best.

    (Another parallel-we are using grandparents for day care now but will probably move to center care in the next few months. We like the social interaction she’ll get at a center, and don’t want grandparents to feel taken advantage of.)

    Good luck!

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