Midnight moms are in the grip of holiday mania

Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 15, 2011

’Twas the week before Christmas when inside the house, mom pulled another all-nighter, scaring off the poor mouse.

The stockings needed washing, the bills must be paid, and the quarterly earnings report had to be made.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

You think all is quiet on the new-fallen snow? Not if there’s an overscheduled supermom anywhere in sledding distance.

While visions of sugarplums dance in everyone else’s heads, these moms knock out the dishes, memos, e-mails, bills, baking, permission slips, holiday show costumes and even the gardening. Check. Check. Check.

This time of year, pulling the midnight shift is all about survival.

“I may be exhausted when I finally get to bed. But it feels so good to have a checklist cleared at 2 a.m.,” says Vicki Leonardo, a marketing executive with Verizon.

When the streets of Bethesda are quiet, Leonardo is hemming a skirt for choir or blasting e-mails for the school auction.

Take a look at your inbox. Those 3 a.m. time stamps are nothing but robo-ads and frenetic moms.

It begins when the kids are infants. Getting up at 11 p.m., then 1 a.m., then 3 a.m., then pulling a full day at the office becomes routine.

By the time they can sleep through the night (last week was the first time for us, I think), you are used to being up anyhow. So why not vacuum or fold some laundry?

And no, this isn’t about insomia. These aren’t Lunesta candidates.

“Oh no. If I ever lay down, I’m out,” says Leonardo, who is raising three kids. “This is just about not having enough time to do everything there is to do.”

I get where she’s coming from. I’ve become the weirdo planting tulip bulbs at 1 a.m., to the light of the harvest moon and to the stares of partiers staggering home.

Same scenario last week, hanging the Christmas lights at 3 a.m. Cheers, neighbors!

The night crew at the 24-hour Safeway is really fun to hang out with, too.

Across America, women who have broken barriers in the daylight hours — working in traditionally male jobs or assuming management roles — are still bearing the burden of their gender at night, getting up to mother and make house like it was 1949.

Sarah Burgard, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, studied time patterns of women between 2003 and 2007 and found that even when both parents work the same hours during the day, moms pull the graveyard shift at home.

But the double shift takes its toll on future earnings and career development for midnight moms, according to the projections in Burgard’s study.

Plus, a lot of us hate having to juggle and multi-task so much. The Washington Post’s Janice D’Arcy wrote about the American Sociological Association’s big multi-tasking study, which came out last week. It concluded that women multi-task more but that we don’t like doing it because it creates a mental bouillabaisse of legal briefs, child foot wart appointments, client e-mails, vomit stains, dog poop, A/C repair guys, summer camp forms, new underpants, the cost-analysis report and Mrs. Johnson’s holiday gift. (She’s allergic to nuts.)

To get it all done, Staci Temple Otto was wearing herself to a nub, up all night cleaning out closets at her Alexandria home or doing laundry or answering work calls.

She’s one of the IT brains at the Latham & Watkins law firm and on the side, taught infant swim classes.

If it wasn’t lawyers calling her at all hours with tech issues or housework keeping her up, it was the 15 moms of her little swim students who wanted to talk about class.

“And they responded and wanted to talk at midnight. They were all keeping the same hours as I was,” Otto marveled.

She’s been trying to put the brakes on the midnight mania, lower expectations and get some sleep.

“I realized that not matter how much I stayed up at night, there was never enough time to get it all done,” she said.

Quality time with homework, the siren call of the BlackBerry, the rise of cupcake compulsion and scrapbook fever, that blasted Elf on the Shelf — the drive to make everything just a little more special for the kids is turning us into maniacs. We’re making more stops than Santa. And he gets to sleep for the other 364 days. Mom gets to do it all over again, every day.

The midnight habit isn’t even the exclusive domain of moms who work outside the home. I’ve had plenty of e-mail chats with stay-at-home mom friends who are up at 4 a.m., savoring the quiet of the house and a cup of coffee that is sipped, not gulped.

No one is there to judge us, ask us for moremoremore or tell us it’s mineminemine. We listen to our audiobooks so we can talk to our smart, single friends, we Clorox the shelves so the house is as clean as mom’s and we edit that report until it’s perfect.

And then those morning birds begin to sing, dawn breaks and, once again, we belong to everyone else.

E-mail me your midnight mom manias to dvorakp@washpost.comdvorakp@washpost.com .

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