Repeated school closures test working parents and sometimes marital harmony

On the umpteenth snow day of this never-ending winter, Micah Elazar and his wife were pulling a half-day handoff. He was catching a Metro train in the morning to retrieve his laptop at his downtown law firm. Meanwhile, his wife was watching the kids until he got back to their Takoma Park home, and then she’d hunker down for conference calls with her foundation co-workers.

After 10 days of school closures in Montgomery County this winter, the Elazars have perfected the region’s shutdown shuffle, not to mention their own marital diplomacy.

“It’s been a juggle every time,” he said. “We’ve always made it work using trade-offs with other families. But I know a lot of people are at the boiling point.”

Many working parents don’t have a choice about staying home with their kids, even when the snow days pile up. They have to work to get paid or to avoid using up all their precious leave.

Neva Lyons, 25, the mother of two young children, said the snow couldn’t stop her from going to her job as a medical assistant at a Bethesda urology office. “If I don’t go to work, it takes away from my personal leave,” she said as she waited for her bus in Langley Park.

See how much snowfall has hit the region.

Monday’s snowstorm and numerous school closures could have caused far more havoc in many households if the federal government had remained open. But since the folks at the Office of Personnel Management shut the government down, many spousal disputes over who stays home with the kids and who works were quickly resolved.

Normally, Michael Taylor, a marketing consultant from Leesburg, and his wife, a program manager for the defense firm ManTech, duke it out on snow days over who works and who stays home with their 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.

But Taylor said his wife has been working at a federal government location instead of at her corporate office.

“Where she works is closed today, and I’ve got things to do today at work.” The federal government’s decision to shut down, he said, laughing, “has probably saved our marriage.”

All the snow days, he said, have produced repeated strained husband-wife conversations that boil down to very sensitive questions: Who’s more valuable at work? Who’s needed more? Since Loudoun County has endured 14 snow days — the most in the D.C. region — the couple has had many opportunities to evaluate each other’s worth to their workplaces.

“It’s very passive aggressive because one person says, ‘How’s your day look?’ And we basically subliminally determine from our perspective how busy the other person’s day is and who should take the bullet,” he said. “We typically end up in the crappy mood the next morning, depending on who wins and who loses.”

Looking back at two weeks’ worth of snow days, Taylor suspects that he’s been the one tending more often to their first-grader and preschooler when school has closed. “And my kids are worse off for it,” he noted, laughing again. (Asked if this remark was a tactic to guilt his wife into staying home more on snow days, he said without hesi­ta­tion, “Of course it is.”)

Sometimes, Laura Colley, a program manager for a District fundraising firm, and her husband, a Verizon engineer, resort to very adult-like forms of mediation. “We’ll say, ‘Who did it last time?’ Or we play rock-paper-scissors,” she said.

But on Sunday night, the Loudoun couple managed to avoid hand-to-hand combat using clenched fists and smacked palms. Instead, Colley checked her phone and saw a closure alert from the school system. When her husband entered the room, she volunteered to stay home with the kids, calmly announcing, “It’s my turn.”

For John Wolf, a vice president at Marriott, it is not entirely automatic that his wife, Barbara Richardson, goes to work and he stays home with their 9-year-old daughter, but it’s close.

That’s because Richardson is chief of staff at Metro. Snow plus public transportation plus the words “chief” and “staff” typically add up to what happened Monday morning: “We shoveled her out, and off she went,” said Wolf, who lives in the District, where six snow days are the lowest in the region.

Wolf said he typically adjusts his work schedule on the days he’s trapped by snow, working in the morning, taking some time off in the afternoon and getting back to work after dinner.

He gets it. He’s okay with it.

“She has to go,” he said.

But in Washington, where so many people travel abroad for work, snow days can come at the worst time. Elazar, the Takoma Park husband, said he got a desperate text message at 7:30 a.m. Monday from a mother seeking care for her 7-year-old and 4-year old because her husband was headed to the airport on a trip to the Middle East.

“She’s trying to determine if her 12-year-old neighbor is old enough to watch them,” he said. “Otherwise, she’s bringing them to our house.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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