Working women still can’t have it all, Anne Marie Slaughter lamented earlier this year in an article in the Atlantic Monthly.
Leesburg’s Lori Mercer tells a different story.
In her first year as principal at Belmont Station Elementary School, the mom of two is juggling back-to-school nights and staff meetings with football and gymnastics practice. It’s hectic, she says, but she is okay with that.
“We could have made some concessions for me not to work, but I never put myself in position to do that because I like to work,” said Mercer, who is 41. “I never thought about not working.”
Mercer’s mother worked as a medical transcriptionist. Most of her mom friends also work outside the home. It seemed natural to her to have both a career and family. With help from her husband, Chris, and from a support system in the school and the community, she says it’s working for them.
“I love my job,” Mercer said. “Even when I was teaching, without my own children, I worked in the summer because I craved that routine of having to get up, having to be somewhere, having something to do. I always found myself looking for things to keep that schedule. Being happy in what you’re doing makes it easier.”
So she gets up at 5:15 a.m. on weekdays to squeeze in a quiet cup of coffee and a few chores before dragging Charlie, 8, and Emily, 4, out of bed. She does at least one load of laundry each day, sometimes more. And she crawls into bed around 10 p.m., only to get up the next day and do it all again.
Like many moms, her office is a shrine to her dual identity, with family pictures and artwork scattered around, and a stack of Harry Potter books tucked away on a shelf. After a long day at school, she picks up the intercom and pages her children — one a third-grader at her school and the other in preschool at Montessori at Belmont Green across the street — to come to the front office to go home.
She and Chris, a financial manager at TASC in Chantilly, split the household chores, taking turns with cooking and kitchen clean-up. Whoever is not on clean-up duty handles showers for the kids and starts the bedtime routine. Lori takes care of the laundry and making lunches. When one of the kids has to stay home sick, they often split the responsibility so both can work for at least a few hours.
“It’s hard for either of us to take the entire day off if it’s not planned,” Chris said.
On a recent evening at their house, Lori put together a salad, broccoli and potatoes while Chris grilled the steaks for dinner and the kids played at a neighbor’s house. Then they gathered in the kitchen, Chris and Charlie at stools at the counter and Lori and Emily at chairs at the table, and talked about their day while eating.
That was an unusually calm evening, with no football practice or gymnastics, Lori said. Usually, on nights with activities, things are a little more hectic as Lori and Chris tag-team taking kids to practice and having dinner ready. Often on football practice nights, Chris said, they get carry-out and eat as soon as they get home, around 8 p.m.
One thing that would make it easier, Lori said, would be to have more extended family nearby. Her grandfather was her babysitter until she went to kindergarten, she said, and she was surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. But with her parents in Indiana, Pa., and Chris’s in Charlotte, N.C., the Mercers usually try to work out scheduling issues between themselves, or get help from teachers or others in the community.
“If we’re ever in a bind, they are happy to help, especially my parents, being retired and being only 3 ½ hours away,” Mercer said. “But the middle-of-the-week drop-bys and just having them closer is something that I know that we both miss.”
Hectic schedules aside, though, Lori Mercer is content with her lot, and feels fortunate to be in position to have a family, and a job that she loves.
“Right now I feel like I do [have it all],” she said. “I’m new in my position. Hopefully I’ll be able to be successful and maintain my pride of being what I feel is a pretty decent mother. If there’s something that interferes with that, I’d look to see if I needed to make some adjustments.
“Family is definitely my first priority, that’s why I waited to move into this position. I needed to feel like I was in a place where I could balance both.”
1. Do your prep work the night before. Lori Mercer makes lunches in the evenings after dinner (usually pasta for Emily and a sandwich for Charlie), and the kids take showers at night to make the mornings less stressful. Mercer believes that anything you can get out of the way in the evening will help the morning go smoothly.
2. Go to bed with a clean kitchen. It sounds like a small thing, but Mercer finds that waking up to a clean kitchen makes the mornings go better. So after dinner, either she or Chris cleans up the kitchen while the other one takes care of showers and the bedtime routine with the kids. They share cooking duties for dinner, and whoever doesn’t cook is responsible for clean-up that night. “I have a pet peeve: No dishes in the sink,” Mercer said. “So that gets taken care of regardless.”
3. Make use of the mornings. Mercer gets up an hour and 15 minutes before waking up her children. She gets ready for work, packs backpacks, folds laundry, takes their dog, Macie, for a walk and has a cup of coffee before waking up her children. She also selects Charlie’s clothes, but Emily is a mood dresser, Mercer said, and likes to have input on her outfits, so that waits until she wakes up. She finds that taking advantage of a little peaceful time by herself helps her prepare for the day.
4. Be flexible. For the Mercers, it would be impossible to adhere to a strict schedule. So they adjust as needed to the activities of different days, and take turns or split the days when one of them has to stay home with a sick child. “We’re not extremely regimented,” Lori Mercer said. “We would have given up a long time ago if that’s the kind of people we were.” Her husband, Chris, agrees. “When you have young kids and working parents, it’s tough,” he said. “It’s fine, it’s rewarding, but you have to have flexibility.”
5. Save the weekends for relaxation. The Mercers try to keep the weekends as obligation-free as possible, though invitations to birthday parties sometimes conspire against them. They attend Charlie’s football games on Saturdays. On Sundays, they attend services at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Herndon then have lunch at Uncle Julio’s, a Mexican restaurant in Reston. “Otherwise, we’re just trying to relax and not overschedule ourselves,” Lori Mercer said.