Family time versus chores

Some outsource daily tasks so they have free time

They tried to do it all. Clean the house, mow the lawn, and keep the home fires burning.

But alas, there were never enough hours in the day. Something had to give.

Dennis Burnette decided to reserve time from the office for his family. So did Rick Warren and Robin Hensley.

The rest of the daily grind, they decided, they’d simply “outsource.”

“I say it takes a village,” said Hensley, who delegates everything from grocery shopping to picking up her dry cleaning and carrying her cats to the vet to a family assistant.

Who knew outsourcing could be just as popular with families as it is with, well, big business?

Although there are plenty of holdouts — families who refuse to hire someone to do for them what they can do for themselves — plenty of others believe their quality of life would vastly improve if only they could hire someone to take care of household chores.

“House cleaning, laundry, lawn care, we would outsource it all if we could fit it into the budget,” said Tracey Fettig, a mother of two from Marietta. “Those tasks are necessary. But [husband] Scott and I wind up either doing them late at night when we really should be sleeping or over the weekend when we would rather be spending more quality time with our boys.”

While the recession has forced some families to cut back on such extravagances, sociologists say the practice is becoming increasingly common.

Even middle-income folks are finding that it is cost- and time-effective and a great stress reliever to pay someone else to do many of the chores that stay-at-home wives used to do, said Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

“The upside is that it does provide more family time and relieve much of the stress of combining work and family,” she said. “And it offers a nice set of start-up jobs for people who figure out how to provide those services, from dog walking to grocery shopping to lawn care.”

Between their jobs and civic responsibility, Burnette said that he and wife Mary Beth have very little time for household and lawn duty. He is president and CEO of Cherokee Bank and she owns a real estate appraisal business.

The 65-year-old grandfather estimates he pays about $400 a month for others to do those chores, but he said it’s worth it to have more time with his wife, six children and 13 grandchildren.

“I find that all work and no play make a dull Dennis,” he said.

Before moving to Canton 12 years ago, Burnette never had lawn duty because he didn’t have a lawn. But as his family started to expand and he moved to Cherokee County and started a bank, it made more sense, he said, “to work than cut the grass.”

Warren, 41, faced the same dilemma when his son came along six years ago and he and wife Stephanie wanted to focus on their careers without sacrificing their family life.

At first, he said, he hired someone just to mow the lawn, but it eventually graduated to planting the flowers and trimming the shrubs, too.

Then when Stephanie returned to work in 2005, the couple hired a nanny to care for the kids. The nanny was recently promoted to household “manager,” not only caring for their son and daughter, but also taking the laundry to the cleaners, grocery shopping and even scheduling play dates.

“It’s small little things that would take 30 minutes to do but add up,” said Warren, office managing partner at Crowe Horwath LLP. “It really makes a big difference as to whether I can have dinner with my kids or make it home before they go to sleep.”

For Hensley, who coaches attorneys in marketing and business development, it came down to spending the weekend paying bills, taking her cat to the vet and shopping or spending time with her mother.

“I am seeing clients from 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night. When do I balance the checkbook?” she said. “If I weren’t outsourcing, I’d have to give up other things.”

Hensley hired a personal assistant so she is free to do the things she enjoys.

“I don’t enjoy standing in a grocery line,” she said.

Outsourcing household chores used to be much more common, Coontz said.

“When I was young, there were knife sharpeners who came around to your home,” she said. “Milk was delivered to your back door. People came collecting items for recycling. And my mom remembers when she was young that local people came door to door in the summer selling fruit and vegetables.

“In the 1950s and 1960s we gradually centralized shopping centers and did away with such personal services to families, relying on housewives to do the errand-running and deliveries. Bad timing, since this was just before wives started to pour into the workplace.”

Work hours creeping up, higher standards for cleanliness and more focus on children all contribute to the time crunch that feeds the trend, said Don Conway-Long, a behavioral and social sciences professor at Webster University in St. Louis.

If we were really a village as Hensley suggested, we would help each other and do it without pay, he said.

“But we have long since stopped doing this,” said Conway-Long. “The creation of the suburbs was the end of all that cooperative effort to raise children.”

Given the economic reality, unemployment, falling wages and collapsing unionization, Conway-Long said hiring someone to do what you can do yourself is hardly more than a pipe dream for most people.

“We now work more hours than ever before, for less pay, with fewer benefits, just as our expectations for quality time in family life have been increasing,” he said. “In the end for most people, it is going to be a question of what can be sacrificed. In difficult economic times, I believe it will first be home care followed rapidly by family time.”