Each day, steel cutter Jennifer Kawalski sets off at 4:40 a.m. for her shift at the plant, while her husband, David remains at home and cares for the children until the afternoon, when he too, must head to work at the same steel plant.
They never see each other on the job. In between their shifts at the American Axel and Manufacturing Plant, there is a half-hour lapse when they hand off the care of their four children — two sets of twins.
"She gets out of work at 3 o'clock, I start work at 2:30," David Kawalski said. "So every single day, we need somebody to come over for a half hour to make sure everything's OK."
It's become the most painful juggling act of our time. There are now 15 million so-called "split shift couples" in this country, couples working at different times of the day. Most of them are parents struggling to make ends meet, who want to save on child care and spend quality time with their children, as opposed to leaving them with outsiders. In 48 states the cost of childcare for a 4-year-old is more than public college tuition which is why for millions of working families it's simply unaffordable.
They also want to keep their marriage afloat.
A Big Price
For the Kawalskis, they save on child care costs, but pay a huge price when it comes to their marriage.
The hardest part about split-shift parenting is not seeing his wife, David Kawalski said.
"You know planning is rough," David Kawalski said. "We always look at the calendar. Make sure we set an appointment. It's tough getting time alone. It really is."
Their time apart also puts a strain on their time together, Jennifer Kawalski said.
"When we have time together and go out there is this expectation that we're supposed to be all hugging and kissing and holding hands, and you know, walking quietly," she said. "And it's just never that. It just doesn't work that way."
The days are hectic. One morning at 5:30 a.m., Jennifer was running late.
"It's 5:30 in the morning. I'm running late today, coffee over-spilled and here's my son getting up who was already sent back to his bed twice already and now he wants to get up and watch TV," she said on a home video tape. "I guess he is going to."
Cutting Steel, Slicing Sandwiches
Meanwhile, Dad gets up early with 4-year-olds Austin and Brock, then 11-month-olds, Blake and Abigail. The first duty is breakfast.
While mom cuts steel, dad cuts sandwiches. There's naptime, playtime and the endless rounds of clean-up and chores. The parents communicate by phone.
"She calls me on her breaks at work," David Kawalski said. "And I'll do the same."
Who has the tougher shift.
"I think because I've already had a full day, and I'm coming in to even - a fuller day, I think mine is a little bit more stressful because of that," Jennifer Kawalski said. "Mine doesn't stop. I mean, mine's run, run, run. I don't get naptime, I don't get break time."
A Tough Call
"It's kind of a double edged sword," David Kawalski said. "It's work for day care or don't work and don't pay the day care. So it's, it was our decision from the get go that — to do the split shift."
It was a decision that nearly cost them their marriage. Studies show that when one partner works a nightshift, couples are up to six times more likely to divorce or separate.
"Dave and I did seek out some counseling to see if - there was anything they could do to help," Jennifer Kawalski said. "I really thought the marriage was probably in jeopardy. We were to the point of no return."
Counseling helped them through a particularly rough time. But, it can't solve the never-ending cycle of chores and work, and just plain missing one another.
"Both of us agree that right now our children are the most important things to us," David Kawalski said. "Has our relationship been strained by it? Yes, it has. "
But they are both determined to overcome the difficulties.
"I want this to work, and I'm going to make it work," Jennifer Kawalski said. "And then, you know, I'm going to fight-make sure it does."