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RESUMING THE STRESS OF LIFE-JUGGLING

We now return to our regularly and overly scheduled lives, already in progress.

Let's see now, where were we before planes, terrorism and anthrax?

Ah, yes. Trying to make ends meet. Trying to find time and energy for work, family and home, save some money for retirement, save our marriages, care for our aging parents and perhaps grab 10 minutes alone.

Ah, yes. Those crises. Still there, aren't they? So here's a question:

How come the community bonding and support we've offered each other to get through the unspeakable horror of Sept. 11 and every day since, didn't seem to be there before to help get through the family-killing stress of everyday life?

Why has it been so easy, and at times almost a pleasure, for us to be endlessly compassionate with each other at work and at home ("You look exhausted, go on home"; "Just do the best you can, it's OK, we're all upset"; "Of course I'll take the kids so you can go to New York City to look for your brother") but so hard for us before?

"Because we didn't know how," is a lousy excuse. Clearly, we do know how. "Because we didn't have a reason to," is equally insipid. We had every reason to do more to help each other.

But we didn't do it. And the results are painfully clear in a two-hour documentary, produced by Buffalo native Paulette Moore for PBS.

Titled "Juggling Work and Family" and hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith, the eye-opening, two-hour examination of the work-family crisis was set to air on WNED-TV (Channel 17) and other public television stations across the nation on Sept. 16, but the events that took place five days earlier shelved it indefinitely.

Now rescheduled on some stations (WNET in New York City aired it last Wednesday and Buffalo's air date is still being figured out), the show presents the problem as having such long-range effects that several scholars in it speak of the ongoing battle as nothing less than an issue of "national security."

Ah, yes, the "other" issue of national security. It doesn't pack the same punch that the current issue does -- bombs flashing explosively in the desert make sexier copy than tempers flashing quietly in a dining room -- but the ever-escalating war between our jobs and our families wasn't anywhere near solved before Sept. 11, and when the last U.S. Marine is home from Afghanistan, it will still be there.

"Our (24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week) economy is driving people into the ground," says former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, about halfway through the special. "We are paying a big, big price as a country. The family is shrinking."

This is exemplified over and over, as various couples are seen trying to keep their jobs, take care of their kids and, when there's time, remember their partner's name.

"We are so apart," says one wife wistfully, as her husband kisses their two small sons, whom he watches during the day, and then heads off for his night job barely one hour after she has come home from her day job. Even more chilling are the scenes shot in New York City, where middle-class working couples describe the barely-making-it life they're living; you can't help but think what kind of stress they must be facing now.

The cumulative effect is that the American worker is slowly crumpling from the stress of trying to be a good parent, good employee, good caregiver, good friend and, when there's time, good partner and perhaps even good to him or herself.

Paulette Moore, the Niagara-Wheatfield High School and Buffalo State College graduate who produced "Juggling Work and Family," admits she didn't understand the problem before.

"To me, the issue was complex, but I thought the choice was easy. Either have kids or a job, but not both. Have kids, or don't."

Then she made this documentary, and discovered that in American family life, the conflicts are not black and white, nor are the answers. "It's like people are being held together by Folgers," Moore says.

There's no reason to believe that any of this will end when the war does. When the terrorism crisis winds down, Americans will still be trying to cope with the nonstop demands of work, growing kids and aging parents, a thinner-than-ever dollar and less-than-ever time.

We will still need acknowledgment that since World War II, a massive social transformation has happened to the American family, and that as an institution it is crumbling from the stress.

And we will still need each other's understanding, compassion, rolled-up sleeves and willing-to-help hands to get through it.

We've proved we know how to do it during war time.

What in the world will be our excuse for no longer doing it when the war ends?

e-mail lgithens@buffnews.com