It is not yet dawn when Terry Proctor's day begins. Her husband, Steve, nudges her as he leaves for work. By 5: 45 a.m., the Elkridge couple must sort out their children's schedules for the day.
Will Terry's work take her out of town today? Any chance Steve will get off early? Their three children need rides to day care, school, athletic practices, tutoring sessions and periodic medical appointments.
Like thousands of other Howard County families, the Proctors manage all this before, after and while at work and during their half-hour commutes -- he to Adelphi, she to Baltimore.
Howard is home to a higher percentage of dual-career families and a higher percentage of out-of-county commuters than any other jurisdiction in Maryland. Its unemployment rate is the state's lowest. Its home prices are the Baltimore region's highest.
As a result, many county residents report living in a pressure-packed time crunch, as they juggle demands of work, school and family. For some, free time is a distant memory.
Across the country, surveys show many feel they are working longer hours -- and have scant time for other priorities, family and friends. Women feel the pressure more than men, studies show.
But the surveys also show that television viewing deceptively eats up a good chunk of that limited leisure time -- cranking up the time pressure even more.
"People do feel enormous stress, especially if they're dual-career parents with children," says Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Merck Family Fund in Takoma Park. "That is definitely the most stressed group in society. There is no doubt that the people who are struggling to maintain material security and be good parents are experiencing a very high level of stress."
Virginia Horvath knows that all too well. For more than six years, the resident of Columbia's Owen Brown village directed a day care center in Elkridge -- where she daily saw working parents' exhaustion, stress and guilt.
"These people have lost their sense of humor completely," says Horvath, married with two children. "Parents would come in complaining, not smiling, unhappy and late."
Often, the three to four hours between day care and children's bedtime represent the bulk of time they spend with their parents on weekdays. And this time is crammed with other demands as parents try to fit in meals, laundry and moments of decompression from busy workdays.
For many parents, such as the Grossmans of Columbia's River Hill village, day care is the glue holding them together.
Barbara and Doug Grossman both report to work by 7 a.m. Before they leave each morning, Stacey Johnson, a day care worker, comes to their home to wake their two children, prepare breakfast and take them to her day care center, where they later are picked up by a school bus. "Stacey is my god," Barbara Grossman says. "I could not put words on how important she is to us."
These days, day care centers increasingly shuttle children to and from school, provide homework help and serve meals. Many are open 12 hours a day, and children as young as 3 arrive when they open and leave when they close.
"It breaks my heart to see these children here, tiny children, for more than eight hours a day," says Judy Brewer, office manager at the Columbia Montessori School.
Says William J. Doherty, who runs the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota: "Children are certainly the biggest casualties of our work-obsessed lives."
With a median family income of $61,000 a year, Howard residents often can more easily afford to pay for child care. That's about $16,500 more than the state median and $27,000 more than the national figure, according to the 1995 census.
Day care can cost as much as $150 a week per child. Increasingly popular alternatives, such as hiring au pairs, can be even more expensive.
In Ellicott City, Richard and Dawn Nash hired an au pair two years ago when their younger child started kindergarten. Because they both commute an hour to work in Crystal City, Va., their children -- Joey, 6, and Nicole, 8 -- would have to leave the house by 6 a.m. if they went to day care.
So the Nash family now pays about $10,000 -- nearly 10 percent of their combined annual income -- for the services of Fiona Kerr, a student from Scotland. Says Dawn Nash, "It's worth it."
In many families, such women as Nash feel the time pressures the most. A few years ago, the Navy budget analyst began having what she calls stress-induced panic attacks. Regular exercise now helps her control her anxiety.
Virginia Horvath faithfully sees an acupuncturist each week for stress-reduction.
Another mother, Holly Gillum of Long Reach village in Columbia, says she keeps meaning to take a weekend to go out of town with friends -- but she "just can't seem to get away."
In Elkridge, Terry Proctor steals away to her bedroom an hour or two ahead of her husband each night to find some quiet time.