Pam Fero readies her household for back to school like most working parents by buying uniforms, checking bus schedules and organizing meals. Although for Fero, this school year will be different. She will try to juggle two jobs with her family’s hectic school and activities schedule.
If anyone can pull it off, it is Fero.
It has been eight years since I visited this mother of seven at her home in Lauderhill, where I had to make room for myself on the couch by pushing aside Christmas lights, bags of beads, kids' school papers and toy trains. At the time, evidence of the family’s busy life covered most household surfaces. Those surfaces are more visible now, although sneakers are scattered among rooms, and Christmas cards still hang on a mirror. The new additions are Fero’s law books and legal files.
When I originally visited Fero in January 2007, I brought with me Diane Hatcher, a certified professional organizer who used a no-nonsense approach to a balanced makeover. Fero, an air traffic controller focused intently at work, wanted more organization in her home life. She had big dreams for herself and her family but felt overwhelmed and was buried in clutter.
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Hatcher, president of TimeSavers Professional Organizing Services in Fort Lauderdale and a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, showed Fero how to use plastic trays and manila folders to tame papers, how to use scrutiny to decide what to toss, and how to use a calendar to keep from missing kids’ appointments and school events.
Today, only two of Fero’s children still live at home, with the youngest entering seventh grade and the other in high school. Her husband, Terry, still works the night shift seven days a week as a mechanic for Coca-Cola. But the big change is that while monitoring airplanes at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, Fero used her off-the-clock hours to earn a college degree and a law degree. “My co-workers were so supportive. I couldn’t have gotten through it without them.” Determined, Fero graduated from law school in May 2014, passed the Florida bar exam in July 2014 and already has begun to put her law degree to use as a solo practitioner.
Fero said her big work-life challenge remains: time. She wants time with her kids and her husband, time for herself and time to build her fledgling law firm. Her older children are either in college or in the military, and one lives in a group home. She wants to visit with them, too, when possible. She employs multiple tactics to keep all her responsibilities in balance; some work better than others.
Delegation has been crucial and not previously one of Fero’s strong suits. When dashing from her job to law school at Florida International University, she used every spare moment to study. Fero learned she had to give her family more responsibility. Terry took over morning chores that included getting the kids to the bus stop. He chauffeured children to appointments and took over paying bills. A nanny helped with picking kids up from school and getting them dinner. Now that she has passed the bar exam and begun practicing law from a home office, Fero mulls over what duties she will reassume. She no longer has the nanny and already has picked up the bill-paying and getting kids to activities.
Scheduling is another obstacle that trips up working parents, and Fero is no exception. Hatcher had shown this busy mom how to get her entire family to put activities on one calendar. Fero since has adopted Google Calendar and plans to try even harder this school year to get all family members to put events on it. Quentin (her seventh-grader) will be especially busy at school with Civil Air Patrol and has the calendar on his phone, too. “There are times when I tried to keep meetings and kids’ activities in my head, and I realized a couple hours before I had two things at the same time on the same day. With the Google Calendar, if I try to schedule something, I see that I already have a block there.”
By now, Fero has learned “perfect” will never happen. With the many time demands, she knows she has let her housekeeping suffer, and she’s made peace with that. “It’s not as bad as it could be. I have gotten better at throwing things away,” she said. “However, my law practice generates a boatload of paper, so that’s something new I am working on.”
Hatcher warned Fero that learning to set up systems and using them would be the best way to prevent feeling overwhelmed. This week, with the school bell about to ring again, Fero has grabbed a stack of index cards and used one side to write out easy school-night dinners and the other side to list ingredients to buy. It will supplement a system with a Crockpot and weekly menu that she previously had in place. About two years ago, Fero became a vegan, a health-conscious change that requires additional meal planning.
Fero can see the day in her future when she retires from her high-stress job as an air traffic controller — but not until she is comfortable she can live off her retirement income. She is willing to juggle her job and a law practice until that day comes. She hasn’t figured out exactly when that will be possible.
Sleep has never been a high priority for Fero. While cramming for exams, she would take quick naps between work and school. Fero estimates she now gets about six hours of sleep a night and finds that sustains her.
Hatcher said Fero has a remarkable motivation that has helped her power through challenges. She was happy to hear Fero now uses a family-wide electronic calendar. Now, she wants her to work harder on creating a daily to-do list and prioritizing tasks. “It will help her get the important things done. Trying to remember everything in your head is not the most effective way to spend your time.”
Hatcher notices that Fero hasn’t kept the filing system as well maintained as the she hoped but provides Fero with some strategy going forward: “She will need to keep personal papers separate from her business paperwork. Don’t let the paperwork pile up.” Hatcher said. She adds that Fero has an admirable way of handling the critical items that need to be done without getting rattled. “She takes on a lot, but she has accomplished amazing things.”