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A real family circus

I always thought joining a circus sounded glamorous. It seemed a way to see the country, meet interesting people, be a part of something that aims to make kids happy. But I also envisioned it as a lifestyle that was in no way conducive to a family life. Until I met Mike Stuart.

Stuart, 38, is the general manager of the Ringling Brothers Barnum &

Bailey Circus that rolled into Miami on Tuesday and will hold performances from Jan. 8-19. It is his job to hire, fire, budget, train, keep the animals alive, and solve all the problems that crop up when you move 315 people from city to city. ''It's a demanding job,'' he says. ``Sometimes I am being pulled in 15 directions.''

One of the pulls comes from his family -- his two children and wife of 13 years, who travel with him to 36 cities a year. Home is a train car similar to a mobile home with a kitchen, beds, washer and dryer, living room, television. ''We get to travel, but we don't have to pack,'' Stuart says.

Daughter Katherine, 8, attends the circus' on-site school, which opens when the circus arrives in a new city and holds classes for five hours a day from Wednesday to Sunday. Son Tylar, 3, spends time in the nursery playing with the children of performers and crew. Wife Mary, 33, initially worked as the director of the nursery, but gave it up after 18 months to become a stay-at-home mom of sorts.

''It was too stressful for me to work,'' Mary explains. ``When Mike had time off, I would be busy in the nursery because it wasn't a 9 to 5 job, more like morning to night if it was a day when when had three shows.''

ARE WE THERE YET?

In between cities, aboard his home on wheels, Stuart says he's immersed in family life. ``We play games, do homework, read. We are confined to our rail car for a day and a half.''

In some ways, Stuart explains, it's much easier for him to balance work and family than a typical CEO.

''It's not like I go to work at 8 and come home late at night and don't see my family all day.'' In between arranging auditions or making sure elephant poop is properly disposed, Stuart will pick up Katherine from school and take her to a park or take his family to dinner. But at the same time, when the circus is in show mode, he works seven days a week. Stuart says he tries to take a day off in some cities, to tour museums or monuments with his family. ''It's difficult when your job is 24/7 but I make the time,'' Stuart says.

For now, Stuart considers his position of four years his dream job, the ideal blend of work and family. He has 22 people on his management team, five of them senior staff whom he huddles with daily. Admittedly, there's a lack of privacy when living alongside co-workers. Stuart says he gets weary of co-workers expecting them to hang out, barbeque, and chat into the evening hours. This, he says, is why he encourages his team to find balance. ``We have a mutual agreement, that the job's a job. If you get your stuff done, you take time off.''

'WASHING THE ELEPHANT'

Weighing the trade offs, Stuart argues convincingly that the circus life offers his family unique opportunities. His wife is learning other languages. His daughter is learning gymnastics and ballet and how to take care of animals. ''I loved washing the elephant,'' she told me. She's even learning religion from a nun at the school. Because they travel with a car on board, Mary is able to explore a visiting city while her husband is at work.

Of course, the disadvantages are that Katherine has few friends her age. There are 11 kids in the school and 20 in total. The train yards, where their rail car parks, typically aren't safe for a child to roam. Mary says finding a park or playground for their toddler son is a must in each city. And, to do household activities like grocery shopping or getting a haircut, Mary must strategize in advance of arriving at a new location.

The couple met when Mary was an ice skater and Mike the manager of the traveling Disney on Ice show. And while the two have spent many years on the road, they did get a taste of a more stable life when Mary became homesick for her large family in Massachusetts. The couple decided to take a break from the road. It lasted for two years.

''I love the travel,'' Mary says. ``We got fidgety in one spot.''

HOME BASE

Today, the Stuarts still own their Massachusetts home and try to spend time there when the circus is in a nearby town or on hiatus. They also use it as base to see doctors, dentists, and have family gatherings.

Each day, Stuart says he starts out with an agenda in his head. But with animals and logistics, the day never goes as planned. One of the biggest challenges is managing all the personalities of the performers. ``They will get upset over who gets to park closer to the back door of the building.''

Stuart says he's learned how to resolve most problems that arise, ''I feel like I'm good at it.'' And, he feels the same way about family life. ``I wouldn't want to change anything. It's been fun.''

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