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THE FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS : The Juggling Act : Contented but sometimes anxious. Always overworked. Usually overwhelmed. Southern California families confront many concerns, a poll conducted for The Times shows. But somehow they make do. Here six families tell just how they manage.

August 12, 1990|BOB SIPCHEN and LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Dan Willens, 37, has listened to a Harry Chapin song so many times as he bustles about Los Angeles, he sometimes hears its melancholy lyrics even when the radio's not on.

The song is "Cat's in the Cradle," and it tells the story of a father who never has time for his son: "My son turned 10, just the other day; he said, 'Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let's play. Can you teach me to throw?' "

But the father responds, "Not today, I've got a lot to do."

By the song's end, Willens explains, the boy has grown up without the father noticing; when the father calls, the boy is too busy with his own life to visit. So the father sings, "As I hung up the phone, it occured to me, he'd grown up just like me; my boy was just like me."

"I worry about it," says Willens, who lives with his wife, Ann, 36, and their 5- and 7-year-old sons in the Hollywood Hills. "I don't want to miss out on their childhood. Not just for them--for myself."

But to provide their children with the things they want for them--tennis lessons, Aikido lessons, art lessons and summer camp, for instance--Dan works 60- to 70-hour weeks in his law firm, and Ann works part time in the couple's real estate development firm. They gross about $200,000 a year.

Their biggest expense, however, is the more than $11,000 in yearly tuition they will pay this academic year to the private Oaks School--a community-oriented cooperative effort.

"Children in public schools in Los Angeles tend to lose their innocence too soon," Dan says. "They have to learn the realities of the world a little sooner than I'd like my child to learn them."

Then there are the problems of overcrowded classes, low teacher morale and apparently declining academic standards, Ann says. "If we had less money, it would be obviously much harder. We would move to a place where we could send our kids to public school without worrying."

Despite the urban pressures that seem constantly to threaten childhood innocence, the Willens believe Los Angeles is a good place to raise their children.

"They're exposed to cultural experiences here that kids in other places aren't," Ann says. For instance, "there's a symphony series at the Music Center that exposes them to the philharmonic at age 5. That's really fabulous."

But the time the family treasures most is time spent together, roughhousing in the evening or playing in the yard. "I prioritize my life so that I can give them as much time as possible . . ." Dan says. "I'm making time."

The Cosios: 'We Don't Eat Junk Food!'

In Manila, a paid "helper" rode on the school bus with Robert and Aida Cosio's children each day and stayed with them to make sure all went well. Two other helpers cared for the family's youngest child, cleaned the house and prepared meals.

Yet the couple felt that opportunities for their children were limited in the Philippines. So three years ago, they immigrated to America. Now they live in Pomona, where they work daily to integrate a traditional emphasis on strong family ties and education with a culture that often seems to have other priorities.

Last October, the family bought a three-bedroom, two-bath home for $115,000 in an "average neighborhood." Like all financial decisions, the purchase was made with the family in mind, Aida says.

Now they face the paradox of having to juggle their kids and their careers.

"My dream in life was to stay home and raise the kids," Aida says. "I think it's unrealistic now. I'm sorry for that."

On a typical morning, the family of five rises about 6. Aida or Robert cooks breakfast (rice with fish or meat). The whole family sits at the kitchen table and says a Catholic prayer: "Thank thee our Lord for thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty . . . ."

After breakfast, Grace, 12, washes dishes. The two younger children, ages 6 and 8, sweep the floor, clean the stove, feed the cat.

Robert leaves for work at 7:30, driving to Fullerton in about 20 minutes. Aida checks the children's uniforms, then drives them to St. Joseph parochial school at 8 a.m. Most days, Aida stays at school, volunteering to escort students on field trips or to watch them on the playground.

In the afternoon, she drives to her job as a psychiatric technician. At 4:30 or 5, Robert picks up the children at the school's on-site day care center, where they have spent at least an hour completing homework.

At home, Robert and the children do simple chores and work together in the small back yard garden, where they raise eggplant, tomatoes, beans, peppers and other vegetables. Then Robert cooks a dinner that Aida helped prepare earlier. After another prayer, he and the children dine together.

"We don't eat junk food. Never. Never!" Aida says. "Food is an important factor in raising a good intelligent mind."

When Aida gets home from work at 11:25, she first checks the children in bed, then looks over their school work, which they nightly spread on a table for inspection. So far, their diligence seems to work; Grace is on her school's honor roll.

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