Meet the parents:
Denise Flagg, 40; Alex Flagg, 40Meet the kids:
Elise, 3What they do:
Denise and Mike both work in the financial industry (hence the East Coast hours). "The 3:55 alarm is not for everybody," says Denise, "but it means we are away for two to three hours that the kids are still sleeping, so we get to capture time at the end of the day." How they met:
They had mutual friends in college, and Denise needed a roommate once she moved to San Francisco -- Alex and his friends had a spot. "We lived together and worked together before ever dating," says Denise. But thanks to Alex's skill as a "very persistent salesman" and a neighborhood friend playing matchmaker, they were together within a year.
"We used to live in San Francisco in an area called Cole Valley, which we loved. But raising kids in the city is an expensive affair so [five years ago] we made the move to the 'burbs, bought the minivan, had the requisite mental freak-out, got over it, and now really enjoy the lifestyle," says Denise. Their suburb is actually called Happy Valley. "I have a hard time saying it with a straight face to my friends back home," she adds.
Why the freak-out? "We saw the house and immediately put in an offer without knowing anyone else in the town. And it was like, 'Wow we're parents, we own a home, we have a minivan -- what happened to my yoga studio?' We were leaving our neighborhood with all of our friends and it felt like saying goodbye to an era."
But every town has its silver lining and with the help of the schools "we met really great people and realized that there were other people like us doing the same thing. Then we started having our own fun and we realized we weren't out here alone."
"This great room is one of my favorite parts of the house," says Denise. "It has four sets of double glass doors and huge windows in every direction. We also have three skylights so even on rainy days it feels light -- I loooove that. I can see the yard where the kids play, the pool, and across the valley to Briones Park [a hilly, grassy public park] all from where I stand in front of my stove."
"We spend the most time in the living room. I tried not to make it too formal because we simply do not lead a formal life," says Denise. "The kids often pull all the cushions off the couch to make forts. We even added a keyboard for our au pair to play -- I didn't like the way it looked when we first set it up right in front of our picture perfect huge windows, but at the end of the day it's about priorities and that is where we had space -- so there it lives for now! Same with the train tracks, building blocks, and karaoke machine -- I wouldn't choose them as part of my decor -- but this is just where we are in life at this time."
Since Denise leaves the house by 4:15 a.m. and Alex is out the door by 5, the little Flaggs get up and off to school (public for Zach and preschool for Tanner and Elise) with the help of their Swedish live-in au pair, Erika.
The family paid between $6,000 and $7,000 to get matched with an au pair through an agency called Cultural Care in Boston. And for the cost of room and board, plus around $170 in spending money each week, and $500 a year for education, Erika is a family life-saver.
"She does the morning routine -- breakfast and the school drop-offs. She also does after-school carpool, art projects, laundry -- you name it! She is super responsible" says Denise.
But the first month Erika spent with the Flaggs was rough. The kids had just lost their city-nanny of seven years, and even with all the prep Alex and Denise gave them, the kids would act out. "Every night, Alex, Erika, and I would sit around the table and talk about how the day went. She was really close to thinking that she had to leave." But with Erika being open about how she was feeling, and Denise and Alex working with the kids to get through the adjustment, it eventually got better -- a lot better. Sadly, her yearlong stay is about to expire and the Flaggs will have to adjust to a new au pair all over again.
The mornings might be rough, but working on East Coast time means Alex and Denise are home by 3 or 4 p.m. and can be really involved in their kids' activities. This year, Alex was the Assistant Coach on Zach's baseball team -- and they came in third place.
"Managing their schedules is harder than a sudoku puzzle," says Alex. Denise adds that most days she feels like she's running around with her hair on fire, but she has a trick. "I send myself time-delayed messages on my phone and my computer -- to remind myself about anything I think I might forget -- which is most everything!"
"One of the challenges with having two kids the same gender in the same sport is that Zach (the oldest) will always be a little bit bigger and better than Tanner. So we started Tanner in Tae Kwon Do, so it could be his thing. We call it Tanny Kwon Do. And when he gets in that room, it's so great. He's so happy and comfortable."
The Flaggs have family dinners about four or five times a week "We always go around and ask about the day and what we did that was good or exciting or challenging. It helps us stay connected. We spend so much time rushing around that dinner is one of the few chances we all have to hit pause." (Occasionally, Elise might hit pause a little early -- here, she's snoozing out at the table.)
With such busy schedules, Denise and Alex often lean on a service called The Full Plate where Denise goes every six weeks and gets about twelve meals to freeze and reheat for busy nights. But on the busiest nights "sometimes we just have to cut corners and serve sandwiches, cereal, or mac and cheese. I always add veggies or fruit on the side though."
Being the little sis of two boys, Elise always got the blue hand-me-downs. So when she came out of her crib, Denise decided to make her room nicer and more special. With her daughter's input, Denise combined pink and brown and made a place for Elise to call her own. But as soon as it was complete, a weekend guest came and needed to sleep there. Elise wound up sleeping on a mattress in the boys' room -- and has never left.
Elise sleeping in the boys' room has pushed the time the kids fall asleep back a bit -- they have to have social hour before crashing. Bedtime is at 8 p.m. and Denise heads to bed as soon as the kids are down. Alex stays up until about 10 p.m. to check e-mail, watch TV and "putter" as Denise calls it. But he can also monitor the sleepover until the voices have quieted, which is usually by 8:30 or 9 p.m.
On three or four weekends during the winter, the Flaggs escape to ski in Tahoe, three to four hours away -- they share a house with another family there. "The key is to be very organized about getting out of town," Denise says. "We pack a cooler, put the kids in their jammies, and leave after dinner on Friday night. When we're there, it's true family time because we are not home -- there's no mail or phones or housekeeping."
"The boys are on a ski team and we switch off spending time with Elise," says Denise. "It is always a hoot to watch the kids bombing down the mountain with their big helmets and goggles. I love watching them become more and more confident and I look forward to when we can all ski as a family. Sometimes I get a little nostalgic for the baby time, but when I think about all the really cool things we can do together, I get very excited for the new chapter in our life."
"Disneyland was a pleasant surprise for us. We went in expecting not to like it but the kids were truly the perfect age and it was fun to see it through their eyes. Erika came with us so we were able to divide and conquer -- roller coasters with the boys while she took Elise to princess story time. Then she would do the big rides and we would take Elise. Our plan of attack was to get up early and get in the park first thing before the crowds got too nutty. There is no better way to wake up than coffee and Space Mountain! One night Alex and I left the kids with Erika and we went back in to do all the really hairy roller coasters -- that was a great date night."
"We go to Fire Island every summer (this was a picture from a few years ago) and meet up with old friends and extended family," says Denise. "Alex grew up going to this same house so the history there is intense. There are no cars and the community we go to is small so we let the kids bike to their friends' house or the store by themselves. This independence is a real treat for them and one we can't really afford anywhere else yet."
"I can't tell you that I have a trick to traveling with the kids," says Denise. "It's hit or miss. Last time I was just flying with Elise because Alex had already gone East with Zach and Tanner. I thought it would be fine, but she ended up naked, running around the Oakland Airport with her pants on her head, yelling, 'Look at my beautiful hair!' It was a nightmare."
"We spend time together whenever we can," says Denise. "Having an au pair has helped. We can do things like go for a bike ride on Sunday morning which I might not hire a sitter for, but because she is home, we can make it happen.
"Recently we had her watch the kids while we cleaned out the garage," says Denise. "This isn't exactly up there in the romantic quotient, but we had a beer and a few really good laughs going through stuff from our old apartment. It wasn't as productive as it maybe could have been, but we got some junk cleaned up and took a serious walk down memory lane without the distraction of somebody needing juice or a peanut butter sandwich.
"We also manage to get away overnight once a year, locally usually. We will go to the neighborhood hotel and enjoy a night of sleeping in without anyone needing anything. This year we went to Maui for my 40th birthday. Before kids I would definitely have gone with a guide book and a plan, but now the luxury of free time is so unique, I am much better at just being in the moment for the moment's sake."
Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation.