School commute times ruin family life

During one of my eight-hour trips to and from Chicago for cello lessons it occurred to me that I am part of a larger trend where parents are giving up their family time in exchange for commute time.

There’s a great article in The Washingtonian about couples who buy a home figuring they will get a variance to get into a school district they like. But the school lottery banishes their kid to the bad school. What will the parents do? Move? No. They’ll find some school farther away and schlep the kid there. 

We know that hour-long commutes for adults harms their social life, disrupts their sleep, and leads to depression. Why do we think it would be any different for kids?

Parents are lured into these insane commutes by another insane system: school rankings.

You know what the best high schools in the US have in common? They are magnet schools — schools that draw from multiple districts across a wide range of geographies. Which means that the highest ranked schools have kids traveling up to two hours a day. For example, some kids going to Stuyvesant in NYC do all their homework on the subway because they are on it for four hours a day.

Of course, there are schools that rank high that are neighborhood schools. But the system encourages families to either put all their efforts into buying an expensive home (median home value where I grew up: $500K) or put all their efforts into the commute. In either case, the cost is time that the family no longer spends together.

Good high schools— if you do believe they are ever good—force you to pay a price that only an insecure parent would pay. Believe in yourself and believe in your kid. Live in an area that is easily affordable to you. Pay heed to the research that says long commutes ruin peoples’ lives.

I think I am testament to that. I think one of the reasons I can’t get a handle on my own life is because of the commute I’m doing with my son to his cello lessons, because honestly, my sixteen hours of commuting each week is not that different from kids at magnet schools.


51 replies
  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    New look cello lessons: skype!

    I wonder if people on their death beds count up the time they spent commuting in their lives and then slowly slip into an ocean of regret.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      What I wonder is if parents of Olympic athletes say, “I wish I hadn’t traveled so much to support this kid.” I think probably zero parents say that.

      And I think about Taylor Swift’s parents. Their marriage probably ended because of the mom traveling everywhere with Taylor who started traveling everywhere as fourteen-year-old. But do you think her parents say they wish they didn’t do it? Probably not.

      So it’s easy to say “don’t do it” when the kid is really young, but in hindsight, after the parents enabled the kid to do something phenomenal, I don’t think a lot of parents would agree that the commuting was outrageous.

      I don’t have a great answer. I’m just saying that there are a lot of ways that I look at this. For myself.


      • Jeff
        Jeff says:

        I totally agree, but the Taylor Swift story is probably the exception and not the rule.

        The regret I was thinking of was the 10 hours or more a week many people spend just chasing marginal returns in employment or school alternatives.

        A thirty year career, for example, with an hour commute each way would be the equivalent of 7.5 years worth of 40-hour work weeks sitting in the car.

        (BTW, Penelope, I’ve really been enjoying your blog and I’m delighted to have found it. Thanks so much!)

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          Honestly, parents commuting that many hours for cello are the parents of exceptional children. Not average kids.

          And it’s pretty possible that Taylor Swift is THE Taylor Swift because of the price paid for her to succeed. Not many parents uproot their whole family and move to a new city because of the kid’s passion.

          I don’t even know where I am going with this. Maybe I am a fan of critical thinking and when people oversimplify things and make comments such as “I don’t get it” I think it’s because they refuse to see the big picture.

          I don’t know that my kid will be exceptional. I wonder if most exceptional kids are tagged as such because their parents sought out testing and putting them in environments were they would really show how not average the kid is. My kid will probably just be like any other one, eating dirt and building things.

          Just about anyone can figure out how to be happy and healthy given the freedom to do so. The exceptional people need exceptional environments to be able to grow the full potential. I think most of them end up super unhappy and sick (emotionally or physically, or both) because there was no outlet or expression to such greatness.

          In sight of that, I’ll just let my kid eat more dirt for right now. He’s just 1.5 years old anyway.

      • Mariana
        Mariana says:

        The thing that is probably more difficult is choosing which kid will get more support, if there are siblings…

  2. Monica Lacombe
    Monica Lacombe says:

    I could not agree more, which is after, as a child, I watched my mother sacrifice herself for the 3 hour daily commute I decided I would never it. I would rather live in a shoebox sized apartment than commute.

    But, this is about those cello lessons. I have a friend who is in your boat _ homeschooling mom with talented cellist.
    We live in the mountains of nowhere and the level of teaching talent she requited was 1500 miles away. The solution was Skype.
    They had their lessons on skype and once every 3 months has a 3 hour master class in person.

    You might consider this. You could do one lesson a month in person, and 3 virtually. That would give you an additional 45 hours a month ( assuming the class is an hour long.)

    If the teacher is that good and your son that willing to learn, invest in a large monitor, good camera, and speakers/mic. It will give you all more time to practice, play, and be a family.

    I have seen it in action and if this teacher is unwilling, maybe a new/better instructor will be.

    Best of luck.

  3. Teresa
    Teresa says:

    I went to a magnet school. Not because my HS was a bad school (my sister went there) but because I knew I wanted to be a nurse so my parents sent me to Health Academy magnet program. My bus commute was probably 45 minutes each way, but I met some great people on my bus and learned a lot of good life lessons. And caught up on some sleep. :-) I also met my husband. It was a win all around.

    I am in the camp now though that if we could do it over, we would have bought a home closer to my husband’s work. But the kids are young now and homeschooled, so their commutes or school aren’t affecting family time, it’s his commute that does.

  4. Sarah m
    Sarah m says:

    We live in a border town in WA and there is a tiny piece of land that is technically Washington, but it’s attached to Canada. The poor kids who live here have to bus in–cross the American-into-Canada and then through Canada-into America–just to get to school each morning! Then they have to go back in the afternoon. No wonder some of the pot in our town comes in on the school bus. Those kids are easily traveling one hour each way on the bus, and that’s if the border is decent. It’s crazy!
    Sarah M

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I used to live in a border town (Mexico-USA) and it was so awful for my dad who worked in the fields across the border picking fruit!

      We were too young to be left at home alone. He had to be across the border at like 5 am. There was only one family car so everyone had to get up and get in the car so we could drop off my dad to work. It was pretty awful. But I think it developed love and appreciation for the sacrifices that they both made for us.

  5. Starr @ The Kiefer Cottage
    Starr @ The Kiefer Cottage says:

    We have friends who drive 60+ miles each day to drop off/pick up their kids to school. While my kids do attend school, they go 2 blocks away. If that school ever doesn’t feel right, we won’t transfer, we’ll just homeschool! I value my time a lot.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I did the “hour” commute while working in L.A. It was about 45 minutes with little traffic and could be 1 hour 30 minutes with heavy traffic. Those commute times, though, are really misleading as all commute times by anyone are. Those commute times reflect only the time spent in the vehicle. In actuality, it takes time to wind down and re-adjust after the commute is completed. If you’re doing the driving, it takes even longer to wind down and there is some amount of mental energy expended.

  7. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    The most interesting part of this post isn’t the commuting, it’s what motivates people to put themselves in a position where they have such commutes: fear. Fear that their kids won’t make it without being given the right advantages, which in this context means the right school.

    Fear-based parenting sucks. It hurts the parent and the child. I say give it up.

  8. DB
    DB says:

    My husband and I currently feel “stuck” in jobs that we like OK but don’t love – because mine lets me work from home 5x a week (with occasional travel, and typically a day or two at the office per month) and his lets him work from home 3x a week (and by the way this is a federal gov’t job).

    The lack of commute is life-changing. It’s significant enough for our family life (including time with our 3 year old) that we plan to stay at these jobs even though it’s probably not the best move for our careers.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks so much for leaving this comment. I think it’s hard for all of us to imagine that we’d be happier at a less exciting job with a really easy commute.

      But I can second your comment. I don’t leave my house for work, and I had to give up a really high-flying startup life, but it was worth it.


    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I am green with envy.

      ps. I learned from Penelope that cataloging your emotions right is imperative for growth. Many people confuse envy with jealousy. Envy is wanting what other people have, while jealousy is being upset that someone took/has what is yours already. *clinks champagne flute*

  9. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    My wife and I were shocked to find out that my daughter and son’s school bus ride was nearly an hour even though the school was about a mile away.

    After the lengthy route of pick-ups, the kids had to sit on the bus in the parking lot of the school while the kids on the breakfast program went into the building and finished their breakfast.

    So two hours a day of commuting to go back and forth a mile!

    We happily homeschool now.

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      Oh my goodness. What a great point. My son doesn’t ride the bus, nor attend jailschool anymore, but it reminded me of my days. I hadn’t thought of all those hours on the bus and this comment brought it back to forefront of memory! I lived 1 mile from highly ranked school- 1 hour bus home due to all the stops. It was exhausting.

    • katec
      katec says:

      This is our story, too. How crazy is it to put your kids on a bus, when it would be faster to walk? I brought up the issue with my neighbors and the school committee: both said that they liked the free babysitting. Two weeks later, we were homeschooling.

    • Rayne of Terror
      Rayne of Terror says:

      We can’t walk to school, it’s about 2 miles and it’s across the interstate. The bus route my kids are on is a big oval. Our house is on a cross street of the oval. My kids get on the bus on the east end of our street and are one of the last pickups on the way to school. They get off the bus at the west end of our street and are one of the first kids off the bus. Both directions they are on the bus for about 15 minutes. It takes me 8 minutes to drive from home to the elementary school. Were I to wait in the pickup and drop off lines, that adds about 15-20 minutes to either end of my day. The bus is something I say WOOO HOOO about in our school district.

    • Susan
      Susan says:

      I guess I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just drive them to school if it is only a mile away???

      • Jeff
        Jeff says:

        We’re sadists and hate our children.

        We didn’t know about the breakfast thing and the time till pretty late in the game. We offered to drive but our daughter wanted to continue with the bus. I think she felt pressured and didn’t want to look weird.

  10. Kathy Donchak
    Kathy Donchak says:

    As far as cello lessons via Skype it is totally doable. As a former studio music teacher I say it is possible, but the relationship becomes more of a coaching relationship, which is actually better once your child gets to a certain level. I did not teach cello, but voice, piano, and guitar. You can also then supplement with some great courses on Berkley Music Online and Coursera, and having your son record his practice on a webcam. The teacher can review and correct things almost on demand and use the lessons for polish and how to interpret a piece. He can also spend time listening to great players, which is essential. You might still want some in person time – one session a month to double check technique, but it works.

    As far as time, last week I overheard a couple of women talking that they did not have one day at home with their family until June due to school and extra activities. That is crazy. When do their kids rest and absorb anything?

  11. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Well, there certainly are much worse ways to spend 16 hours a week, at least you are together investing in his life. Plus you have a driver, so I think that helps probably a lot with staying somewhat sane. I still would probably rent a place in Chicago and stay tues-thurs then drive back to the farm. 8 hours instead of 16… But I know you hate cello lesson advice… :)

  12. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I generally agree and am fortunate so far to have minimal commute time (mostly work from home and walk kids to school).

    Not all commuting is equal and there are two things which make a big difference. First is it is much much worse if you are the driver, so sitting in the back or on the bus is not as stressful. Also, if your commute involves travelling with someone you have a connection with it can be wonderful – I particularly love Teresa’s comment earlier.
    (Although this still doesn’t help with family life).

    Penelope it strikes me that your commute is family time with your son. It’s a great time to connect, even if through nothing more than the shared pain of going through it week after week after week- that’s great bonding that I hope goes some way to make up for the other imbalances it causes you in life.

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    There were only two routes I could take to get to the Wall street version of the city I live in. I did so for eight years.
    The days before I quit, I would be wishing to get hit by another car so that the cycle would somehow break.
    That’s how badly the commute affects people, and kids.

  14. marta
    marta says:

    I work from home, my husband works from home 3xweek, all my kids walk to (different) schools. They also walk to the swimming pool, the local park, the local mall and sports facilities. the grocery shop…We can walk everywhere in this part of our capital city.
    It makes a HUGE difference in our whole lives.

    In fact, that is what makes THE difference in our life. It’s immaterial whether we homeschool or go to school, whether we have exciting jobs or not (we don’t). We have a LOT of TIME to do stuff together and my older children (just 12 and just shy of 14) have a lot of independence to do stuff with their friends (about 90% of which live 20 minutes walking distance max. away from us).

    IMHO the hours you spend commuting in the US or anywhere else, including my own country (for work, for school for homeschooling activities) are just insane.

    The real difference in lifestyles is having time vs being always away from where you must be and always in a rush to get there

  15. marta
    marta says:

    Just wanted to add:

    When I was growing up my brothers and I commuted to school(s) for about 1 hour and back home for almost 2 hours (different route, more traffic…) and both my parents commuted to work. We were always all over the city and only a tiny fraction of the day at home.

    Looking back, I understand why most weekends we just stayed home – my parents wanted to be around the house and we were too tired to go on the bus/metro/tram to meet our friends, scattered around the city.
    We had a nice family time but not a lot going on. When we were in our mid teens (15, 16) we started to do stuff on the weekends on our own from morning til dusk. It was like schooldays but just for fun.
    So we spent even less time with our parents… We’re all in our 40s now and while I’m still close to my parents, my brothers not so much…

    We gained a lot of knowledge, autonomy and diversity from all the commute and public transport – we’re all good map readers, street savvy, etc – but I kinda miss more time as a family, specially in our late teens and early adulthood.

    I hope that living as we do as a family we’ll stay connected with our children for longer – even when they no longer live with us…

  16. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    I went to a statewide magnet high school, a public residential (free) high school, IASMH at Ball State University. It ranks up there with one of the most transformative decisions I ever made. The people in my graduating class of 119 kids are doing amazing work worldwide, many are homeschooling. It was a three hour drive from home, so I was gone 9 months a year. The academics were incredible, my classmates were and are incredible, but there were also many downsides of not having parental guidance on a daily basis those crucial years. I made it through, but only by the skin of my teeth sometimes.

  17. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    It’s ok to be really unhappy with the commute because nothing will give you greater pleasure and satisfaction than your son becoming a world-renowned cellist. It is ok if your family life is suffering because it will be worth the trade.
    Is this true?
    Is it too much pressure to put on your budding cellist?
    I have no idea but I’m afraid that our generation (genX) is going to spoil our children in ways never even dreamed of by baby boomers. For us and genY the neighborhood school wasn’t good enough so our parents moved or commuted us to magnet schools. However, for our precious progeny, no school is good enough. I’m concerned that I, and our entire generation, are combining our anti-authority stance with the individualism sparked by the boomers with a great big heaping of entitlement to build off genY to create the antithesis to The Greatest Generation.
    Well, we’ll see.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      It’s such a delicate decision. To make choices that will alter your child’s life forever.

      The way I see it, moneyed people outsource the educating of their children to catapult them to the sky (think top notch boarding schools where kids rub shoulders with royalty). In Penelope’s case she believes her children don’t need school, that they need time with the parents. And she’s doing the educating at home. The sacrifice of driving to cello lessons is equivalent to the sacrifice to making enough money to even be in the tier where you can send your kid to those schools and be away from them almost all their lives.

      Maybe the sacrifice is less when compared that way.

      I know that for me to make such a sacrifice I would have to be sure that my kid needed this. She has mentioned before how right now it’s the kid’s choice to continue with the lessons. So the kid is choosing to make such sacrifice because he’s got it in him, he knows what’s in the future for him.

      I think homeschool will become more popular as parents who would never before be able to afford a better education and environment for their kids because the gates were closed to those of lesser financial status, realize that they can bypass all of that and frog leap regularly schooled kids. The sacrifice is big either way. It’s just that one sacrifice looks much normal to us because we’ve been part of that system for too long.

  18. Nur Costa
    Nur Costa says:

    I totally agree on what you wrote. I was lucky enough to grow in a town while I was still young and had to walk only 5 minutes to school.
    But besides that, I just wanted to leave a comment saying that your legs look stunning. How tall are you? you seem very slim.

  19. Marie Simone
    Marie Simone says:

    Some days I don’t know if I come here for answers or for cold water shock treatment. More and more, your blog’s becoming a curative to my delusive feminist dreams.
    This damned if you do or damned if you don’t career/mother see-saw dance is exhaustive reading, so I can only imagine living it.

    Yes, yes, yes – as a long time reader, I’ve put in enough time here to know better, since you’ve never quiet shy away from pulling back the curtain from Oz. But damn, is this really what feminism “hath wrought us”?

    New York, a few cocktails into thirty, and as me and my girls climb up the beanstalk career ladder, we’re finding our second wave feminist fore-mamas are nowhere around. They’re back on the homestead, against Betty Friedan’s stern warning, giving blood, sweat and tears to husband and kids, doped up and crying as they vacuum or car pool the kids off to cello lessons. Sixteen-hours commuting, really??? How are you going to catch up on Girls?

    Here is the dystopian nightmare of young, supple cheek career women everywhere who come to your blog for Sun-Zu style wisdom and rah-rah pep talks to crush start-up boys or creepy corporate middle-age male managers, who’ve never heard of our patron saint Anita Hill, sending us yet another dirty text enough to make Anthony Weiner, or for that matter, Clarence Thomas, blush.

    I’m going out with the girls tonight for a very, very dry martini and we’ll reassure ourselves that “she’ll figure it out” as she always does, and remember that one time we thought you had really, really lost it, last week, or, was it the week before? Who knows, since the mid-life crisis has been replaced by the mid-month crisis, ohh hell, who are we kidding, the mid-afternoon crisis.

    We can’t afford to lose you, and your ruthlessly, charming ENTJ swagga, in the battle. Like your fallen femme-comrades over here:

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      It’s kind of awful to come to this realization. But I think it’s worse to live in delusion.

      However, the faster we come to terms with reality the sooner we get off the hamster wheel and bring the ball back to our court.

  20. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Okay, I cannot resist but to chime back in – why do women have to work in a corporate office suite to be considered accomplished? Steve Jobs worked his magic in his parents garage with a team of misfits, so working from home around your kids in my opinion is just a twist on the garage innovators method.

    Thanks – I feel better now.

  21. Mary
    Mary says:

    I find it ridiculous that many parents in our area pay the equivalent of college tuition for private schools in the elementary,middle, and high school years — not to mention the fact that they schlep them to these far away schools in the name of status, opportunity, and (God forbid) a “Christian influence.”

    Thank you for nailing yet another education issue.

  22. mh
    mh says:


    I keep wondering why you don’t hire an excellent cello teacher to come live with you at the farm. Good grief!

    • Amy
      Amy says:

      Yes! I have been thinking the same thing.

      Also, I think passions always find their way through. I am sure many musicians never had formal training, people driving them all around to learn their craft, or even emotionally supporting them. Yet, they still pursued their craft because they loved and wanted it so badly. Nothing could stop them.

      Believing in this, above, has taken off a lot of pressure in thinking I am the source for my kids getting all they want.

      I believe in who they are and that they will get all they desire. And trust.

  23. mysticaltyger
    mysticaltyger says:


    I agree with you. I was wondering when you were going to figure this out!

  24. michelle
    michelle says:

    I’m a retired home school mom and I will tell you that your intuition will tell you what the right thing for your family is. That commute may be absolutely worth it whether or not you end up with a world class musician. The time spent in the car and the discussions you’ll have there will matter more than you think. My kids (one who is graduating with a degree in art history so he can teach in Italy, and one who is getting her masters in education on her way to getting a PhD so she can do educational research) often astound me by referencing some discussion I don’t even remember that made an impact on them. Every minute of that time is precious even when you think they aren’t “learning.”

  25. Crimson Wife
    Crimson Wife says:

    If I had a kid who was a good enough musician to make it worth driving 16 hours/week to a major city for music lessons, than I would do what it takes to live in that city. Even if it meant sucking it up and getting a corporate job.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      But then what if you had two kids!? and the other one has another set of needs that can be crushed by living the corporate job life?

      • Crimson Wife
        Crimson Wife says:

        Kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for. No, it might not be the ideal environment for the other child(ren), but if I had a kid who was truly exceptional in his/her musical talent, then we’d make the sacrifices necessary to foster that.

        • Amy
          Amy says:

          Depends on what you want for your kids.

          I, myself, want my kids to know, love, respect, and trust themselves–both kids, not just one. And for me to do the same.

          I want to be available for both of my kids.

          I don’t believe in sacrifice. I do believe we all can get what we want eventually.

          And I don’t see how a skill can be more exceptional than the other.

          To each their own. Thankfully.

        • Amy
          Amy says:

          Also, sure kids are resilient. But I would rather reserve my “be resilient” cards for them dealing with my humanity as a mother, my ups and downs just dealing with life.

  26. Elaine Reynolds
    Elaine Reynolds says:

    I am in the camp now though that if we could do it over, we would have bought a home closer to my husband’s work. But the kids are young now and homeschooled, so their commutes or school aren’t affecting family time, it’s his commute that does.

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