National Post

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Tuesday, October 12, 1999

'Is this the divorce course?'
Executive MBA programs are gruelling, and not just for the students. Welcome to Spousal Survival 101

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Chris Bolin, National Post
Heather Lowe, right, got help from her parents, Jack and Yvonne McKague, centre, when she enrolled in an executive MBA program. They moved in to help with the kids, 10-year-old Kirsten and eight-year-old Terri, taking some of the burden from Lowe's husband, Doug.

When Heather Lowe of Acton, Ont., enrolled in an executive master's of business administration (EMBA) program, the lives of everyone in her family changed dramatically.

Designed for people in mid-career who are already holding down full-time jobs, the two-year EMBA added as many as 40 gruelling hours to the 39-year-old Lowe's weekly schedule -- leaving little time for her husband and kids, let alone domestic chores.

But like hundreds of other EMBA households across the country, the Lowes found their own way of coping: Heather's parents, Jack and Yvonne McKague, sold their home and moved in for the duration.

"I'm surprised at how well it has worked out," says Yvonne McKague. "We've become very, very close," she says of her granddaughters, 10-year-old Kirsten and eight-year-old Terri.

Between them, the McKagues prepare the children for school in the morning and care for them afterward. They also do the grocery shopping, the cooking and cleaning, and help with the family's two horses and two dogs.

"When I went through university, I was 30 years old and had three children," says Jack McKague. "It was pure hell, on both my wife and I. So when Heather [who was born during his graduation year] mentioned she was going to do this and carry on her job at the same time, we volunteered to help out."

Spouses of EMBA students -- including this journalist, whose husband is a classmate of Lowe's -- sometimes feel like golf widows trapped in a two-year-long summer.

Because the assistance of spouses and families is critical to a student's success, many EMBA programs employ an array of formal and informal measures to enlist their support. The Richard Ivey School of Business, at the University of Western Ontario, invites significant others to a four-hour information session held at the beginning of the academic year. The school -- which uses a case-study, small-team learning approach -- divides the spouses into teams and leads them through a case study of their own so they can experience the process first-hand. Then the second-year spouses give the initiates the lowdown.

Last year, the new spouses were advised that delegating household tasks is the key to staying sane. Several spouses said hiring professionals to clean their homes had ensured their lives remained bearable. One described how her husband had conscripted his family into relieving the domestic burdens: While one brother assumed responsibility for mowing the lawn, a second took the children every Saturday morning. One of the most useful survival tips involved building a series of small rewards into the school year. During especially busy periods, as tempers threatened to flare, I'd take a deep breath and remind myself of an upcoming dinner at a favourite restaurant.

We were warned that, no matter how much we might feel like single parents, we mustn't begrudge the time the students would be devoting to preparation each week: Both the professors and their teammates would humiliate them if they weren't meeting their responsibilities.

But the anecdote we anxiously repeated to our spouses at dinner that night was downright alarming: One woman said she often went to bed while her husband worked at the computer, only to find him still there when she got up in the morning; on one occasion, he left for work after an all-nighter and became involved in an automobile accident.

Suitably terrorized, we must all have returned home and organized our lives to an absurd degree, since the dominant conversational theme at social events afterward was that things weren't as tough as we'd been led to believe. Although we joked about scaring the wits out of this year's crop of spouses, we were relatively restrained when our turn came.

"You cannot do an executive MBA program without the support of the people in your life," says Tony Dimnik, a director of Canada's largest EMBA program, which operates out of Ontario's Queen's University but conducts classes from coast to coast via video conferencing. "It's very important that significant others are committed to the program."

Insisting that the effect on families is often positive, he relates the experience of one of his Edmonton students: "He's been in business for 20 years. He's a very successful person. The fact that he began the program encouraged his wife to go back to school. He has teenaged children, and now they all have dinner together and then retire to their respective [home] offices to do their homework. It changed the way the kids saw their school work, because they saw their parents were committed to learning."

Andre deCarufel, the program director of the University of Ottawa's EMBA program, says he began holding an October information session for spouses four years ago after the wife of one of his students said her experience would have been better if she'd met more of the other students' families.

"We invite them in. I give them a tour of the facility and do a little presentation. The very fact that we do it sends an important signal," says deCarufel. In his view, spouses who are kept in the dark can begin to question whether their partner is devoting more time than necessary to school.

"There's a bit of a tendency to wonder, 'Is this all necessary? Is this overkill? Are you being compulsive about this?' But when spouses come in and see other people in the same situation, they realize that their own partner is not an aberration and isn't doing it just to ignore them."

Susan Burns, the director of the EMBA program at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University, says socializing with other students and their families is strongly encouraged by the school.

It's important, Burns says, for "Joe, who's always phoning Lisa at 10 o'clock at night, to have his wife actually meet Lisa. And sometimes the spouses, whether they're male or female, will decide, 'Well, if they're always going to have study group meetings on Wednesday nights, why don't we all go to the movies?' "

Bonnie Kirby, who manages the EMBA program at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, says spouses are invited to attend the school's information sessions and the interviews that form part of the admission process.

Second-year spouses frequently advise those married to first-year students to use the two years to pursue some of their own interests, Kirby says. Additionally, she believes it's essential that "students book time with the family in their Daytimer ... We stress strongly to our students that there has to be a discussion and a decision: When is family time?"

"There's usually [some first-year spouse] who asks: 'Is this really the divorce course?' " admits deCarufel. But while marriage breakups occur, he agrees with spokesmen from other schools that the rate is far lower than in the general population. Of course, "if there are weaknesses in the relationship, this is an awfully good way to find out."

Kirby agrees: "If there is a divorce, the odds are they came into the program with a shaky marriage," she says. "The course itself is not going to cause a divorce, but if your relationship is already in trouble, then certainly the time pressure and stress level won't help the situation."

On a cheerier note, single people occasionally meet and marry in EMBA programs, and Dimnik says it's becoming more common for married couples to enrol simultaneously. "We had one couple with three kids, and they did it [together]," he says.

The arrival of newborns is also not unheard of. More than one school tells of a student's husband or mother accompanying the student to class in order to take care of the baby, or dropping in at intervals so that both breast-feeding and lectures can proceed uninterrupted.

"That's been one of the things that has really amazed me," says Dimnik, "because I look at this program and I say, 'Boy, this is a stretch.' And then, on top of that, to have kids."

Kirby reports that, "when the program finishes, a lot of our students have a trip planned with the spouse, something very special ... so that the spouse has something to look forward to."

At our house, the travel brochures for Hawaii have already arrived.

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