I have a running list of milestones my daughter, Avery, has achieved in her first three years of life. At 4 months, she let out her first giggle in the tub as I sang "Who loves her bathtime, who, who, who, who?" to the tune of "Who Let the Dogs Out." She took her inaugural steps at 11 months, after weeks of practicing while harnessed into a ridiculous contraption called "Walking Wings" that my husband insisted we buy. And at the ripe old age of 27 months, Avery learned to utter the phrase that never fails to send me into an emotional tailspin: "I don't want you to go to work, Mommy. Why do you have to?"
Sixty-four percent of mothers of children under 6 are employed, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C., so I'm obviously not the first parent to struggle with explaining why every morning I leave the house wearing clean, usually unwrinkled clothes and return ten hours later tired, starving, and genuinely tickled to see Avery (and now her 15-month-old brother, Austin). Part of the reason I have such a hard time talking about it with her is that I, like virtually every working mom I know, wrestle with a degree of ambivalence about having a full-time job. Indeed, 60 percent of employed mothers say part-time work is most appealing, according to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that only 24 percent of them actually work less than a full schedule. Another survey, conducted by careerbuilder.com, found that 43 percent of working moms would take a pay cut in exchange for spending more time with their kids.
"Talking to your children about work can be just as stressful as chatting about sex and death," says Janeen Hayward, founder of swellbeing.com, a parenting resource service. "Parents often over-anticipate what kids need and want to hear, so they make the process even more complicated than it needs to be." Want some hints on how to tackle the topic with your child? These strategies will help streamline those challenging conversations.
Tell them where you're going
Reveal your reasons. If your decision to work is based primarily on the fact that you love your job (lucky you!), you can talk to your kids about a particular thing you enjoy doing. When working is a financial necessity, it's a good idea to help your children make the connection between a job and money, which is something they don't immediately understand without some grown-up assistance, says Lisa Spiegel, codirector of Soho Parenting, in New York City. "Try saying something like, 'Mommy and Daddy work so we can make money to pay for our house and our clothes and our car,' " says Spiegel. Explaining that you need to earn a paycheck in order to live is also a great opportunity to teach your child about how the world works.
Don't be an echo. When your child whines, "I don't want you to go to work," it's natural to want to reply, "I don't want to go either. I reeeeeeally hate to leave you." But that would be a mistake. "It sends a confusing message to children: You say you want to stay, yet you're leaving," says Lori Long, Ph.D., author of The Parent's Guide to Family-Friendly Work. While it's fine to acknowledge his plea, make your job sound fun to your child by sharing something you're excited about doing at the office. This will help him understand that work is an important part of his mom's life. And for mothers who feel guilty about working outside the home, consider this: "Your child isn't saying you shouldn't be working; she's saying, 'I don't like it when you leave,' " says Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. And this is exactly what she'd say if you went out to dinner or dashed off to catch a movie with friends.
Understand the way they feel
Acknowledge their feelings. No matter how well you've prepared your kids, there will be an occasion (or 500) when they pitch a fit as you leave for the office. (In my house, it usually occurs when I'm running 25 minutes late or distracted about a big meeting I have that day.) When this happens, take the time to validate your child's feelings, and then focus on a solution. "You can say, 'I know it's really hard to say goodbye. Let's think about what we're going to do when I get home tonight. What would you like us to play later?' Then take out the supplies or toy she mentions so she has something to look forward to," says Braun.
Put your goodbye on repeat. Come up with a short ritual that you follow before heading to work and do it every day before you leave. It can be as simple as a "See you later, alligator" or as elaborate as two Eskimo kisses, a bear hug, and a high five. Avery has devised a little custom where I pretend to leave and then come back for "one more kiss" at least two dozen times -- a process I don't recommend since it often requires at least one outfit change, thanks to sticky fingers and juice dribbles. "The regularity and predictability of such rituals help your child feel in control," says Braun.
Help them understand your job
Personalize your position. Share details about your job so your kids understand what you do all day. If you're a postal worker, talk about how you sort and deliver letters. If you manage a restaurant, tell them about the breakfast rush and the daily specials. If you can, take them to your workplace to meet your coworkers. Christine Petersen, chief marketing officer for Trip Advisor, brings her 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to her office regularly. "She comes every Friday at 4:30 after her ballet class, when I'm finishing things up," says Petersen. "She gets to see my desk, look at where I've placed pictures of her and her artwork, and visit my colleagues. I think it makes her feel like she's part of my work community."
Handle the tough stuff. Many working moms I know share a similar nightmare with a single, recurring phrase. Here's mine: "Zoe's mom plays with us in the afternoon at the park. Why can't you?" What do you say when your child makes the dreaded, unfair, but understandable comparison between you and her friend's at-home mom? "Use the opportunity to turn the question back to your child and get at the root of what's bothering her," says Hayward. When Avery asked me why Zoe's mother is around more than I am, I asked her, "What do you think about Zoe's mom staying home?" She told me, "I'd like you to be home all day too," and it became apparent that her complaint was less about having a parent like Zoe's and more about wanting to log more hours with me. So she and I brainstormed and figured out that we could spend some extra time together at a special early-evening picnic later in the week.
Stay positive. In general, experts say it's best to keep your comments about work on the sunnier side. "Being upbeat about your job can help your kids feel more supportive of your working," says Dr. Long. Petersen makes a point of checking all her work stress at the door when she gets home. "I've sat in the car for 15 minutes simply to decompress so I didn't take my anxiety out on Charlotte," she admits. That said, if your day has been a disaster, a certain level of candor about how you feel is not only acceptable but also educational. "Share something simple such as, 'Mommy's a little grumpy today. I had an exciting project that didn't work out,' " says Dr. Long. Then try to relate the situation to something your kids can understand. Say, "You know when you're at the playground and you really want to use the swing but someone jumps on right before you do? You know how that's really frustrating? Well, that's how Mommy's feeling today.' "
Involve Dad. "One way to help women answer the hard questions about work is to bring their husbands into the mix," says Spiegel. "It's a joint decision to have either or both parents work, so it should be treated as a family discussion." I counted on my husband, Wes, to help answer the endless queries Avery had after I returned to work from maternity leave last year. Given the sleep-deprived, hormone-jacked state I was in, I'm not sure I could have even offered clear explanations to her musings about when I had to go or why I dragged around so many bags (darn breast pump!). Thanks to Wes's support, I learned that when you present a united front and share the responsibility, tough conversations are only half as difficult and twice as effective. Which led me to my own milestone: the realization that talking to your children about work, like virtually all aspects of being a parent, requires time, energy, patience, and persistence. These techniques have not only helped me become better equipped to respond to Avery's queries about my job, but they've also made her feel more comfortable with the idea of my working for a living -- maybe a little too comfortable. This morning when I told her she couldn't wear her princess costume to preschool, she said, "It's time for YOU to go to work!"
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Parents magazine.