Parents Perspective

As a Working Mom, You Just Can't Win

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I was on my usual train to work this morning, when I got an email from my child's school. "Calling all parents!" it began. "Put on your running shoes and come support our Running Club—stop by school TODAY between 11:30-12:30 and join the fun. Run a lap or two with the kids—let's get fit and healthy together!" The email signed off with: "See you at lunchtime!"

Or not, I thought.

Big picture: I'm grateful we're part of a school where teachers give up their free time to do amazing things for their students—our children—like launching a running club to get kids moving. (Seriously, how cool is that?) But when I get an email with late notice inviting "all parents" to something, too late for any working parent to possibly make arrangements to attend, I can't help feeling blindsided, and like, well, whether working parents come or not doesn't matter, as long as other parents can.

I'll admit to feeling a little extra-cranky right now, when there are so many events to wrap up the school year, and the opportunities to attend them—or miss them—keep on coming. One of my colleagues is wondering how she's going to make the "13,000 events in the 13 days left of school." Thank goodness we both work at a place like Parents that gives us the flexibility to attend most of them. That's just luck, though—not every working parent can do that. And some rarely get to be at school at all.

The truth: Most of the time, I don't feel guilty not being at school. Working full-time means I'm just never going to be the Chicken-Nugget Day mom, and I'm cool with that. But missing out is one thing. Deep down, I'm worried how my child feels the many days she sees other moms at school, and her mother isn't there, even though she's said she is proud to have a mom who works. I shared my woes with another working-mom friend, who said, "I may have a skewed point of view, but I see all of these events as, 'How many times can you let your child down?'"

To be sure, at-home moms would appreciate more notice with invitations, too. Just because they're home doesn't mean they have the freedom to drop everything and get to school, like so many people assume. They're often the busiest of caretakers for their families, and without backup. I haven't forgotten that when I was at home with two kids in school and a baby, a lack of notice bugged me then too, as I didn't have family nearby to call on for last-minute help. The worst kind of invite? The one that acknowledges it's late notice, yet goes on to say, "But your kid has been working so hard on X." So parents who can't shuffle things around can't make the event and get to feel guilty about it.

When schools invite "all parents" to events at school with short or no notice, they're not inviting all parents—only those lucky enough to be home and unencumbered enough to attend. Forget dads (most of whom work), working moms, or even parents who can't bring a small child in tow and can't hire a babysitter at the last minute—or at all. I wish schools could do a sensitivity check before sending out invitations like this. They could also give more thought to whether an event calls for parent involvement at all: My Parents colleague Jenna Helwig wrote about that in this blog post earlier this week. Most working parents have to guard their vacation time carefully, to cover everything from parent-teacher conferences to school performances (sometimes for multiple children) to an actual family vacation, when most have only two to three weeks to use for the entire year.

Earlier in the school year, I spoke up to my daughter's teacher about the sheer number of mid-day school events, and how that sets up most working parents to fail. To my surprise, he not only listened, but responded with a first-thing-in-the-morning classroom writing reception for parents. I went, sat side-by-side with my daughter as she showed off her work, and I headed to a later train, happy and for the moment even a little victorious: My daughter could have a mom who works, and not feel like the only kid in the classroom without a parent there.

I understand it's not always possible to accommodate parents who work, and schools can't please everybody. They have other factors to consider, like coordinating events around teachers' schedules, too. I just wish schools could think and plan this way more often, to have things when more parents—including fathers!—can be there. Our school is planning two evening events in the next couple of weeks. We had lots of notice, and both my husband and I will be there.

And if schools can't schedule something except in the middle of the day, please let us working parents know, at least a week in advance, though ideally more—especially for those parents who do shift work and can't make changes so quickly.

Is that too much to ask?

Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and a mom of three. You can follow her on Twitter @gailwrites.

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