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Why working moms struggle the most when kids start school

The conversation about working moms seems to stop at the baby stage — but parenting, and the career, keep going.
Working from Home
Mother working from homeGetty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

It's no secret that working moms face a constellation of challenges, often requiring intense logistical hurdle jumping and almost superhuman emotional fortitude. And while the cultural conversation is evolving around the topic of working while caring for babies — we talk about, say, parental leave, nursing moms' workplace privacy, or the decision about returning to work (or not) after having a baby — that's not where parenting stops.

There's a gap in open conversation around the challenges of working while mothering kids once they reach school age. That's when professional moms often face a rather rude surprise, say Danna Greenberg and Jamie Ladge. They're the authors behind the new book "Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths Through Work and Motherhood," which covers the challenges posed by that whole new world.

"Before children are even born, working parents begin the search of finding and securing high-quality, affordable child care. This process is stressful... and it can be difficult to secure a spot. One way working parents manage this stress is by looking at this as a temporary time with kindergarten as the endpoint. Parents need to believe that these pressures will ease up in order to manage them," explained Greenberg, a mom of three.

And then it comes as a shock when getting there doesn't quite shape up the way they expected. Plays, recitals, the pressure for parents to engage with PTA and other school activities — those all make for intricate scheduling challenges. And when parents find that not everything may be simultaneously possible, the guilt sets in.

"Working parents either experience endless stress as they piece together a complex schedule, which will enable their children to participate in after-school activities, or they feel guilty because they cannot fit in these activities given their work/care arrangements," Greenberg told TODAY by email.

Not only can the logistical feats spike at this time in child rearing, but parents find themselves surprised that the financial burdens don't ease up like they'd planned, either. "Unlike preschool or daycare, the workday does not easily align with the school day," Greenberg said. "Parents will need to secure before-school and after-school arrangements in order to ensure they have daily care to cover the workday. Then there are the days and weeks where children are not in school" — think summer vacations, for instance — and the pricey summer camps that can come along with them.

So when moms send their kids off to school for the first time, "It's overwhelming," Ladge, also a mom of three, told TODAY. "I personally was surprised by how little support there is out there within our communities that assume there is a parent home all the time that can run and quickly pick up a sick kid, come to a play in the middle of the day or volunteer for a school-related activity. It very much feels as though you are on your own."

And that feeling is intensified, Greenberg said, "because no one talks about the work and family needs of parents of older children. Working mothers, organizations and the popular press are so focused on maternity leave and return to work that we ignore the fact that older children continue to need care."

"Working parents are trying to be active caregivers, high performers at work and engaged school citizens," Greenberg said. "Something has to give!"

The good news is that working mothers can develop the tools they need to thrive at home and at work during the school years.

"Maternal Optimism" suggests some ways to make it happen. One takeaway, the authors said, is that moms should seek advice from family members, friends, fellow parents and colleagues. "The best way to prepare for what will come next is to ask another working mother," Greenberg said.

And then just plain surrender the quest for that so-called work-life balance so often held up as the holy grail. "Instead, welcome the benefits of being a working mother, such as increased confidence, a greater focus and productivity at work and a recognition of yourself as a role model for your children," Greenberg noted.

Keep the faith. Because as kids progress in school — and as mom's career moves forward at the same time — more tangible rewards begin to emerge. "As children age, you start to see ways in which your work actually benefits your kids. As you help your children develop resilience, you can share your own stories of challenges and mistakes you have made at work," Greenberg said. "One benefit of children getting older is you become more experienced as a working parent. You have more experience juggling schedules, managing crises at home and at work, and you become clearer about what you can let go of."

All told, Greenberg said, the "Maternal Optimism" message is, "You got this" — yes, even if you're not at every recital. "Remember, kids are resilient... You may miss a concert or not be able to participate in the bake sale," she said. "We need to ease up on the pressures of parenting, and remember at the end of the day, kids need loving, understanding parents. You can be that and miss an occasional event."