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How Being a Working Parent Changes as Children Grow Up

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With a record number of women running for president in the U.S., it’s no surprise that the concerns of working parents are on the 2020 agenda. Elizabeth Warren unveiled a plan for universal childcare, Kamala Harris is a co-sponsor of the Child Care for Working Families Act, and several other candidates have voiced support for similar policies.

The prominence of these issues on the campaign trail reflects a growing awareness about the needs of working parents in the U.S., particularly working mothers. We’re having more open and honest conversations about topics like maternity leave, return to work, and pregnancy and breastfeeding in the office.

Yet much of our public discussion around working parents focuses on the needs of new mothers, as if the challenges of integrating work and parenthood evaporate once a child enters school (not to mention that working fathers are often ignored completely). In reality, as children get older, working parents experience new joys and stresses. Without effective supports, later-stage working parents are just as vulnerable as new parents to feeling pulled between career and family.

In our research and interviews with hundreds of working mothers, as well as our own experiences navigating work and parenthood, we’ve learned that motherhood isn’t a linear, uniform path. Just when you think you have it figured out, your family or your career shifts and you have to create new work/family patterns. As we argue in our new book, Maternal Optimism, it’s time for working parents and organizations to look beyond pregnancy, birth, and infancy to address how work-family demands shift as children grow up and careers mature.

The evolving complexities of childcare

After pregnancy and return to work, the next major upheaval for most working parents happens when their child enters school and the childcare arrangements they have come to rely on are suddenly upended. The American education system hardly qualifies as full-time care. The average school is closed for 29 days during the 10 months a year when it is officially “in session.” These days off, along with summer vacations and the perpetual misalignment between the school day and the work day, all create gaps in childcare.

We’ve found that these “care gaps” are often more difficult for working parents to navigate than obtaining full-time care for younger children. Many working mothers have reported feeling blindsided by the challenge of securing and paying for quality care for school-age children. One mother we interviewed was astonished to find her childcare costs did not diminish significantly when her daughter transitioned to kindergarten and, as a result, she and her partner had to reorient their family budget.

Children continue to need care even as they transition to middle and high school and become more independent. Yet there are far fewer after-school programs and care options available for tweens and teens. While high schoolers require less supervision, they often lead busier lives and need to be shuttled between activities, after-school jobs, and social engagements. Research shows that, as with other childcare tasks, these responsibilities continue to fall primarily on mothers rather than fathers. While care for teens is less physically demanding and time intensive, it often requires more emotional labor as children develop their own identities and navigate complex social and emotional issues.

Unfortunately, bosses and colleagues who may have been accommodating of a new mother’s need to pump breast milk or take maternity leave are often less aware or accepting of the demands a working mother faces as her children get older. At the same time, job responsibilities are increasing as parents move ahead in their careers. Sometimes the choices women make about work and family can feel more difficult because of the invisibility of mothering older children.

For instance, a technical sales consultant we interviewed was conflicted when offered a promotion that would require significant travel. She was hesitant to accept the role because her youngest son was in his final years of high school. When her children were younger, her managers would actively help her think through work and family integration as she considered new opportunities. However, this time it was as if everyone seemed to forget she was a mother, and she worried she couldn’t be transparent about her concerns. She ultimately turned down the promotion.

The upside of parenting older children

Of course, it’s not all bad news as children get older. The parents we’ve interviewed have said that while the demands of work and family don’t diminish, they become better equipped at integrating the two and more forgiving of their missteps. They become skilled multitaskers and time managers, laser-focused on what has to get done both at work and at home. They also begin to realize the many ways in which their roles as employees and parents are mutually beneficial. Ruth Bader Ginsburg attributes her success in law school in large part to being a parent, writing, “Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”

Expectations also evolve as children grow older. Numerous women have told us that they begin to feel more comfortable and confident in their identities as working mothers. The anxiety about being a “perfect mom” as well as a star performer at work dissipates as they discover the work-family harmony that is right for them. The feedback from their children also becomes more positive: rather than asking why a parent works, teenagers often express pride and interest in their parent’s job. Working mothers start to realize what research has already shown — that their careers have an overwhelmingly positive influence on their children in the long run.

How to ride the transitions

What can parents do to prepare for the transitions that will inevitably arise as their children grow older? How can they manage the new challenges while also reaping the benefits?

First, families should anticipate (and budget for) new childcare arrangements when their children enter school; they may need to secure after-school and summer care months in advance. There will be unanticipated care gaps due to snow days, early release, and unexpected meetings, so parents should prepare one or two alternative care options as backup. As children get older, parents should consider creative arrangements. A teen may need a driver or a tutor more than someone to supervise them. Most importantly, instead of thinking of childcare as a cost, consider it an investment in both your career and your child’s well being.

We also encourage working parents to cultivate networks of support, just as they develop professional networks to advance their careers. Research shows that community support leads to less stress and higher job quality for working mothers. When deciding where to live and work, parents often focus on high-ranking schools but overlook other community assets like after-school programs or fellow working parents who can share carpool duties or childcare on snow days. It’s also important to develop allies in the office who support your efforts to integrate work and caregiving. And as managers and colleagues, we should be more aware that parental obligations don’t end once children are in school.

As for employers, it’s essential that they expand policies and practices to support working parents with children of all ages. Generous parental leave after birth is a start, but parents also need flexibility to attend a teenager’s a cappella performance or step out of a meeting to problem solve a school pick-up. Parents of teens with special needs will require even more flexibility to meet with teachers and therapists and advocate for their child. Supporting employees’ family needs helps them thrive at work, which ultimately reduces turnover, absenteeism, and increases productivity.

Some organizations have become more creative in supporting parents with older children. Biotechnology company Genentech has partnered with an organization that helps employees find high-quality programs for their children when school is not in session. Johnson & Johnson provides financial assistance for the speech, occupational, mental health, and physical therapy needs of employees’ children.

Our research has consistently found that parenthood is a continually evolving path and each parent’s experiences and needs are unique. Being a parent doesn’t end, it just changes form. By acknowledging this and providing appropriate supports to parents throughout their children’s lives, we can create better workplaces, stronger families, and healthier communities.

By Danna Greenberg & Jamie J. Ladge


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