How to kick-ass juggling school demands when you're a working mum
“He’ll be in school the year after next, and it’ll be so much easier,” said the woman to her friend as she tried changing her baby with one hand while holding on to her toddler with the other.
“I know, I can’t wait till we’re not paying crèche fees anymore,” was the reply.
I resisted the urge to interrupt. Partly because we were in a shopping centre changing room, and I didn’t know the two women at all, and partly because nobody likes that patronising person who’s a few years ahead in the parenting game and insists on bursting ALL the bubbles.
Eventually, they’d realise, as I did, that far from making life easier for working parents, school can make things much more complicated.
At that time, my eldest was a week into junior infants, and I was just about to finish maternity leave with my third baby. I was watching the time that morning because school was finishing at 11.30am, as it did every day for the first two weeks. And whatever about being late for work, or late for crèche pick-up, being late at the school gate just wasn’t an option.
In every sense, school is a whole different ball game…
Childcare can get complicated, there’s school-gate guilt to contend with, the joys of homework, and the sense that some schools are still run as though there’s one parent at home.
So short of throwing in the career-towel, what’s a person to do? Here are some ideas:
1. Think about childcare
If your child is in crèche, it’s great to see the fees go down, but after-school care can be almost as expensive as full-time care. Not all crèches offer after-school, and if they do, they may not be able to collect your child from school, so do check this.
It may make sense for your child do some activities in the school if available, and depending on work hours, you or your partner could pick them up some afternoons.
A childminder can be a good option when kids start junior infants – we went down this route for my children because we couldn’t get them into school and then make it into work on time – our childminder did the school run instead. There are also breakfast clubs, and crèches who take children before school then drop them there while you go to work.
An au pair is worth considering – they are restricted in terms of how many hours they can work, but the schedule could fit with the afternoon-only childcare requirements of a school-age child. Or look for a Montessori teacher who works in the mornings and might be interested in taking care of children for the afternoon.
2. Try changing your hours
People who work a three- or four-day week sometimes switch to five mornings after kids start school, in a bid to be there in the afternoons. It can be challenging, as there’s no 'downtime,' but it’s a good way to keep childcare costs down and logistics simple(ish) especially if both parents can do it on different days.
3. Get to know other parents
Find people who live near you and on whom you can rely to collect your child if you or your childminder can’t. These are the same people who will tell you what the homework is when your child forgets her journal, will let you know whether or not there’s PE tomorrow, and if it’s really Pyjama Day (it wasn’t, I was glad I checked…)
4. Join the PTA
I know, it sounds counterintuitive. You’re already busy – you don’t have time for the Parent Teacher Association. But, it’s a great way to get to know what’s going on in the school, and meetings usually take place at night, so don’t interfere with work. It’s also a way of getting to know other parents – people you can rely on for pick-ups and dig-outs as needed. It sounds mercenary, but it’s also strangely fulfilling – it gives you a voice in your child’s school, which is no bad thing.
5. Try to collect now and then
If you work full-time and never get to drop or collect, you can start to feel out of touch. If you can, try to do the school run once a month or so, even if it means taking a half-day – it’s so reassuring to see your child running out of school with a big smile. It’s a chance to meet other parents, to have a quick word with the teacher, and to see your child in her everyday environment. And if you’re feeling (misplaced!) guilt, it helps with that too.
6. Use all the technology
Much of school communication has gone online now – class lists are often circulated by email, and parents use What’s App, Viber and Facebook to stay in touch with one another. It’s handy for organising parties, playdates, and asking if anyone at all understood what tonight’s homework was.
7. Organise playdates
Again, if you’re working full-time, this is hard. And if you take the odd half-day or day off, you probably want to spend it with your own kids, not hosting playdates. But if your child is asking to have friends over, it’s great to be able to do it every now and then.
8. Check the homework
It may be the last thing you want to do when you get home from work, but checking your child’s reading and spelling is a good way to stay in touch with how they’re getting on. Even two minutes will give you a sense of whether or not they’re on top of things. And if you ever have guilty pangs about not being there to do homework with them, it does help alleviate this (though mostly it reminds you how nice it is not to have to do homework every afternoon…)
9. Organise a night out
Not with your kids – with the parents. Lots of bonding, lots of information (“What do you mean they got a new teacher two weeks ago?”) and a few glasses of wine. Just don’t do it on a school-night.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.