As I write this I have a mere six weeks to go before my youngest child finishes year six at primary school. While intermediate and high school still bring their share of stress for working parents, I know from my two older girls that the hard work of juggling that work/primary school balance is almost over (phew).
We are all counting down these last few weeks of primary school life – my 11 year old because she is excited about a new school, and me because it signals the end of working my schedule around daily school drop-offs. When I asked other mums for their number one tip for surviving school as a working parent, most came back with, “Just survive.” With so many of us working, how is it that we are still battling for balance between our work and our children’s schooling?
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The majority of my girls’ schooling took place with me as their only custodial parent – and working parent. Suffice to say I have a raft of strategies earned, invented, discovered and stolen from others far more capable and ‘together’ than me.
My goal was, and continues to be, to not succumb to the huge amount of guilt we can place on ourselves for working. Whether it’s for financial necessity, the love of work, or a bit of both – the guilt is a waste of energy and leaves you open to let your children, their friends’ parents and the school allow you to feel you’re less of a parent because you work. It isn’t true. Step one of your survival strategy is very clear – do not allow yourself to feel guilty.
Let’s just look at one huge benefit of you working. Besides the fact that I had to work to support our family (and I love my job), I look back and can see how my work has created three very independent and capable girls who can manage schedules, school, and me with deftly clever techniques and management. And if that is the result of my work, then the days of frustration, of juggling schedules and expectations and those infernal, “I just need five dollars” conversations at 8.20am the day before pay day, were more than worth it.
So, with guilt out of the way (the trick is to not pander to it, and don’t even let it creep in. It’s one of the biggest thieves of your joy with your children), here are some practical ways to make surviving school as a working parent that much easier.
Under promise, over deliver
That guilt you can feel as a working parent is often from making too many promises you can’t keep. It’s better in the long run to not make hasty promises, and rather promise to do very little. But always deliver on the promises you have made. Plus, every now and again, deliver a little extra. It means your child knows you are going above and beyond what you said you would do, and it means more.
Set aside a little money every week for emergency money requests
We pay our school costs and donations weekly by direct credit as it spreads the costs away from the beginning of the year. I generally pay for all the girls’ trips with internet banking too – and I have a set day for paying for these things once a week. However, there seems to always be an extra spend required for unexpected sausage sizzles and mufti day. To help offset these unpredictable costs, we have a coin jar at home and the children know it’s for emergency school money requests.
Get routines down pat
Morning and after-school routines work best for everyone. At the start of each year I sit down with my girls (we’ve done it since my eldest was five) and we make a chart of what needs to be completed every morning with pictures. Each child has a different routine, depending on their age and their needs, and it helps them order their time and get themselves ready for school. (Removing the option of television or screens ensures there is a lot more time). If your child is whipping through their jobs, try adding a few more to the list. It’s amazing what you can achieve with a good routine. At the beginning of the year, we start getting back into these routines a week or so before school starts, so the learning curve isn’t so steep.
Let’s face it – school holidays are hard
I have predominately been able to work from home in the holidays and I’ve still found it near impossible to manage. I would take one day off per holiday to focus on the children. Besides that, other ideas are to find a low-cost holiday programme, ask a stay-at-home parent to look after your children for a small fee, ask an older cousin to come stay for the holidays (paying for a flight is cheaper than a nanny), or send the kids to relatives. Have a plan A, B, and C!
Use weekends for your planning
My goal in the week is to have as much family connection time as possible. To ensure that this happens, I need to use weekends for planning. Meal plans can sound intimidating, but they save so much time in the long run. Also, they don’t have to be fancy or complicated – it doesn’t matter if you have the same four or five meals every week (nothing wrong with sausages every Tuesday!). Use some time on the weekend to make sure you know what’s coming up the following week – make sure you’ve got the money out for trips and you’ve noted any changes to the schedule.
Have specific times of the day for notices and information sharing
One of my top survival tips is to set time aside each day for ‘information sharing’. We’ve done this for ages – and it works! It isn’t about talking about everyone’s day – it’s a specific ‘what do I need to know’ time. For us, every night after dinner and before the girls’ bedtime, all notices come out and are dealt with accordingly. Asking every day means less left at the bottom of school bags, or worse, thrown in my face at 8.20am. And we’ve stuck to it. We’ve also used emails as reminder tools – so even at six, my youngest could send an email (with inventive spelling) with a reminder or information I needed.
Use email to communicate with the school, and teachers
Use email to discuss issues or concerns about your child when you can’t get into school to make a time. It’s a good way to document everything too. Most schools also send newsletters via email – make sure you get these. If they send updates as attachments, ask the school to send them in the body of your email instead so they’re easier to read on your phone.
Family time is food prep time and folding washing/cleaning time)
Use the concept that a family that cleans and cooks together is a family contributing together. It’s a good way to spend time with your children, while developing life skills for them, and it helps you carve out more chore-free time for yourself. Sharing chores also helps your children value your time and the work you do, and it builds respect for all the work done.
Commit to one outing a year per child
It’s amazing how many school trips, visits and assembly invitations there are. I get the desire of schools to want to involve parents, and it’s awesome for parents who have the flexibility or time, but for many of us it’s one of those guilt-creators. Make a decision to commit to one outing per year, per child. I will admit, one year I only managed to get this accomplished on the very last week of school, but it was achieved!
Band together with stay-at-home parents
I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I am for every single stay-at-home, or working-only-very-part-time parent I have befriended over the last 11 years. They’ve helped with emergency pick-ups and drop-offs (especially during those unexpected half days you forget about), they have helped make outfits, reminded me about events and generally been amazing.
Sometimes you’ve got more disposable income than them. I’ve done things such as pay for both their child and my child to attend a class after school, as long as their parent does the drop-off and pick-up, or given them enough ingredients to bake a cake for me as well as them for a school fair, or outright paid for help after school.
Introduce family calendars
We first started with a paper calendar (those family organiser month-by-month calendars are great). In the last few years, since my youngest turned eight, we’ve all moved to Google calendars – and we have a family calendar. The children have all got into the habit of posting important school dates into the calendar so they come through to my phone.
Introduce the concept of sick leave
I worked out that one of my children would plan her visits to the sick bay around my schedule. If I was coming home from a trip or had hardly any meetings, she was suddenly sicker than before. We introduced the concept of sick leave to reduce this – of course if she was genuinely sick she could stay home, but it meant I could ask, “Do you want to use your last day of sick leave now?” and she’d often say she was okay.
We also introduced the idea of a mid-winter ‘duvet day’ the moment one of us got sick. The idea is that the whole family would stay home, have a very quiet day, and hopefully it would prevent the weeks and weeks of sickness that comes with letting everyone drop sick one by one. The first year we didn’t do this was this year – and I can confirm that it wasn’t my best move – six weeks of colds, flus and illness.
Don’t always accept the status quo
I used to be a teacher. I love school. My children love school. But school routines are school routines – and they are not always about making life easier for working parents! Sometimes it’s a good idea to remind the school that what they are asking for isn’t possible with your work commitments. Time or money are not the only contributions your school needs. You may have expertise, networks and other things to contribute.
We focus a great deal on the importance of parenting our under-fives, but our school-aged children also really need to have parents they can relate to and spend time with. School is a huge part of their life, but we are still the main contributor to the way our children develop and grow. All the above tips help us do more than survive – they help us thrive as parents of over-fives, and give us an opportunity to develop independent, confident and happy school-aged children – without burning ourselves out.
Attend a Toolbox parenting course
Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.