Six Things Not to Say to a Working Mom (and the One Thing She’d Love to Hear)

Back to SchoolSchool starts in one week and I’m bracing for the tears and the anxiety. Not my kids’. Mine. As I’ve written before, “Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a working mother like the last six weeks of school, except maybe the first six.” There are so many activities to coordinate: school supply shopping, orientation meetings, curriculum nights, fundraisers, and parent teacher conferences. The challenge of managing my September Outlook calendar makes balancing a multimillion dollar marketing budget seem like first grade arithmetic.

I’ve been critical of my school district in the past; as far as I’m concerned, there is no excuse for notifying me that my child’s artwork will be on display in the town-wide exhibit the night before the art show. Actually, I think there are two possible excuses: lack of planning or lack or respect for parents’ time. So this year, I must commend the administration.

Last night I visited the school website and on the school calendar I saw the dates and times for curriculum night, the Halloween dance, the winter concert, the spring concert and even the end of year carnival. Having this information is a huge help. I’ve already entered the events in Outlook, asked for time off for the concerts and noted the nights I need to leave work early to get to the school by 7 p.m.

Still, even with improvements in planning and communication, managing school activities can be a challenge for working parents. Also last night, I was browsing Facebook and I saw that one friend was scheduled to volunteer midday today at her child’s school handing out supply kits. Meanwhile, another friend wondered why the kits wouldn’t be available at any times convenient for working parents. The packets are available for pickup from 8 -10 a.m., but if, like me, your work day starts at 8:30, and you have a 45 minute commute, you’re still out of luck.

The reality is, schools and school routines just weren’t designed with the working parent in mind.  Three o’clock dismissals, parent-teacher conferences that start at 10:15 a.m., the dreaded half-days and summer vacations, are all out of sync with the work world. And even when schools make adjustments – scheduling meetings at night or offering packet pick-up at 8 a.m., fitting it all in can be a challenge for working parents.

Women especially have to consciously manage perceptions at work. As I’ve noted in the past, “If we are serious about our careers…we need to be seen as dedicated to the job.” A working mother “is constantly weighing the risk/rewards for every decision she makes to be at work or at home. Where is the greater payoff – the client call or the teacher conference? What carries a higher penalty – miss the meeting or miss the field trip?”

So even with the fabulous school calendar and long-term planning, there will be some anxiety this school year. And there may be tears. After all, the art show is still to-be-scheduled and the musical theatre instructors may wait until the last minute to let me know my kid needs to wear a mint green t-shirt in the performance. And so you may hear me, and working mothers across the country, complain from time-to-time about managing work, life and school. When that happens, please do not respond with any of the following:

Six things not to say to a working mother

Do you have to work?

First of all, that’s none of your business. Second of all, it’s completely irrelevant. Some women enjoy working. But if you mean, do I have to work from 2 – 2:30 on Wednesday when the class is decorating gingerbread houses? Yes, I have a meeting with my boss at that time. Otherwise, I’d try to rearrange my schedule…again.

Don’t feel guilty.

Who said anything about guilt? You did, not me. I may be frustrated that the teacher didn’t cho0se the field trip chaperones until three days before the outing and that’s not enough notice for me to miss work. I may be crazed because I am trying to find a skin-colored leotard with black straps by tomorrow. Maybe I feel disappointed that I am going to miss my daughter’s play because I’ll be out of town. Most likely, I am exhausted because I got up at 5 a.m. to get some work done before the science fair. But I don’t feel guilty about providing a paycheck for my family.

This is important so do your best to be there.

I don’t need to be reminded how important it is for me to be involved in my child’s education. In fact, I think it’s the administration or school staff or PTO board that needs the reminder if they’re the ones responsible for planning an event at an inconvenient time or with too little notice. I do my best everyday. But I cannot reschedule a client meeting or business trip or deadline with too little notice. If I could, I would.

Don’t worry. Your child will be fine if you’re not there.

Who said anything about my child? I know my child will survive if I don’t volunteer at the holiday bazaar. And I even think my child benefits from my missing a concert or two. What better way to learn to perform for the joy of it instead of for the applause? But I understand that life is short and our children grow up fast and so I want to be there.

I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t stand to miss out on my child’s activities.

I don’t need to explain why you should never say this. It’s horrible and you know it.

I guess if you’re going to work, you have to accept that you’ll miss out.

As a working parent I don’t expect to be at every event. But what I do expect is enough planning, communication and courtesy so that I can choose what events I miss and what events I will use my vacation or personal time to attend. What I will never accept is missing events that I may have been able to attend if only I had enough notice.

And the one thing we’d love to hear you say?

You’re right. All parents are busy and need more notice and flexibility. Let’s work together to affect positive change.


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22 comments for “Six Things Not to Say to a Working Mom (and the One Thing She’d Love to Hear)

  1. August 31, 2012 at 9:46 am

    The scheduling and notices get a little better when you’re out of elementary school. Perhaps because that’s when more moms go back to work…

    • August 31, 2012 at 10:02 am

      Thanks for the encouragement Alison. And perhaps its because the kids can take of their own to-dos.

  2. August 31, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    I’m so with you on all of this (and you should read my last post to see some of the very same ideas). My stomach is currently in knots because the class I signed my son up for was just left off the preschool escort list. I’m pretty sure it’ll be added, but I won’t know until next week, and I can almost guarantee I’ll be up thinking about it at 3 am. And while my husband is an equal partner in so many ways, I can also guarantee that this won’t even cross his radar.

    And with that comment, I’m off to see if the preschool calendar, which was updated from three months ago, has any changes thrown in there that they didn’t bother to actually point out. It’s happened every other year, so at least now I have the experience to know to check it again.

    You’re not alone. :)

    • September 1, 2012 at 7:59 am

      Good luck with preschool Cheryl and thanks for the comment. We are not alone – you’re right. And those other parents at the school bus will keep you on track and even bring you coffee after a 3 am stress session.

  3. September 4, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Great perspective! I’m a working mother with the added complication of working nights. I COULD go on the field trip, but I’ll be sleeping. That’s just how I roll. Having said that, I’m sure I’ve said my share of stupid things that I wish I could take back. It would be nice if the PTA moms could grasp the scheduling issues of the majority of parents. It would also be awesome if all of us gave each other a break. Motherhood isn’t for the faint of heart and none of us knows how the story will end! Thanks for your insight!

    • September 4, 2012 at 8:50 pm

      Thanks Christi. Great point: we all need to cut each other some slack.

  4. September 5, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Great post! As an attorney and mom, I love hearing “your kids will be fine” line, like I was worried that not handing out snacks in Kindergarten would scar my daughter for life. I’ve recently cut back to doing only contract work so I don’t face some of the same pressures (except now that I’m focused on writing I must make time for that, which is stressful in a different way), but I remember the judgment and guilt. The other day I didn’t want to explain myself for being a writer, and sort-of stay-at-home mom and sort-of working mom, so when someone asked me if I stayed home with the kids I just nodded in agreement. Then they poured out their feelings on how staying at home is such an honor and how people who work are really missing out. I wanted to vomit in my mouth a little bit at the outright judgment. It’s insane. We mothers are all in this together – let’s support each other!

    Amanda over at

    • September 5, 2012 at 5:14 am

      Amanda, you have an interesting perspective because you’ve had the high pressure job, and now you have the new pressure job! So you’ve experienced a range of options and situations. I find the definitive comments about what’s supposedly best come from people who’ve only experienced one scenario – but they are so convinced their way is the best way.

  5. Angela
    September 5, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Thank you for the post. My oldest just started kindergarten and I’m a bit overwhelmed already. I’m already frustrated with the school administrators and the first day was just last Friday! Orientation, assessments, all mid-day. I work 45 min. from home, I can’t pop in and out that easily! And as a newby to all this, they don’t tell you what events are just parents, or parents AND kids. I have no experience to base this on. As for the outlook calendar, my co-worker just saw it and looked at me with extreme pity. Add to the mix getting the younger one to and from preschool across town…I need a drink!

    • September 8, 2012 at 8:30 am

      Hang in there Angela. September in Kindergarten is a big one. When my first went to Kindergarten, I was always asking the administration to “define terms” so I could understand what the hell was going on. “What’s an A&E program?” (arts & enrichment) Do I attend A&E events? When are the school olympics? What takes place at the olympics? Are parents invited? Are families? You can imagine how popular I was -but hey I didn’t know what anyone was talking about.

  6. September 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    I wish you could see me standing on my chair whistling and clapping and fist pumping. But you can’t. But I AM! LOVE this.. I own my own business which makes it a little bit easier to adjust my schedule but it comes with the pitfalls of “of you work from home – you can do this” (uh.. no, I can’t.. I”m meeting with a client) and even worse the fact that I have to work until midnight to make up for the time that I’ll miss the next day in order to build those stupid gingerbread houses out of milk cartons that you decided on yesterday. I am also in a current war with these parents who have moved from trying to terrorize other parents to making the students life a shambles by enforcing silent lunch so they’ll eat.

    I would love to have the free time that these people do.

    • September 8, 2012 at 8:19 am

      I hear ya, Kristen. I worked for myself for 3 years and others interpreted that as I had all the flexibility in the world. In a way I did, but I too would make up the billable hours in the late hours or at the crack of dawn. I hope by talking about these things and all of us trying to understand each others’ realities, we can make more room for each other in the school/parent/volunteer world so those with scheduling challenges can be involved and those who are leaned on to do everything at the school get some support too.

  7. September 5, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Well written! I’m actually a SAHM for now (will be returning to my job in mortgage banking soon!) but I can totally relate to needing advanced notice. For the past few years I’ve been home with a toddler and with no family nearby to baby sit on a moment’s notice, I rely on advanced notice so I can attend functions or chaperone or help out in class, things that are not always feasible with a younger child. I’ve felt horrible for not being able to help out with things because I didn’t have enough time to give my husband notice to take off of work or ask a friend if she wouldn’t mind keeping my son.

    • September 8, 2012 at 8:14 am

      Thanks for commenting Kia. You raise another point: that there are people who want to volunteer and help out, if only they had enough notice to rearrange their crazy lives. And even though the planners and committee members understand and might say, “Don’t worry about it. We know you’re busy,” you miss out on the opportunity to help out, make a difference and feel good. We can only do what we can do.

      Our PTO board this year seems super organized – in mid August they sent out a calendar full of dates for the year. So I sent them a thank you note.

  8. September 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Okay, I have said, “I don’t know how you do it.” That’s all I said, because I was talking about juggling a “real job” (I write from home now) with all this kid stuff – I can’t even juggle my super flexible barely a job with my 3 kids sometimes! I can’t even imagine saying any of the other stuff – not as a parent or as the teacher I used to be. People really suck sometimes.

    • September 8, 2012 at 8:09 am

      Triplezmom: It’s not so much the words as it is the feelings behind them. And you make an excellent point: whether it’s an office job, the overnight shift, you’re a single mom, you’re juggling three kids and a writing career, you volunteer or care for aging parents, juggling it all is hard. That’s why we need advance notice so we can make choices.

  9. johanna
    September 7, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    So you think the school should plan ahead well in advance for working moms?

    Perhaps working moms should plan their fertility choices better?

    • September 8, 2012 at 8:00 am

      I think should schools should plan and communicate so that all parents can make informed decisions and manage their many responsibilities.

  10. September 9, 2012 at 8:53 am

    I could have written this.

    I am so dependent on my Google calendar – live and die by it. And my Outlook calendar for work stuff. I’ve been a working mom for nearly 30 years – my oldest two are in their late 20s but I have 3 at home, ages 8, 10, and 16. I’ve faced the working mom dilemma for years and years. And comments can make me bristle so quickly.

    Once I was at a school Halloween party and two moms were talking. I guess they didn’t realize that I was one of those working moms because that’s who they were talking about. One said “They never make time to come to these parties.” and the other said “The least they could do is send a bag of candy.”

    How ’bout this… I’ll keep my mouth shut on what I think about some of the righteous superiority of the SAH moms if they’ll do the same regarding their thoughts of me working. Because if I started sharing my thoughts on some of these people, well, it wouldn’t be pretty and I’m sure a lynch mob would form around me.

    • September 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      You’re so right Linda. No one wins in these situations. It takes education and understanding.

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