My cell phone rang yesterday at 3 p.m. I was in a meeting so I didn’t pick up the voicemail until 3:45. The message was from my daughter’s dance instructor. She was letting me know that my daughter’s 6 p.m. Thursday dance class, was changing to a 5 p.m. Thursday dance class, effective that night. In one hour and 15 minutes.
What if, like me, my husband took a 6:15 train home from the city? What if we were paying to have our child in an after school program that ran until 5:30 or 6? What if we had to leave work an hour or two early? What if flex time was a career killer for us? What if our carefully orchestrated drop off and pickup plan involving two other families, four other working parents and seven other kids, no longer worked? What if we had to pull our daughter out of the class because we just couldn’t get her there? It turns out my husband and I can make the time change work – but that’s not that point.
The year is 2012 and parents work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the percentage of married couple families where both parents work was 58.5 percent in 2011, and that’s trending upwards slightly since 2010. The workforce participation rate for mothers who are single, widowed, divorced, separated or living apart form their spouses is 74.6 percent. Perhaps the workers in our local Park and Recreation department can leave work with 15 minutes notice to drive their children to dance lessons, (perhaps that’s why the dance program is disorganized) but it doesn’t work that way at my office and it hasn’t worked that way at any other place where I’ve been employed. That’s the point.
Publicly-funded schools and recreation programs need to shift to better accommodate the demographic they serve. As we’ve written in the past, working parents, and especially working mothers, have to consciously manage perceptions at work. If we are serious about our careers, and I am because it’s what feeds my kids (and pays the recreation fees), we need to be seen as dedicated to the job. Yes, it has become more acceptable to work from home on the day of a school event or hold a conference call while driving to meet the bus, but it’s a fine line. We are constantly seeking the right balance of work and family.
To do that, we plan. We plan how we will divide our precious 2, 3, 4 or 5 weeks of time off per year to accommodate our children’s doctor’s appointments and our aging parent’s needs, to chaperone a field trip, attend a school concert, take our children to a community event that starts before we normally get home from the office, attend parent-teacher conferences that take place during school hours, perhaps volunteer at the school at least once during the year, cover for half days and school vacations, spend much needed time with our families, and maybe even go to our own doctor’s appointment. But we cannot plan for schedule changes in 75 minutes. We cannot plan a business trip around an art show if we don’t know about the show until we are packing our suitcase. We cannot choose between the holiday concert, the musical theater performance and the classroom activity that are all in the same week if we don’t have the complete schedule – in advance. We cannot commit to the field trip if we don’t know we were chosen as a chaperone until two days before. We will get the flesh colored tights for the dance recital with only three days notice. But we will sacrifice sleep and sanity to get it done. That shouldn’t be necessary and it’s not okay.
Please don’t tell us to unenroll from the dance program if we don’t like how it’s run or to or resign ourselves to the fact we can’t be involved in school events because we work. That’s not what’s best for the children of anywhere between 58.5 and 74.6 percent of American households. Instead, let’s hold the public programs that serve our children and their taxpaying parents to a higher standard. We can start with two simple things: planning and communication. Parents can do two simple things too. Challenge the status quo and vote out the school board representatives and recreation commissioners who continue to operate with outmoded styles. Perhaps our all-male Park and Recreation board could benefit from some working moms to collaborate with the working dads who currently serve. Ladies, who’s in?