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Being a Working Mom Was Easier Before My Kid Started School

Photograph by Twenty20

My mom stopped working when I began first grade. I'm her youngest child, so I always thought it was unusual that she chose to be a stay-at-home mom during the years my brother and I were in elementary school and middle school, but not when we were babies. Now that I have school-age children, I get it: It was way easier to be a working mom when my kids were in full-time daycare.

For all the reasons below, the work-life balance we achieved as a young family ended with a thud when my oldest entered kindergarten:

1. Daycare only closes for major holidays and weather emergencies. School is only open 180 days.

Finding reliable, affordable care during the school year and summer breaks is beyond daunting. I missed work because of daycare closures during hurricanes and snow storms. I didn’t want to be on the roads then either, so no big loss. School holidays, on the other hand, happen all the time. My kiddo gets an entire week off in early November. Great for her. Sucks for me. I’m usually low on days at that point (because kids get sick no matter where they are in their education.) Plus, I’d like to save time off for the holidays—when school is closed yet again.

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The scramble to find care begins as soon as the district releases the school calendar. Even with local grandparents and the ability to work from home on occasion, the struggle is real. Friends with inflexible jobs and zero family support pay upwards of $100 a day for temporary coverage. Seriously, why bother going to work? Summer used to be my favorite season, now it begins and ends with a flurry of phone calls to my mother-in-law. Turns out most summer camps are staffed with college students, so camp rarely begins the first week of summer break and typically ends two weeks before school starts.

Most working folks are lucky to get three weeks off a year. No doubt some parents take separate vacation time to care for kids when schools are closed.

2. School Drop-Off and Pick-Up Times Might As Well Be Etched In Stone

Our daycare is open from 7:00 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. My children have never been there for that length of time, but just having the flexibility to work late or go to work early saved me more than one work headache.

I understand that most schools—including my daughter’s—offer before and after-school care with more flexible times. I refuse to pay for a service I only need once or twice a quarter, so I’ve literally sprinted across the office parking lot to get to a meeting on time and sprinted back to my car in the afternoon to get to school before the final bell. I know this is my fault for being cheap, but I’m still going to bitch about it because nothing makes me feel more unprofessional than skidding into a meeting, out of breath. It never happened with daycare. Just saying.

My mom once told me, “Babies don’t go down a wrong path. Middle schoolers can.”

3. The Mommy Guilt Grows

When you have a child in daycare, the assumption is you work or are otherwise engaged during the day. Events where parents are invited to attend—if there are any—occur in the late afternoon. Every time I miss a community meeting or a field trip or a special assembly at my daughter’s school, I feel like a terrible mom. And since these event occur often, I feel like an ass all the time. If I had endless time off from work, I could maybe volunteer to be the computer lab parent here or there, but I don’t.

4. Freaking Projects

Daycare staff seem to understand that working parents might be too busy to run to the grocery store for a class party without a few days’ notice. Since my daughter started school, I’ve made last-minute shopping trips for everything from chicken broth to white nectarines (in February).

In addition to the shopping, which I loathe, my daughter’s projects and homework have carved away precious hours of family time. Instead of playing together after dinner, I’m Googling beluga whales. I imagine it will only get worse.

RELATED: 10 Things Every Parent Should Do With Their Kid Before They Start Kindergarten

My mom once told me, “Babies don’t go down a wrong path. Middle schoolers can.” My parents decided to make the financial sacrifices necessary so my mom could stay home during our school years, not our infancies. And after decades of wondering why, I finally understand her decision to stay home when she did.

Some working parents easily transition from daycare to school. But we, as a family, have been off balance since my daughter entered kindergarten. I am stretched too thin, and everyone’s behavior, including my own, has suffered.

The question to stay home or continue working has been on my mind since I became a mother. For years, the reasons to work outweighed staying home. But with my oldest finishing first grade, I’m transitioning from my corporate job to freelance work. I want to work when my kids are in school—all 180 days. But I also want to be there when they aren’t. I want to go to those community meetings and buy white nectarines in February without my blood pressure rising.

I know I’m very fortunate to have both the choice to end full-time employment and the opportunity to earn money on my own schedule. I also know the decision to stay home now may seem odd to others. But with any luck, I will find the balance we all need. And frankly, that’s more important to me than what anyone else thinks.

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