Regardless of whether children are starting day care, kindergarten or high school, the beginning of the school year can be one of the most stressful times for working mums.
While there are numerous resources available to help parents understand how to manage these transitions and balance the new routines for the kids, what about the parents themselves?
According to Elizabeth Marchant, the creator of social enterprise, Full-Time Woman, there's a lot of pressure on parents to get it right for the kids, however it's also important for parents to think about their own sanity.
As a working mum, with one child in high school and the other on a gap year before starting university, and a director of four businesses employing a number of parents, Ms Marchant has extensive experience managing the needs of parents.
"Experts around the world acknowledge the stress associated with having children and working. After a period of weeks away from school, and time together over the holiday season, picking up a new routine can turn from relaxed to ugly very quickly," comments Ms Marchant.
"It's also important to recognise that often the 'guilt' syndrome, which working mum's in particular suffer, adds to this stress. Mums need to understand that they're not alone. I encourage the parents in my business to be prepared. Planning ahead can really help and this includes considering if you need time off from work, to work from home, or work flexible hours during the back to school period to ensure a smooth transition.
"This can be just a short term request, however plan it with your employer as early as possible to ensure it works well from a work and personal front," suggests Ms Marchant.
"My business employs a number of working parents including single mums, dads, and parents of newborns. Getting the best from the team requires giving them flexibility to manage stressful times such as the back to school time of year, which can let them come to work less anxious and pre-occupied.
"Transitions vary depending on the age and experiences of the child. Parents shouldn't get complacent, often older kids need more support especially as their after school care requirements and activities change.
"In my experience, parents need to have the headspace available to manage this, without feeling guilty about it impacting their job," said Ms Marchant.
For other topics related to being a working mum, visit www.fulltimewoman.com.au
Question: What back-to-school guilt are many parents currently experiencing?
Elizabeth Marchant: Of course, it's different for every parent. Some of the most common feelings of guilt stem from not being there with your child for significant events. This might be not being there to walk them to their classroom for the first day or pick them up at the school gate, missing out on events at school like sports days, or not being home in time for dinner or a bedtime story.
Question: What advice do you have for parents currently experience back-to-school guilt?
Elizabeth Marchant: While it's easy to just say stop, the reality is that's what we need to do. Don't feel guilty, especially about things you can't change. Enjoy the quality moments that you do get to experience together and really be present at those times. Research shows that we're already doing this: according to The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, Australian parents rank first (of 21 countries) for 'parental time with children'.
Remember that children of working parents have been shown to benefit both in the short and long term. For example, A Harvard Business School study found that the children of working mothers tend to be more successful professionally, holding more management positions and earning more money than the children of mothers who don't work.
Children with working parents tend to be more capable and resilient, which serves them well as they mature and enter the adult world.
Question: How does preparation ensure parents are able to experience less back-to-school guilt?
Elizabeth Marchant: Preparation is key. By preparing in advance for the back-to-school flurry of activities, parents can streamline the process so those first days back at school run smoothly with as few meltdowns as possible.
Preparing can include:
- talking to children about new arrangements and doing a dry run so they know what to expect
- checking all uniforms, shoes, and school supplies are ready to go
- making sure phones, laptops, and other devices are fully charged
- ensuring important phone numbers are stored in your children's phones (if they have them) and that they have enough credit to call you if they need you
- making lunches in advance so kids can grab what they need from the cupboard and freezer without wasting time in the mornings.
Parents may also want to organise a few days off work at the beginning of the school year if they can, or perhaps doing a few shorter days over that first week or two. Asking for time off in advance to help ease the transition can lower everyone's stress levels. Even if they think taking time off isn't necessary, it can be worthwhile mentioning to their employer that their children are going back to school or starting a new routine. That way, if an unexpected situation arises, it will be easier to get the flexibility they need to handle it.
Question: How can employers support parents during the back to school period?
Elizabeth Marchant: Employers can support parents by letting them work flexibly or even from home where possible, even if it's just for the first week or two of the new school year. Understanding that this can be a stressful time of upheaval for families is important. If flexible work arrangements are available, employers can communicate this to employees in advance so that everyone can plan to meet their obligations to their families and their employers. It's important to have mutual respect and trust in place so that employees can have the flexibility they need and employers can feel confident that their team members will get their work done even if they need to work different hours or from a different location.
Question: What is Full-Time Woman?
Elizabeth Marchant: Full-Time Woman is a social enterprise aimed at supporting and encouraging women who are trying to balance a family with their long-term professional aspirations. We do that by sharing research and resources, and telling the stories of women who are making it happen. These women are society's change agents and our role is to help build critical mass.
Question: What inspired the creation of Full-Time Woman?
Elizabeth Marchant: There are plenty of mummy bloggers and mumpreneur websites, but nothing really dedicated to professional women who should be or could be focused on maximising their career opportunities, earning potential, and ability to achieve senior leadership roles. I believe we have a social contract with the next generation to make this journey easier.
Full-Time Woman will demonstrate that it is possible for both working parents, and the companies they work for, to have their needs met. Businesses don't need to take a traditional, punitive view of performance management to get maximum productivity from their people; by giving people flexibility when they need it, and not being afraid to hire people who do need flexibility, businesses can potentially reap significant rewards in terms of committed, loyal, productive team members.
Question: What message do you hope to spread to working parents, this month?
Elizabeth Marchant: Working parents shouldn't be afraid to ask for the flexibility they need, especially during times of upheaval such as back-to-school. It's important to be organised and ask for flexibility as far in advance as possible to give the business time to prepare. And it's important for parents to spread the load if they can, alternating days off for example so that someone is there for the children each day, while the impact on employers is reduced. By working together and communicating in advance, back-to-school doesn't have to be stressful.
Interview by Brooke Hunter