Don’t expect your children to be ecstatic with the idea of your going back to work. Any change in their routine may throw them off. Consistently presenting yourself as a working parent is the key to making the transition more manageable. We think a gradual re-launch, in which you get your kids accustomed to your absence when they come home from school two or three days a week, before you then shift to five days a week in the office, will make the transition easier for them to handle.
Additionally, you need to explain to your children, early and often, why your desire for a job is not a rejection of your current life or of them, but rather a chance for you to develop a part of yourself that’s been non-existent for a while. Don’t bribe the kids by saying you’ll be able to buy them more goodies with your income or take better vacations. You want them to understand that work can be valuable in and of itself. Once you’ve determined your schedule, then the details of the re-launch need to be discussed frequently and repeatedly, so that each family member can understand how it will affect him or her.
1. Make any changes in their routines or responsibilities well before you begin working. Carol stopped cooking dinner one night months before she went back to get the family used to fending for themselves. If you’re hiring a sitter, bring her on board before your start date. If you’ll be enrolling your children in an afternoon program, sign them up a semester early so that they can adjust to their new routine.
2. Get your children involved in the running of the house as much as possible. If you’ve assigned chores, enforce the rules. Don’t feel guilty about this. It’s character building. And kids like to feel needed.
3. Hire the best quality childcare you can afford. This will differ based on your children’s ages and activities. According to Terry, “Finding quality childcare is absolutely the toughest piece in all of this—partly because the children are older—they don’t want a housekeeper type—they want someone young who will go out and kick a soccer ball or play monopoly. I’ve been back to work for just sixteen months and I’m already on my third person and though this one is the best, she has to leave in August. Frankly, if I end up leaving my job, one reason will be so I won’t have to begin the childcare search again.”
4. Periodically, get your kids’ feedback. Listen to them carefully, make the changes they request that are realistic for you and your family, and stand firm on those that won’t work in your post-relaunch life.
5. Spend time with your kids on their terms, not just on yours. This takes some discipline, a high level of sensitivity and patience. Hold back and listen to them first before directing the conversation or activity. You may get some clues as to how they want to spend their time with you or what they want to discuss with you, especially your teenagers. One mother confided, “With my fifteen-year-old son, I literally have to bite my tongue sometimes to keep from chiming in when he has moments of silence in his conversations with me. If I sit there long enough and say nothing, he eventually comes out with his next thought or concern. I’m often floored by how much he is willing to confide in me, if only I’m patient enough to keep my mouth shut and stifle my tendency to drive the conversation and focus on what has to get done.”
With care, patience, a few missteps along the way, and a sense of humor, re-launching moms can help their kids negotiate the transition of Mom’s return to work. One mom reported that, over time, her middle-school-aged son gained great pride in his ability to put dinner on the table once a week. Although reserved at first, he grew into the task and ultimately became quite possessive of Tuesday nights as his dinner night. Your children will take their cue from you, so an honest, positive approach from a mom who knows her family is in this for the long term will set the tone going forward.