Back to Life, Back to Reality

Summer is almost over. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting darker and many parents are ready to get back to reality. Ready to send their kids back to the life of text books, loose leaf paper and sharpened pencils.

I don’t know if I’m ready. In less than three weeks, my son will be starting his first day of preschool. The feelings I’m experiencing about this milestone are overwhelming. My little boy is growing up. Soon Dawson will join the land of Circle Time, while I’m left wondering where the last four years went.

For the first time in my Mom Career I got to do Back-to-School shopping. Even preschoolers have a school supply list. Can you believe it? I squealed with glee as I tossed a box of Crayolas and a paint smock in my cart. This is probably because I envisioned my little guy painting on an easel and wearing a beret. It was so exciting. I could hardly stand it.

As I was standing in line at the check-out, another mother behind me was talking on her cell phone about her work conflicts. Apparently, her boss wasn’t into the flexible scheduling concept she proposed that would allow her to be able to drop-off and pick-up her daughter from kindergarten. It dawned on me if I were still in the full-time workforce, I too, would be in this woman’s shoes.

Whether it be out of financial necessity or to fulfill the desire to stay current in their careers, many parents in today’s society choose to work outside the home. The 1950s are over. Not all fathers take on the traditional role as breadwinner and not all mothers have the desire to be homemakers. How we spend our days, whether it’s working outside or inside the home (paid or unpaid) is a personal choice, and each comes with it’s own set of pros and cons.

I’ve been on both sides of the coin toss. For nearly ten years, I was a full time employee. For over 3 1/2 of those years, I was also a mother. After a job loss, I became a stay-at-home parent, and later a work-at-home mom. Of all the different segments of my career and of motherhood, working full time and raising a child was by far the more difficult period for me.

I remember all too clearly the days I drove away crying after dropping my son at daycare. I felt guilty for working and selfish for wanting to quit. I had to work because my family’s financial well being depended on it.

Thankfully, I’m able to work from home now. I have reasonable work hours that accommodate my husband’s schedule and allow me the privilege of being home with Dawson, as well as be involved in his school life.

Not all parents who work outside the home have flexible work schedules. Like the mom in the check-out line, many parents try to make special arrangements with their employers that will allow them to be more available to their children, and many parents are unsuccessful in their dealings. What are some ways to negotiate a flexible schedule?

First things first. Talk to friends and colleagues who work varying hours. If you know a co-worker who has a flex job, ask her what she likes and dislikes about it. Does she work a compressed week of four ten hour days? Is she job sharing? Has the reduction in hours hurt her career or impacted her earning potential?

Does your employer offer the option to telecommute? Some companies may be open to the work-at-home idea, but still others are against it. It’s better to know what you’re getting into before making the big leap.

Once you have a clear idea about what options are available to you and whether or not it’s worth your while, you’ll have to decide what type of scheduling will work for your personal life. Sure, we all want to work less, but not everyone can afford the pay cut that comes along with part-time work.

Another important thing to think about is whether your employer reduces benefits for those who work less than full time. If you’d lose your health insurance or the option to contribute to a 401(k) plan, reducing your hours may not be the best choice for you.

Take a good look at your work style and childcare realities. Working from home can be wonderful, but it requires a lot of patience and self-discipline. As a work-at-home parent, my biggest struggle is concentrating while Dawson is constantly demanding my attention. Sometimes being home all day can be isolating and I yearn for adult conversation that doesn’t consist of me venting to my husband about all the things that went wrong that day.

Even now, I still take advantage of my childcare options. If I know my day is going to be super busy, I’ll drop Dawson at the old daycare for a few hours so I can get caught up.

Parents considering a reduction in work hours may want to see what money they will save by cutting back on childcare. Not all daycare centers offer a reduction in rates, so you end up paying the same for part-time and full time care. If you have a babysitter or nanny, it’s important to see how open that person would be to a more flexible schedule with possible fewer hours — and having a backup is a must. No one wants to be stuck in a "no babysitter" situation at the last minute. I still keep the grandparents on standby in case of a work emergency.

After considering your needs, it’s time to think about the needs of your employer. This is the most important step. If your boss isn’t on board, you can kiss a flex schedule goodbye. It’s up to you to gauge how productive you’ll be while working less hours. How will you cover your job responsibilities while working the schedule you want?

Are there others in your department who are looking for work-life balance? Would they be willing to share job tasks and assignments? This would entail making a group schedule that would give one person more time off, while still making certain all projects in your department are covered.

Can some tasks be completed at home? I have a friend that will only respond to non-urgent work e-mails from home. She claims it saves her time in her work day to get other tasks done, instead of spending a huge chunk of time replying to the millions of e-mails she receives each day.

After you’ve done your homework, write down your proposal. Be thorough. Make sure to think of every possible work emergency that could arise and a plan as to how you will handle each one. Employers want to be sure that no unexpected surprises pop up and if they do, that their bases are covered. Also, it’s very important to note how crunch times will be handled. Will you work extra hours during those times to make sure every task is completed?

When you do make your pitch, relax and be confident. If you show any signs of weakness or uncertainty as to whether or not your plan will work, your boss may not be willing to work with you on this. If the initial reaction is negative or if your boss isn’t warm to the idea, be sure to ask him to simply consider it or implement it on a trial basis. Be open to your employer’s suggestions as well. Perhaps they’ll come up with an idea that you didn’t think of.

If all goes well and you get the flexible schedule you desire, be sure to communicate the new hours with your supervisors, co-workers and any customers that require notification. Don’t leave anyone hanging. If you say you’re going to regularly check e-mails or voicemail, be sure to do it. Not returning messages is one of the biggest workplace pet peeves.

The first few months of your new schedule may be bumpy until you get the workload right. Setting realistic goals and deadlines is important. Don’t over commit yourself. Leaving work unfinished because of the reduced hours, or because you tried to cram a week’s worth of work into one day, could jeopardize the new schedule.

The last bit of advice I have is to keep your boss informed on your progress, and know when to say when. If you’ve been working a flex schedule for awhile, but work isn’t getting done, it might be time to end the agreement.

Flexibility works both ways. You need to keep your employer and your clients up to date on your productivity. This is a common courtesy that lets them know that even though you’re working less hours, you’re still getting the job done.

Be prepared for some resentment from others who want better work-life balance themselves. If you’re successful while working this new arrangement, others are bound to show some jealousy. It’s only natural.

If confronted, gently remind them of the sacrifices you make for the schedule, whether it’s checking email from home or earning less money. Don’t apologize, or your co-workers will think you have something to feel guilty about. Instead, be confident! Who knows? Your colleagues may follow your example.

Now, if your employer is isn’t able to grant your flexible schedule wish, try to understand their position and move on. It may not be worth jeopardizing your job over. You can always revisit the idea later when the timing is better.

For more on work-life balance issues, check out Kelly Watson’s article on Corporate Flexibility at Work It, Mom! or Shannon Hutton’s Believer in Balance blog. Shnnon often hosts blog carnivals and shares her strategies for maintaining balance in her life, both at home and at work.

Now, who’s got the link to the Preschool Survival Guide? How about a "What to Expect" book on preschool? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?