Originally titled "Best Time of Our Lives," from the September 2007 issue of Canadian Living Magazine, on newsstands or click here to purchase online.
At a recent Sunday brunch, when my friend Anthony handed me a glass of white wine, I must have sighed rather too appreciatively.
“Tough week?” he wondered.
“Parenting challenges,” I said, watching as his wife chased their naked three-year-old back into the bedroom to retrieve her recently shucked clothing.
“You have parenting challenges?” he asked, incredulous. He wiped his one-year-old's face, which was covered with yogurt. “I don't believe it. Your kids are grown up. You have great kids.”
Well, yes, I thought, I do have great kids. They are intelligent and generally responsible teenagers, a girl and boy of character and charm. And unlike my friend's toddlers, they demand nothing from me in a physical sense. It is true that I am no longer tested by a lack of sleep, or day-care woes, or reluctant eating. But I wrestle instead with other issues requiring even greater depths of maternal creativity, flexibility and resolve: broken hearts, broken promises and broken cellphones, to name just a few dramas from the week in question.
When your children are small, you spend a lot of time dealing with the mess in their diapers; when they are adolescents, the focus shifts to the mess in their heads, which, according to new brain research, is substantial (more on that later).
It's a task that takes time, patience and infinite psychological resources -- all of which, if you are also one of the 81 per cent of mothers and 91 per cent of fathers currently in the Canadian paid labour force, are in pretty short supply at the end of a long workday.
But as Barbara Mitchell, a sociologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and author of the forthcoming book Family Matters: An Introduction to Sociology of Families in Canada (Toronto Canadian Scholar's Press, 2008), notes, recent evidence suggests some working parents -- particularly mothers -- have found a simple way to resolve the dilemma: they are trading their paycheques for parental peace of mind, putting their careers on pause (or paring them down dramatically) to go back home and take care of their tweens and teens.
Page 1 of 5
At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive that a woman (because, let's be clear, it's mostly mothers we're talking about here) who has demonstrated the multitasking skills necessary to manage a career and a young family should suddenly feel compelled to pack it in just when the kids are on the cusp of independence.
According to Lynne O'Connor, a career coach in Toronto, that's traditionally the point at which patient employers and spouses ramp up their expectations of working mothers -- time to cut those apron strings and get back to business. But, says O'Connor, “work-life balance has become an out-in-front issue for many people these days. They are recognizing the deep impact that lack of balance has had on their personal lives, and they want to do something concrete about it."
A place to connect
So after years of juggling so many logistical balls when their children were young, she says, more parents are waking up and realizing their home has become a service station rather than a hearth and place to connect. Suddenly their kids are tweens or teens and spending more time out of the house, and they can feel them slipping away. And they start to think, This is my last chance to connect! They have a sense that they can still have a wonderful influence on their children's lives.
Certainly that was the case for Suzanne Allan, a French teacher living on rural Bowen Island, B.C., who a year ago decided to take a year off from a successful career to spend more time with her three daughters, Danielle, Emily and Lissy, then aged 16, 14 and nine.
“I had three kids in three different schools with three different sets of after-school commitments. I had elderly parents. I was rushing through life -- I gotta mark, I gotta meeting, I gotta, gotta, gotta. My eldest was about to enter her last year of high school, and I wanted time to pay attention to her through that important transition. And I had the sense that it was my last chance to be with my youngest while she was still a child. Now I have the time to pick her up after school, treat her to a cup of hot chocolate at a cafÃ© and let her talk about her day. I could clearly see that a chapter was closing in my life, and I wanted to really be able to focus on it.”
Suzanne has begun to question whether she will ever return to teaching. Fortunately, her income is not essential to the family's survival -- a fact she acknowledges greatly influenced her decision to return home -- and she has discovered other passions during her time away from the classroom. “I've been taking a course in pastoral care, and I'm thinking of making a career shift somewhere down the line.”
Career shifting, or what O'Connor calls “the midlife correction,” often goes hand in hand with the decision to return to the home front. “People take a look around and ask, Is this what I want at this point in my life?” says O'Connor. “And once you start asking, some sort of change is more or less inevitable.”
Page 2 of 5
If, as the song says, life is a highway, then in the early 1990s newspaper columnist Paula Brook had already been red-lining down the road for a decade, manically steering a course through ever-mounting obstacles -- a workaholic husband, teen daughters, a demanding position and an increasingly expensive lifestyle -- when she ran headlong into a brick wall: her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Out of her shattered reality came an inspiring book -- Work Less, Live More: A Woman's Guide (Doubleday Canada, 1997) -- documenting her decision to give up the “freakish timetable and constant damage control&" of her fast-track lifestyle and recommit to her first love: her family.
The loss of her executive-level salary had an immediate effect on the family's pocketbook: they moved out of pricey Vancouver to a less-expensive suburban neighbourhood and found partners to help finance the family cottage.
With the debt load reduced to manageable levels, Paula could afford to earn less as a stay-at-home freelance writer. “I was lucky to have work that I could do from home,&" she notes, “but other people get the same result in different ways -- by working shifts or part time. They just find ways to reorder their lives to make all the puzzle pieces fit.&"
Although Paula fretted about leaving her young daughters with a nanny, she notes that “it was so much easier to structure their lives when they were little.&" By the middle school years she worried constantly that they were not thriving. “The issues and problems they were facing became more complex. They were running into problems at school. They were dropping out of this activity and that activity. I was looking down the road, and I didn't like what I was seeing. They needed time to just be in their own space, to think and dream. I believe when you leave preteen kids alone, you're asking for trouble. They get to a point where they're just too smart and yet not smart enough to be left alone.&"
A work in progress
That blunt assessment has recently been confirmed by neuroscientists looking into how the teen brain functions -- or doesn't, as the case may be. While it has long been understood that most brain development takes place in a child's early years, when billions of synaptic circuits are forming, researchers are now discovering that the adolescent brain is also a work in progress.
It turns out that the prefrontal cortex, seat of the so-called “executive functions&" -- such as planning, organization, impulse control and reasoning -- is the last part of the brain to mature. So when, as recently happened in the Allan household, a teen makes a bad decision involving the family car, and in response to the inevitable parental question, “What were you thinking?&" replies, “I wasn't&" -- well, she's probably telling the truth.
“Adolescent brains don't cement up as fast as we thought they did,&" observes Gordon Neufeld, a child psychologist in Vancouver. “For a long time we thought that the brain's hardwiring was finished by the time kids hit their teens, but we now recognize it has a high degree of plasticity, which means that young adults are still highly adaptive creatures that can learn from example and experience.&"
Neufeld, author with Gabor MatÃ© of Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers (Vintage Canada, 2005), maintains not only that parents are best suited to deliver such critical guidance but also that teens really need their parents to step up to the task.
Page 3 of 5
As a preteen, Paula Brook's daughter, Shira Saltzberg, now a 22-year-old university student, remembers envying her neighbourhood friends with stay-at-home moms. She recalls being delighted by the news that her mother was going to quit her job and stay home during the day: “Coming home from school, to have her there was a very nice change. It helped to have her there for the times of new adjustments. I think at this time we also established a closer relationship, because prior to her quitting and the move, we had a full-time nanny who I was extremely close with. Then my mom finally established the kind of role that, as a 10-year-old, selfishly, I had always wanted.”
Because they look so much like real adults, Neufeld says we badly underestimate the need of adolescents for dependency and attachment.
“We think they don't need us. But teenagers are the same as babies in many ways -- it's only when we fully commit to taking care of their emotional and physical dependency needs, that we most encourage healthy independence.”
That said, Neufeld doesn't think it's necessary or practical for parents to return full time to the home front in order to nurture or rekindle a healthy bond with their teens. “Time is important, yes, but it's what you do with that time that's most important. If you've lost clout with your teenager -- if the relationship has soured-- it would take very little physical time to nurture the relationship back to a healthier place. You need to invent some structure, some rituals. You need to court them like you would a lover.”
Ritual is a big part of Henny Groenendijk's family life since she made the decision to do part-time public relations work from home so she can enjoy more time with her two boys, Tim, 9, and Ben, 14. Before making the change in 2003, she was on the GO Transit from suburban Oakville, Ont., to downtown Toronto by 7:45 a.m. and not home again until 6 p.m. Her boys went to a babysitter in the neighbourhood after school. “It was always so hectic,” she says. “I would be exhausted; they would be exhausted. There was no opportunity for a relaxed conversation.”
Today Henny makes time to pick her boys up right after school and spends one-on-one time with both of them each week. She looks forward to chatting “about life or whatever” while walking with Tim on his paper route or while cooking with Ben. They read together, watch TV together, shop together. “If I went back to work, I would miss the communication with the kids. They need me in a different way now than they did when they were little. There are more things they want to talk about now, but they want to talk on their schedule, not mine.”
Henny says her boys have now grown so used to having her time and attention that they are sometimes frustrated when her work commitments get in the way of her availability. “If they complain, I ask them if they would like to go to the babysitter like they used to, and they say â€˜No! No!' and they let me get on with my work.”
Henny knows it is not an option for every working mother to stay home with grown children, and that makes her all the more appreciative of her circumstances. “I couldn't do this if I was the sole provider,” she says. “But I am grateful that it has worked out. We always enjoy one another's company. I think we will always be close.” She fondly recalls a recent Mother's Day when her older boy spontaneously took her arm as they were walking through a mall together. “He didn't even want anything!” she laughs. “I was so happy. I thought, This is the best Mother's Day present I could ever have.”
Page 4 of 5
It's after school -- Do you know what your kids are doing?
Today 80 per cent of Canadian moms with kids aged six to 12 work outside the home, which begs the question, What are our kids doing after school while we're at the office? This is one issue that researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) looked at in an extensive study called “Middle Childhood Inside and Out: The Psychological and Social World of Children 9 to 12.” The recent report says 10 per cent of kids are largely unsupervised between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. By Grade 7, 25 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls are home alone for the majority of their after-school hours.
“This is of concern because we know that although middle-aged children are becoming more independent, contact with adults, and particularly attachment to parents, remains a critical factor,” says Kimberley Schonert-Reichl, a professor in the department of
educational and counselling psychology in the faculty of education at UBC.
She adds that kids often give us mixed messages during these years. For instance, they may say they don't care if you come to watch their soccer game, but more often than not, they really want you cheering them on. “This is not the time to be pushing our children away but rather keeping them close and staying engaged in their lives,” adds Schonert-Reichl.
So what's an already guilt-ridden working mom to do? Parents and experts attending a national summit on middle childhood discussed this issue and came up with several options.
• Enrol your kids in after-school programs, such as sports or arts activities, and clubs, such as Boys and Girls Clubs.
• Talk to your child's school about starting an after-school club. Kids could play basketball in the gym or get some homework done together in the library.
• Ensure your kids are savvy about staying home alone. Look into programs on home and personal safety for you and your kids to attend together. Start with your child's school and your local municipality.
• Nurture your kids' relationships with other significant adults in their lives, such as teachers, neighbours, coaches and other family members. These individuals won't look after your kids when you're at work, but the “Middle Childhood” report states that the more adults with whom kids identify as knowing or caring about them, the better their social and emotional health.
-- Kathryn Dorrell
Page 5 of 5