The Potluck Breakfast or Your Job: The Working Parent's Dilemma

by Deborah Copaken
Originally Published: 
A two-part collage of a table with a Potluck breakfast and a Mac PC, and a keyboard in an office

True story: I was working at a company as an executive editor. The company was on the verge of going public. I was a newly single mother, my children’s sole custodian and provider. I went to my boss and told her I’d have to leave at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, to make it home in time for my then 7-year-old’s school performance. The next morning I’d be in the office an hour late to attend his class breakfast.

“It’s okay,” I told her, “I’ll make up the editing at home.” I wasn’t asking. I was giving her a heads-up.

“Sorry,” she said. “You can’t do both. You have to choose one.”

“Seriously?” I said.

She’d probably had a bad day. Maybe a bad year. What she said next was, in retrospect, inappropriate: that I shouldn’t expect special dispensation; that if I knew what was good for me, I wouldn’t go to either; that because of the IPO, my job was already on the line, regardless of how well I was doing it, and she could only protect me so much.

I chose the performance. My 7-year-old cried at the breakfast. Three months later I was fired anyway. “We couldn’t even find you to fire you,” said the representative from human resources. It was the first sentence out of his mouth.

In the end, it wasn’t really about the absences from the office, only one of which was school-related. (The others were for doctors’ appointments or—amazingly, they counted this—for out-of-office reporting.) The company was going public. They wanted to appear lean in the eyes of investors. I was hardly the only casualty of that belt-tightening, plus this boss had not hired me—her boss had—which is always tricky.

But my absences were the convenient excuse.

I bring up this story as a prelude to May Madness, that end of the year frenzy that takes hold at so many of our children’s schools: the potluck breakfasts and performances and field trips and art exhibits and coffees and parent-teacher conferences that have become the bane of every working parent’s schedule. It’s not that we don’t love our kids or want to be there for them at their publishing parties and choral sings. Many of these events, particularly the performances, are poignant, meaningful. We want to be there, cheering them on. It’s just that the number of obligations these days seems out of hand, and we are afraid, with good reason, of getting fired.

In her new book The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, sociologist Allison Pugh writes, “Every two years, half of the workforce in a typical Silicon Valley firm is replaced.” Understandable, in a volatile environment such as high-tech. However, Pugh adds, “Part of what is new here is that employers are undertaking some of these restructuring moves not just in recessions but when times are flush.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if we’re in a recession or a period of growth: Most of us know the rug can be yanked out from under our professional feet at any time.

In such an environment, none of us can afford missteps. So each school event we’re asked to attend becomes, to be blunt, yet another potential excuse for our dismissal.

When I went to school back in the 1970s, I went to school. That is to say, I left on the bus every morning, and I came home on the bus every afternoon, and in between my stay-at-home mother did not suddenly show up on school property with a chicken casserole. If my mother or father—who worked at the same law firm for four decades—ever did set foot in my school back then it would have meant only one of five things: a school play, a parent-teacher conference (both held at night, well after working hours were over), or that I was sick, injured or suspended.

Today’s parents have it much harder on every front. In fact, expectations of parental involvement in our children’s schools have seemingly risen in direct proportion to the number of hours both parents must now work to make ends meet, never mind single parents like me, who are just screwed.

LuAnn Billett, mother of three, is a schoolteacher married to a mathematics professor in Lancaster, Pa. Of May Madness she reports, “There are nearly daily messages about teacher appreciation gifts, requests to foster classroom pets over the summer, songs to memorize for the spring concert, notes from the speech teacher wanting to know if we will work on [our son’s] trouble sounds over the summer or if we plan to ‘just have fun in the summer and not do any school work?’ (certainly a trick question if I ever saw one) and multiple volunteer requests for end of the year events.”

Meanwhile, over in the parallel universe of Luxembourg, school teacher Brigitte Wunsch has no such duties. Wunsch, like Billett, is also a mother of three, but as a single parent, her time is more limited—which, she says, is actually completely manageable in a country like Luxembourg.

“It is totally different in Europe,” she writes. “Nothing is expected of the parents. They can bring a cake or a salad for the summer feast, but don’t have to, and don’t have to be there. They just have to come to school 15 minutes to sign their children’s school report, that’s it.” Her children also have free morning daycare and affordable after-school care until 7:00 p.m.

Wunsch thinks the American system is nuts, but some American parents do savor the time in their children’s schools. “I love and look forward to each and every morning I am invited into the classroom,” said mother of three and CEO of Nomie Baby Katie Danziger, “especially since I am aware that this will all come to an end and will be missed.” Danziger is her own boss, however, so fears of dismissal are not part of her equation. But even those parents with bosses express a desire for more involvement.

“As a working parent, I feel a kind of desperate enthusiasm for these sorts of events,” said Elizabeth Kennedy, an editor in Richmond, Calif. “I’ll attend anything if it falls outside of work hours. I don’t care what it is.”

On the other hand, when I put out a query asking for working parents’ thoughts on the matter, the response was resoundingly negative. (“Please weigh in on your feelings about end-of-school madness with rants, raves, and/or opinions, please,” I wrote on Facebook.) Most of my respondents felt overstretched, as if they were failing both work and their kids. Carol Quave, a single working mother in Annapolis, Md., expressed her frustrations. “I’m too flippin’ busy to write about it!!!” she wrote.

So, what is to be done? Should schools capitulate or should corporations? Should we eschew all workday school events, like in Luxembourg, or should we try to find a happy medium between that country’s attitude toward parent involvement and the current untenable situation for all parents—not just working parents, as many of my respondents pointed out—in the United States?

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of Lean In, has quite openly advocated for work-life balance and flexibility, leaving her office at 5:00 p.m. as often as possible. With the recent tragic loss of her husband, she will have to up that ante even further. When there are two parents, obligations can be shared. With only one, the choice to show up, or not, becomes more complicated. And sometimes heartbreaking.

I know. I’ve been living with that complication and heartbreak for nearly two years now, and my child is not happy about it. “You miss everything!” he recently wailed. This, of course, is not true. I’d only missed a community meeting, which takes place every Monday morning at his school, and the school games night, which I’d somehow failed to put in my calendar. But to him it felt true, which makes it true.

The problem is one of differing goals. A corporation’s goal is to make as much money as possible. A parent’s goal is to nurture. A school’s goal is to teach children and to get parents involved in that education. A child’s goal is to be loved, or at least to not be the only kid without a parent at the breakfast.

These goals are all constantly at cross-purposes.

It would be easy—and facile—to say that corporations should just give more flexibility, and parents should just learn to accept that they can’t attend all events, and schools should expect less involvement, and kids should just suck it up. But we know none of those things will happen, or at least they won’t happen overnight.

But change on this front is possible. I know it. Think of it this way: When I gave birth to my first child, back in 1995, I never once saw a father walking around with an infant in a sling during work hours. Not once. By the time I gave birth to baby No. 3, in 2006, a baby-carrying father was no longer a unicorn. He was a welcome presence, hope.

In the same way, if schools could slowly ease up on parental involvement—or at least change that involvement to more potluck dinners than breakfasts, and schedule school performances closer to 7:00 p.m. than to 6:00 p.m.—perhaps corporations will be more willing to give us greater flexibility to attend them.

I actually have faith that this can happen by the time my children give birth to their children. But we all have to make noise about it: Talk to your school administrators, talk to your bosses. Tell them the way things are now is making everyone miserable, including and most saliently our kids.

Anyway, gotta run. It’s 4:30 p.m. My kid’s after-school program only goes until 5:30 p.m. My office is an hour from home. Here’s hoping I can sneak out without anyone noticing.

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