Home But Not Alone

Family: More working mothers and fathers are calling a career timeout when their children reach middle school because, they say, that's when parents are needed most.

Family Matters

March 05, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

It was a typical weeknight at Anne Walker's home in Catonsville when something happened that would change everything.

A single mother juggling career and family, she'd spent the evening with sons Ira and Zeke Pfeifer. They'd eaten dinner, watched TV, readied for bed.

But then a disturbing thought entered her mind, "What did the boys tell me today?" She couldn't remember. Not a thing. She'd been too tired and too distracted by her long day at the office to pay much attention.

Upset and fearful that her adolescent sons would grow up to be strangers, she quit her job as a health administrator and embarked on a series of part-time, less stressful (and lower-paying) positions so she could spend more time at home.

"I felt like I was only half-there for them," recalls Walker, 45. "I didn't want the next five years to be a blur the way the past five years had been."

In a society that has long viewed adolescence as a time for cutting parental bonds rather than forging them, Walker represents a surprising reversal: Parents who are sacrificing careers to spend more time with teen-age and pre-teen children.

Instead of birth to age 3, these are parents focusing on what kids need a decade later. They are quitting jobs, shifting to part-time work or working nights so they can more closely monitor their children.

And just like parents who leave their jobs to raise infants and toddlers, it can be a decision that can test a parent's values, loyalties, career choices and financial resources.

"Kids that age want time to hang around with us and they want time focused on them," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York. "Ironically, it's the older children who often yearn for time with parents more than younger kids."

Walker made her decision four years ago when her youngest son was just 10. It's meant sacrifices -- most recently downsizing from a house to a four-room apartment. She says she regrets none of it, and her sons say they're grateful as well.

"We're close. We're friends," says Zeke, 14, now a 9th grader at Catonsville High School. "Most parents are so stressed out they don't want to deal with their kids' problems."

"I have a cool mom," he adds.

Brad Sachs, a Columbia psychologist, frequently counsels parents to consider spending more time home during the middle and high school years, in part because of the "perils facing the kids in adolescence."

Alcohol, drugs, sex and violence are among the explosive issues children confront in this transitional age. Those worries have been magnified in recent years by events like the shootings at Columbine High School.

"These are not irrational fears," says Sachs. "We've been led to believe parenting becomes less intense as the children grow up, but then we start to see how endangered and vulnerable the children really are."

Sachs has taken his advice to heart. He stays home Wednesday afternoons to be with his three children, the oldest of whom is in 7th grade. His wife, a psychiatrist, works part-time so she can be home the other afternoons.

"There's no substitute for Mom or Dad being home," he says.

Melonie Collini, an accountant living in Brooklyn Park, decided two years ago to cut back on her work hours so she could pick up her daughter Stacy Zimmerman from middle school at 2:30 p.m. every day.

"It's a different world out there and a scary world," says Collini, 41, whose daughter is now 12. "It's been rough on our finances. But I think it made a real statement to her. I'd like to think we're closer."

Parents who make the same choice often say they are motivated less by fear of misbehavior than concern over losing contact with their children. In a matter of a few years, their son or daughter will be off to college and the chance to forge a relationship will be lost.

"There's a recognition that the time we have with our children is finite," says Galinsky, author of "Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents" (William Morrow, 1999) which studied 1,000 youngsters from grades 3 to 12. "When your child is a baby, you can't imagine he won't need you. When he becomes a middle schooler, you see that one day he'll be gone."

Todd Carpenter, a Catonsville father of three, recently switched to a part-time work schedule to spend more time with his children, who are ages 11, 14, and 17. The decision allowed his wife to return to full-time work. They could have hired a sitter instead, but Carpenter wanted the contact with his kids.

"Middle school is a real important time," says Carpenter, 43. "But I wouldn't for a second want to describe what we've done as an easy transition. It's been challenging on a lot of levels."

Not every employer is ready to let workers reduce hours, share jobs, or change shifts to accommodate their children, of course. And in two-parent families, women are more often called upon to make the choice than their spouses.

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