School holidays are not designed for modern parents. This needs to change
OPINION: Here comes that sinking feeling again. It might even be closer to mild panic. It sets in around this time every school term, a testy uneasiness about what to do with the kids who are about to be home every day (all day) for the next two whole weeks. It's not just about how to entertain them, although that's there too.
There are 'school holiday guides' galore for that and you can never run out of things to do in the big city. Can you? And, anyway, I tell myself (and sometimes them), I'm not the cruise director. Boredom is good for young minds. Imaginations thrive the less they have to do. No, my angst is about the other major aspect of my life, the one where I get paid for my efforts. Work and school holidays do not easily co-exist.
It's a reprieve, of sorts, having my boys home. No uniforms to iron, lunch boxes to stock, or harried dash out the door to beat the school bell. No homework, rugby training or swimming lessons. It's Coco Pops for breakfast (a school holiday treat), letting the day unfold as it will.
But, as it is for so many women (and it is usually women), it means everything else goes on hold. Life comes to a grinding halt so we can be there to take care of our children. That's do-able for me. I work mainly at night (presenting news at Sky News two nights a week), so it's business as usual school holidays or not. But, in everything else, I down tools.
Not everyone has that option.
School holidays are a nightmare for working women. Obviously many men are impacted too: single dads, stay-at-home dads, or men (bless you) who also see it as their responsibility to step in (and step up) between school terms. But the fact is, it's predominantly mothers who carry the burden of the great school holiday juggling act, scrambling to fill their children's days while holding onto their jobs – for love and money. Mindful not to let either one fall by the wayside.
That's no mean feat. You can take annual leave but, with a standard four weeks holidays a year against the twelve weeks the kids get (even more in private schools), well, do the maths. A friend's husband told her he didn't want to "waste" his annual leave to look after their kids. Yet she does just that. So we offload, hire babysitters, pay for camps, swap with other mothers. Or quit.
As one mum of three, Mel, a former advertising account director told me, "The reason I didn't return to work when my kids started school was the school holidays. You can send them to holiday camps, sure, but that's $100 a day per child. And they finish at 3pm. It's just not feasible."
Another friend, who's resisted a return to paid work for similar reasons, becomes the local child minder when school breaks up, taking on three or four extras, the kids of working mums who don't have any other option.
The school system is not cut out for working parents.
That's because it wasn't designed for us. It's an archaic 19th century English relic from the pre-Industrial Revolution era when kids needed to knock off school in time to toil in the fields before sundown. The six-week summer break was scheduled around harvest. In Scotland, the October half-term break is called "tattie holidays", a nod to when children would flock to the fields to dig potatoes.
The long summer break made sense here in the colony too when our nation was riding on the sheep's back. I recall boys I knew at boarding school returning home to pull their weight in the January wheat harvest. But that's a minuscule and unrepresentative proportion of the population, and hardly justification for sustaining an outdated and impractical model that persists for no other reason than no one's got around to changing it.
Much like workplace culture, which is conversely not designed for school parents. It might be starting to shift, but the predominate nine-to-five (and that's being conservative), five day a week, face-time model also hails from an era where mums greeted their kids at the school gate.
These days, that's a luxury. School and work are fundamentally incompatible with timetables rooted in tradition that don't reflect the reality of our lives, and both kids and parents are being short-changed as a result.
And so working mothers innovate, and seek out flexible employers.
Like people and culture director Carolyn, who's taken up consulting so she can work in the elusive school hours. "You have to get the match right," she says. "I've chosen a business where a lot of the staff have kids and so they understand the pressures and remain flexible."
But school holidays remain the sticking point. "The key is planning ahead," says Carolyn. "You have to be super organised and have the support of good mum friends to help each other out."
Not that our kids don't need a break. "Their brains are fried by the end of term," one mum says to me. School holidays are a welcome breather, a chance to roam free and reconnect, to do all the stuff we don't get to do in the flurry of term time. There's a list on our fridge: 'Monopoly, Scrabble Junior, ice skating at St. Mary's Cathedral.'
But what isn't there is that I'll make up for it when they're asleep, a privilege not many parents have in their attempts to straddle two incongruous worlds.
Jacinta Tynan is a Sky News Presenter and author of Mother Zen.
- Sydney Morning Herald