School-Life Balance

Just finished reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic essay on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” I read it, I should say, from home, where I was waiting in a 90-degree room for the air-conditioning repair man to come after I’d dropped my child off at “camp”—since school is, for some reason, closed all summer long.

Having it ALL!

My one fix would have been to update the headline to read, “Why Men & Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Personally, I don’t know any men with young children who don’t experience the same wrenching pull, even if (as Slaughter notes) they may not feel the same level of shame and guilt when they go on business trips. (Besides, who’s to say men don’t feel more guilt than their wives when they fail to deliver at work? Guilt is a fungible commodity.)

Anyway, I applaud Slaughter for wading into this cauldron in an honest and nuanced way—and for proposing at least a couple of tangible solutions, instead of just listing laments, which is how these things normally go.

Here is my favorite tangible solution from the essay:

My longtime and invaluable assistant, who has a doctorate and juggles many balls as the mother of teenage twins, e-mailed me while I was working on this article: “You know what would help the vast majority of women with work/family balance? MAKE SCHOOL SCHEDULES MATCH WORK SCHEDULES.” The present system, she noted, is based on a society that no longer exists—one in which farming was a major occupation and stay-at-home moms were the norm. Yet the system hasn’t changed.

Want to reduce strain on families? Try, for one thing, running schools as if they operate in the real world—and as if what they do matters so much that it has to happen fairly consistently, just like work.

I just checked the calendar for the upcoming public school year in Washington, DC. Kids have 32 days off during the school year. Not counting the summer! That’s over 6 work weeks that parents somehow have to scramble to manage.

Most Americans get about half that in holiday and vacation time. The math is obvious: the tension parents feel isn’t just caused by employers not giving enough vacation time; it’s caused by education leaders who are willfully blind to the realities of families.

Every time my kid has a day off from school, I wish I had a magical Harry Potter map that could show the ripple effects being silently endured all across the city: the tense negotiations with spouses, the white lies to employers, the fingers crossed as mothers and fathers walk away from dropping off their children at dubious childcare centers where they don’t know anyone…. hoping for the best. All this for what? For “professional development” that most teachers will tell you is utterly useless.

Here’s an idea! Perhaps days off should be earned. If a given form of professional development is proven to actually make teaching more effective, then OK, it’s worth the time off. I’ll do anything to support that worthy goal.

Likewise with summer vacation: if, by the end of the year, students are all performing at levels required for young people to thrive in the modern economy, then great! Go home for the summer, kids and teachers, too. Break out the sprinkler. If not, we’ll see you back here on Monday. Which is to say, we’ll see every damn one of you here on Monday.

And now I’m off to the office. Air conditioner still broken. “Camp” ends at 3:30, at which time something called, for some reason, “aftercare” begins!

ParentingAmanda Ripley