Which is harder for working mothers? Being on the job when the kids are young — or when they hit middle school years?

Carla Tardif with her children Jesse, 13, and Drew, 10. “I do tell myself I’m going to work less, but I’m kidding myself,’’ Tardif said.
Carla Tardif with her children Jesse, 13, and Drew, 10. “I do tell myself I’m going to work less, but I’m kidding myself,’’ Tardif said. –Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

You know how mountain climbers sometimes experience “false summit’’ syndrome? Exhausted, thirsty, ready to declare victory, they think they have reached the top, only to have the real summit come into view.

In the midst of the nation’s renewed debate over whether working mothers can or can’t have it all — ignited by a recent Atlantic magazine article — one thing has become clear: Moms get faked out by false summits of their own. Many think the hard work of juggling child care and work will ease once their children get older, only to be surprised by a second peak when the little darlings hit age 10.


Anne-Marie Slaughter set off the current work-life balance conversation when she wrote about stepping down from her high-ranking position with the State Department to rejoin her husband and sons in Princeton, N.J. In an article titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’’ in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Slaughter wrote that she made the move because her 14-year-old son was “resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him.’’

Slaughter acknowledged that she did not “exactly’’ leave the ranks of full-time career women: “I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.’’

But even so, her decision to leave a job she loved sparked a debate about mothers and careers, and an intense new conversation about the unexpected challenge that even older, independent children pose for many working mothers.

“You don’t know it until you’re in it,’’ said Sandy Lish, a cofounder and principal of The Castle Group, a Charlestown marketing and PR firm, and the mother of a 10-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. “When they were babies your biggest concern was making day-care pickup before they start charging you by the minute.’’


But as Judith Warner, author of “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,’’ noted, making sure the kids are OK gets more complicated as they hit middle school. “When they get older, you worry about things like, are they being snubbed — the stuff you want to be there to help them process after school.’’

There’s friendship drama. Raunchy YouTube videos. Complicated homework. The travel soccer carpool. If employers really want to help parents they would offer “teen leave’’ and even “tween leave.”

Indeed, many working mothers say that it’s once their kids hit middle school or high school that they truly feel the pull of the homefront.
Many working fathers, of course, confront the same issues, but in the wake of Slaughter’s article, working mothers are primarily the ones speaking out.

Never mind that the universally accepted truth about teenagers is that they don’t want to be with their parents, said Ellen Galinsky, president and cofounder of the Families and Work Institute in New York, and author of “The Six Stages of Parenthood’’ and other books. The truth is that tweens and teens do want to spend time with their parents — even if they don’t show it right away.

“When I surveyed children and asked how they felt about employed moms and dads, I found that it was teens — not younger children — who wanted more time with their parents,’’ she said, explaining that it may simply take more time for older children to open up.


Teens do what she calls “hover crafting.’’ “They don’t just blurt it out like younger children,’’ she said. “You have to warm up to a deep and meaningful conversation.’’

In fact, it’s the thought of missing out on meaningful conversations that prompts many working mothers with older children to wish they could be home with their kids more.

“When they are babies, they need to be held and loved and changed and anyone can do it,’’ said Carla Tardif, executive director of the Family Reach Foundation, a Boston and New Jersey-based nonprofit that provides support to families fighting cancer. She’s also the mother of a 13-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy.

“When they’re young, the heartache going off to work is the parent’s,’’ Tardif said. “But when they’re older, the heartache going off to work is the teen’s. There’s a lot of pressure going on in the outside world, and mom’s the only one they want to talk to about that. When you’re not there, it’s hard.’’

Like every mother interviewed, Tardif said she wants to spend more time with her children — but how?

“I do tell myself I’m going to work less, but I’m kidding myself,’’ she said. “Kids [that her foundation helps] are sick. I need to raise $1.3 million. I’ve got to do it by working smarter, not harder.’’

Figuring out a way to work around a child’s schedule presents a challenge for mothers with all sorts of jobs. But it’s particularly difficult for women in jobs with no flexibility, where working from home or at odd hours are not options.

Alexis Khalil, a waitress from Braintree, recently had to take time off from work so she could drive her 10-year-old daughter to a soccer practice that had been rescheduled. Little Melinda needed both a chauffeur and a loving presence.

“She wants me to go and support her,’’ Khalil said as her daughter hugged her.

“That’s right,’’ Melinda said, smiling.

As working mothers continue to discuss the question of “having perhaps the most frequently mentioned issue is the pain of the ticking clock. The kids’ clocks, that is, not the mothers’.

“It’s such a cliche,’’ said Lish, of the Castle Group in Charlestown, “but it does happen really fast. I was just thinking that I’ll only have my [12-year-old] son for six more years. It seems implausible, but he’s as tall as I am. My time with [my son and daughter] is so much more precious because you realize there is a limit.’’

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