When Linda McWilliams said goodbye to her colleagues at Xerox Corp. in Webster, N.Y., last month, she packed up 10 years of memories, promotions, and achievements. But any mixed emotions she felt about ending her career as an engineering analyst were balanced by the prospect of running a home-based business and spending more time with her four children, ages 13, 11, 2, and 1.
In particular, Mrs. McWilliams is eager to be on hand when her two adolescent daughters return from school every afternoon. "They're so excited that I'll be there when they come home," she says. "Sometimes I think they need me more than the little ones do."
Working parents often cling to the comforting fantasy that if they can just make it through the early years, balancing child care and careers, their schedules will get easier when children enter school. Some, like McWilliams, are realizing that a later stage needs attention and support as well: adolescence, when burgeoning maturity and independence can mask a teenager's need for parental guidance.
Now work-and-family specialists see growing interest in career adjustments that allow parents to keep closer tabs on teens. No one is using the T word - trend - to describe the changes. "Adolescent leave," as some dub it, remains a trickle, not a flood. But quietly, here and there, a few parents are leaving corporate jobs. Others are reducing their hours, telecommuting, or negotiating flexible schedules. Some companies are also broadening their work-family programs to include teenagers.
Professionals who work with teens and families applaud the moves. "In some ways we should be as attentive to our adolescents as we are to small children," says Patricia Hersch, author of "A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence." She calls it "fine-tuning the product - an opportunity to pass on our final lessons before we put them out into the world."
Middle-school students, in particular, face challenges. Too old for after-school programs ("baby stuff," they sputter derisively) and too young for jobs, many come home to an empty house.
Some parents change their work schedules in hopes of preventing teenage problems. Noting that her two older daughters are straight-A students, McWilliams says, "They're good kids, but it's such a difficult time for them. They still must deal with all the nastiness and cattiness."
Last September, Ellen Koup of Winchester, Mass., left her position as director of marketing for a software company to spend more time with her 12-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. For eight years she and her husband had successfully employed foreign au pairs. But as their son approached middle school, the couple realized the importance of more parental guidance.
"As the kids got older, we decided we wanted to have a little more influence over the choices we wanted them to make, the kind of activities they had, how much they paid attention to their schoolwork, and what was right morally and what wasn't," Mrs. Koup says.
Sometimes a need for closer supervision is precipitated by a specific incident or crisis. "Maybe you come home and there's your daughter and her boyfriend," says Beth Fredericks, director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "Even if they're just doing homework, you worry."
When Rosalia Scalia's 16-year-old daughter began going around with the wrong crowd, Ms. Scalia arranged to have her own parents supervise the teenager after school. "In an ideal world, I would leave work to remain at home and make sure her after-school activities remain wholesome," says Scalia, media-relations officer at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. "But we need my income."
For most families, giving up a paycheck or an established career is not an option. Yet even within the framework of busy professional schedules, parents are finding ways to be more engaged in adolescents' lives. Experts preach the importance of what could be called the three C's: communication, conversation, and connection.
Susan Ginsberg, editor and publisher of a newsletter, Work and Family Life, makes a strong case for spending "hanging-out time" with teens, staying in touch with their friends' parents, maintaining contact with schools, and having dinner together as often as possible.
The key is balance. "Obviously, you don't want to be an interfering parent who's on their case all the time," Dr. Ginsberg says. "But if you're never home, if you never do anything with them, you are ignoring them. You're doing something that is really quite destructive."
Even if teens don't appear to be listening, parents need to talk to them, sometimes asking probing questions. As Ms. Fredericks explains, teens often think, "My mom works hard, I'm not going to add to her stress."
For Joyce Scott, the moment of truth came when her younger son, Jason, was in his early teens. Mrs. Scott, then working for IBM in St. Louis, had not been home for dinner for several weeks because of work schedules. One afternoon Jason called her at the office and asked, "Mom, where are you?" He said he appreciated her hard work and success but missed her at home.
"That was a moment when I felt like a total failure," Scott says. She began turning down certain trips and projects that would keep her away from her sons. She set a specific stopping time every day at work. And she began to practice "active listening" at home, paying attention to her sons' verbal and nonverbal cues.
"Sometimes parents think that because they're physically there, that's all that's needed," says Scott, now a business strategist in Round Rock, Texas. "I had to focus on being emotionally there. We'd be watching a video together, and Jason would say, 'Mom, turn your brain off. I can hear it.' "
Whatever a family's work schedule, professionals emphasize the importance of setting up up family rules to decide: Can teens be home alone? How much can they be on the Internet? Noting that teenagers need schedules and limits, such as, "Come home at 10:30 or call me," Fredericks says, "They need to know you care, that you're still involved."
This caring, Hersch adds, is impossible to fake. "It's the child feeling that the parent is available and concerned, even if not there."
Parental involvement is key
Last year, when Fredericks's son was in seventh grade, he and a friend who lives nearby took turns going to each other's house after school. They relaxed, ate snacks, and did homework until one parent returned by 6 p.m.
This year the boys prefer to spend after-school time alone. Fredericks keeps in touch with her son by phone and e-mail, sometimes dashing off a friendly missive, saying, "Hi, hope you're doing your homework. Love, Mom."
Statistics show that parental involvement in school begins to drop in middle school and is almost nonexistent in high school. Yet as a rule, Hersch sees it as a parent's job to be present at children's activities. She says, "I know parents are tired. But those activities at school are a child's way of showing their talent, their skill, their worth."
Scott agrees. She finds that even when teenagers say, "Oh, you don't have to be there," their faces light up when they see a parent. "They know it took effort for you to leave work."
Fredericks advises parents who want to spend more time with their teenagers to draw up a plan for a manager, saying, "I need to start at 7 and leave by 2:30 or 3. This is how I'm going to do my job, to make it seamless for my co-workers, meet your business needs, and still take care of my adolescents."
At a time when recruitment and retention are big issues for businesses, she says, managers should be receptive to such plans in order to keep good workers. Smart companies, she adds, support their employees. That support can take many forms. A key element is flexibility. Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, also sees a need for programs such as workplace seminars for parents of older children.
A 1998 survey of 100 companies by the Families and Work Institute found that only 12 percent were doing anything to help teenagers. Five percent provide employee assistance programs to address the problems of teens and their families. Three percent offer counseling to teenagers. Two percent give seminars or workshops.
Benefits like these, Ms. Galinsky explains, help to create a workplace culture that "doesn't force you to choose between having a job and having a teenager."
When parents - almost always mothers - do leave jobs, no one pretends the move is easy.
"It was difficult to give up my career, no question," Koup says. "There are days when I wonder why I made that choice. But you get a lot of gratification from spending time with the kids."
Although Koup might eventually consider part-time consulting while her children are at school, she says her decision to be home is not a short-term arrangement.
McWilliams, too, found her departure unexpectedly hard. Some people tell her she is doing the right thing. Others call her decision to leave "stupid."
She now runs a home-based Internet business she and her husband started two years ago. Called Once Upon a Name (www.onceuponaname.com), it sells personalized keepsakes.
Start a home-based business
Martin Yate, author of "Knock 'Em Dead 2000," a job-seeker's handbook, encourages couples to start a home-based business. It reduces the "stranglehold" of the corporate salary and, in time, could allow one parent to be home.
A home-based business also gives children an awareness of the world of enterprise, he says. Mr. Yate himself works from home and is there when his sons, 11 and 14, return from school.
Whatever arrangements parents make, Carol Maxym, an educational consultant in San Diego, says: "Taking time, however you do it, to be involved with your family, is not downtime, it's not dead time, it's learning time, when skills are being built."
Urging employers to be more supportive, she adds, "There is no reason why the business world should not welcome back a woman in her 40s who has been out of the depth of corporate culture, and say to her, 'We know you've developed some excellent skills while you were caring for your children. We're really glad you're back, and we look forward to having you until retirement.' "
For now, McWilliams is settling into her home office and establishing routines with her children. Convinced of the rightness of her new venture, she says, "At some point you have to take a risk and do it. We might have to cut back a little more, but it's worth it. When all is said and done, what you have left at the end of the road is your children."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society