My youngest child started school this year. And as we got ready, people kept asking me one question: What are you going to do with all your free time?
This question reflects a common assumption that once your kids are out of the preschool years, life gets easier because you suddenly have loads more free time. It’s like people picture some magic clock that strikes when your children start school, freeing you from your parental responsibilities or makes the mental load of parenting lighter.
Well, I’m sorry to report that while starting school is a milestone, it doesn’t mean the hard work of parenting is over. Far from it. The reality is that, while they are different, parenting school age children is no easier than parenting babies and preschoolers.
Quite frankly, I’ve never felt more exhausted as a parent who works part-time. My kids still wake up in the night, they still need support and now they have new, different needs. Yes, there is less screaming, but there is the mental juggle of school supplies, homework, clubs and playdates and staying up to date with the class Whatsapp messages. Just reading emails from school feels like a full-time job.
The mythical free time is nowhere to be found. I’m still working, attempting to keep my house habitable, and trying to keep my kids happy and healthy. But now that my children are school age, I’m doing it with less support and more expectations. Not to mention the fact that I’m only child-free until the school bell rings — which, as a reminder, is still early in the afternoon.
Preschool childcare would often run all day, and daycare basically assumes that you’re working. But now it feels like it’s always time for the school run. Then there are the school holidays when parents need to figure out how to look after and entertain children for weeks at a time, while holding down their jobs and other responsibilities. Not to mention the random days off and the sick days which, as any parent of young children knows, are plentiful. Trying to work while entertaining a six year old who’s off school ill is an anxiety-raising mix of snacks, screen time and stress. Starting school does not mean the end of your childcare juggles. Honestly it’s as tough as it’s ever been.
School is an emotional rollercoaster, too, and there can be big feelings to navigate. While the physical work of parenting might be easing off, I think we’re just getting started with the emotional heavy lifting of raising children. My kids are either tired and refuse to tell me anything about school, or need to talk about everything that has ever happened and need to know the answer to existential questions. And I can tell you, trying to explain what happens after death when you are exhausted at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon is challenging.
I’m not discounting the very hard work of early parenthood. Looking after babies and toddlers is tough, physically, mentally and emotionally. There’s feeding, nappies, and planning your life around naps (or lack of). But there’s also a lot of help when kids are tiny. There are baby classes, toddler groups, offers for babysitters and adaptations to make your life easier.
People will hold the door for a buggy and smile with warmth at a cute toddler. Non-jerks will forgive the screaming baby for anything and chalk that 4-year-old’s meltdown up to tiredness. But the kid acting out on the way to school is seen as naughty even if they are just a few months older.
When kids start school, nothing changes that makes them somehow grown up. There’s no switch that flips. They’re still the same child who needs just as much love and support as they did the week before. We need to be kinder and more forgiving to children of all ages, and less judgmental of their parents too. Some people think that the postnatal period could last up to ten years, and even beyond that the physical and mental load of parenting is heavy, but the support for parents of older children diminishes each year as they get older, and the expectations get higher.
Parenting can feel like work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not magical and amazing too. And just as the work doesn’t end when your kids head to school, the good bits don’t either. Parenting older kids is challenging, but they also have bigger, brighter personalities and are very often, really fun to spend time with.
So if this serves any purpose, let it be a reminder to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves — and other parents — to keep up appearances. And please, for the love of it, stop asking parents what they are doing with their free time, because the answer is working hard and trying their best.
Annabel Lee is a freelance writer whose work focuses on parenting, work and wellbeing, and how to juggle the three. Her writing has appeared in publications including Red Magazine, Huffington Post, Parents and Outside. She is a mother or two and lives near Oxford in the UK with her family. When she’s not working or rage cleaning the house, she loves long walks with her dog and rewatching Disney classics with her kids.