The dreaded school holidays

School holidays. Two words that make me break out in hives. It is not even a complete sentence and it manages to induce fear and crippling anxiety. As a kid, three months of freedom is the stuff that dreams are made of. Ask any working mother and she will say the complete opposite. It is the stuff of nightmares on par with having root canal while simultaneously being tasered. Each year, every working mother I know goes into full on panic mode around May. The dreaded holidays are approaching, and places need to be found for their kids. You can literally feel the anxiety at every school gate and every play area across the city. Whoever decided that three months off was a good idea? I’ll tell you who. 19th century England, I blame you. A relic from the pre-Industrial Revolution era when kids needed to finish school in time to toil in the fields before sundown. The six-week summer break was scheduled around harvest. Here in Cyprus, temperatures soar to 45 degrees Celsius so back in the day when air conditioning was non-existent, this made sense. Times have changed. This is an outdated practice that needs to stop. I don’t know anybody living in an urban landscape who needs to toil a field for harvest. People, it’s 2019, we now have air con.

It is important to note that back in the day we had a village to look after our kids, aunties and neighbours were constant fixtures in the family. With the nuclear family setup, this is no longer the case. The village has shrunk, and most families nowadays exist in their unit. Sure, we have friends and acquaintances, but they are too busy juggling their own schedules to watch out for kids who are not their own. My grandmother was a seamstress, she worked. My grandfather owned a coffee shop, he worked too. They had ten kids and with ten siblings in the family, the oldest looked after the youngest, outsourcing at its finest.

I know that kids work hard during term time and holidays are necessary for them to regroup and do things that kids should do in an unstructured and fun way. For parents, it is nice to not have to iron school uniforms, pack lunches, drive the kids to endless after-school activities and supervise homework, but for working moms, the stress of finding adequate care while working full time is enormous…and costly. It is tied up in guilt and this must change. The world has changed so why are we still dealing with this dinosaur practice? Why are we even having this conversation? The education system needs to adjust to the modern family situation.

Simple math

Most working hours are anywhere between 8am to 6pm with 40 hours being the norm. Let’s face it, 40 hours is a conservative minimum as this does not take overtime or commuting into account. In Cyprus, summer school usually ends at 3pm. For parents who work until 5pm, this is not viable. School closes mid-June and resumes in mid-September. Summer schools only run during the month of July. What happens for the latter part of June and the first part of September? I have not even included the ENTIRE month of August. I despise August. I know many couples who split their leave with mom taking three weeks first and dad taking the leftover amount. If you are a single parent, then I am not even sure how you would manage this.

 A dodgy equation

Joanna lives in Cyprus with two kids in primary school. Before her kids were born, she worked full-time in a corporate environment. Once she had her second child, this was no longer possible. Three months holiday in the summer does not sit well with corporate environments and with no extended family to help, a husband who works full-time and a nanny being too costly, part-time work was the only solution. On some days her mother-in-law helps and some years she has flown her mother over just for the summer period. The sheer mental strength and logistic prowess that this takes is sizeable. 

For Joanna, summer holidays were a major factor for the switch from full to part-time. How many other capable women are doing this and how detrimental is this to the workforce? How many can’t even find part-time so are opting out altogether? We are losing brilliant women for key roles who want to contribute and continue their careers but let’s get real, when it comes to choosing between a job and kids, kids will ultimately win. This is not to say that mothers are thrilled with this, many want to continue working. These are highly educated women who have spent years building their careers and want to continue as professionals but only in the knowledge that their kids are thriving and being taken care of.

Alison lives in London. She has a three-year-old who is still in kindergarten. After her maternity leave, she switched to part-time work but childcare in the UK is notoriously expensive and her reduced salary did not cover the costs. She has returned to full-time hours but once her daughter starts primary school, she will be in a predicament. She is dreading future half term, Easter, Christmas and summer vacations. She is already looking at different alternatives, and that’s two years away. Her extended family live in South Africa but her partner freelances. This helps but there are times when he has an assignment abroad or in a different city and she then needs to find an alternative, this loosely translates to pulling a fake sick day, “working from home’’ or taking time out of her annual leave. Commuting to work in London and working in a busy design agency with overtime does not make for timely school pick-ups.

In the UK, children attend school for 190 days per year. There are 365 days in the calendar. This means that 175 days are holidays. Annual leave for employed people is 28 days per year, do the math…these numbers don’t match. The difference is astounding, I’m amazed that anyone manages to have children and hold down a full-time job.

Begging + bribing + stealing

The silence about how working mothers manage school holidays remains surprising. Until we have a greater shared understanding of the ways working parents manage the holidays in terms of child care provisions, use of annual leave, cost of services, guilt at not being there for children, and impact on their work performance the holiday stress will remain securely within mom circles at playgrounds and school gates across the world. Women will continue to study and work until they have kids and then many will leave the workforce. I have mom friends who collectively whine with me but why have we not joined arms and chanted outside the Ministry of Education? I guess because we are too busy getting creative on how to work around this madness. We are too busy begging, bribing and stealing. Begging grannies to pick the kids up even though granny has earned her much needed rest time, bribing our other mom friends into playdates and stealing work hours with pretend sick days.

What’s the magic formula?

It doesn’t seem that governments and education ministries are going to change anything, so it falls on companies to step up. Potential solutions to alleviate the difficult holiday juggle could include companies offering working parents flexibility during the school holiday weeks by giving employees the ability to work remotely during these times. Before scheduling work across the year, companies can show care by not launching major new products during school holiday weeks and not arranging company ‘away days’ at these times. If a company is large enough and has adequate space, perhaps opening a kiddie daycare on premises could work. I know that this is not possible for most companies but for the ones who can, what a brilliant idea. There would be zero staff turnover; no mother would ever leave. If managers had regular conversations with staff about school holidays acknowledging the additional pressures that parents face, that would be a good start.

Plainly speaking, the academic school year is incompatible with working motherhood. Three months of summer vacation is an antiquated practice that is rooted in a tradition that doesn’t reflect the reality of our modern lives. Mothers continue to find ways; they juggle, they organise and they get through it, and every September, you can literally hear the collective exhale of relief in every stationery shop selling back-to-school goodies across the city. We survived the dreaded summer holidays and only have one week of pesky half term to contend with before the nuisance of Christmas descends upon us.

Maria Titan is the co-founder of WorkForce Cyprus. She’s a champion recruiter, cake baking wannabe and super mom to two humans and three furry things.