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When I first heard another mom refer to certain bake-sale treats as "working-mom cookies" I was intrigued. Then I looked at the table. Ah, there they were: The slice-and-bake dough from the supermarket with a mini-peanut butter cup pressed into the middle. I don't know if the mom who made that comment worked outside the home and was being self-deprecating, or stayed home working to raise her family and was unimpressed with this effort. I didn't want to know. As for the kids, turns out they prefer cookies with candy on top to chocolate gingerbread made from scratch with fresh grated ginger. (I grated ginger, and one of my knuckles, for nothing.)
Moms who work outside the home want to make a meaningful contribution at school, but sometimes we're rushing back from the office just to catch a glimpse of our kids' faces while their eyes are still open. Having been on both sides of this equation, I can tell you that moms who are at home during the day are plenty busy, too. We dread the moment at every PTA meeting when it's clear that volunteer help is needed with a project -- and everyone looks at us. It's not fair, and it doesn't have to be this way. Between modern technology, our bold creativity and cooperation between school staff and parents, everyone can make a contribution.
Of course, working moms can't be at school during work hours unless they take time off. But there are plenty of ways to contribute without running afoul of your boss's needs or wearing yourself to a frazzle. Some tips that worked for me:
Don't give up your lunch break
You need it, and you can use a few minutes of the time to send e-mail reminders about an upcoming open house or to set up evening committee meetings to plan future events. You can also make coordinating phone calls, or take the program for the talent show to a nearby copy center. Be sure to always use your own e-mail account and phone for correspondence to keep things on the up-and-up.
Talk about your job on career day
Only you can do that! In the upper elementary grades, especially, career exploration is important for students. Hand out your business cards, bring little office-supply favors with the company logo on them. Describe what you have learned, and the challenges and joys of your profession. The kids will ask you how much money you make. Don't tell them. No matter how you feel about your day job, it is an exotic existence to school kids.
Offer a field trip to your office
There are workplaces where this is a good idea. You know if your workplace is not one of them. But if it's possible, have your child's class come for a morning meeting. Tell them what goes on in a typical day, show them where you work and what you produce, and have a "coffee break" snack together. The kids will never forget it.
Work your connections
You're likely to have a professional network that can bolster your mission to help out at school. Can any colleagues donate items for the school auction? Get you discounts on supplies or field-trip destinations? Talk at career day, if that's just not your thing? Ask them. The worst they can do is say no.
Explore flex time
Helping working parents by restructuring their schedule can be tricky for managers. They must be fair to the folks who don't have kids, and in most professions you have to make sure that someone is at the office all the time. But flex time is becoming more common. Ask your boss if you can leave early once every two weeks, and make up the hours throughout the other days. With such an arrangement, you could sponsor an after-school club, help in your child's classroom for the last class period, or simply be there for the trip home from school to hear about the day.
Get your props
Make sure your kids understand what you are doing to help. Your work can benefit all of the students, but especially your own kids. My daughter still recalls the time I helped her class make a special Dr. Seuss magazine. I remember it, too. When we brought in the final magazines and I praised everyone's hard work, she was bursting with pride. "My friend Tahlia said you are the coolest mom," she whispered. That's sweeter than a working-mom cookie any day.
Martha Pickerill is a health writer at TheVisualMD.com and former editor of TIME For Kids.