Q&A: Balancing a career with school-aged children?

Laura writes:

"My question is about balancing work with school-aged children.  I have 3 kids: this fall they will be in 3rd grade, kindergarten (all-day), and pre-school.  I have worked part-time since my oldest was born and it's been a pretty good arrangement.  They've done well in child care and I enjoy the mix of working and stay-at-home mom stuff.  I've always planned to go back to full-time work, or at least almost full time, when my youngest is in school all day.  My part-time job is good and it's kept my foot in the door of my field, but it's not a career-track job.  I can't see myself doing this job long-term.  We don't need a second income, but I do enjoy working in my field.

So, I'm starting to think ahead to what I want to do when all the kids will be in school, and it seems like it's only going to get MORE complicated, not less.  I'm assuming I'll need after-school care, but when do we fit in extra-curriculars?  It seems like before-school care plus after-school activities is too much.  If we do the activities on the weekend, when will we have family time?  And then there's the summer-- babysitters vs. expensive camps.  When do I get to enjoy hanging out with my kids?  With my oldest in school all-day now, I'm realizing how little time we actually spend with him and I want to be around for the time we do have together.  I can only imagine it getting more difficult when we have 3 kids competing for limited after-school and weekend time.

Finally, there are my kids' opinions to take into account.  My oldest can verbalize what he wants and he likes coming home after school to read, play, practice piano, go to soccer, etc.  He wants to spend the summer at home with us, not with a sitter or at a camp.  And I get that.  My mom was home and I loved lazy summer days at home with my family.  School can be stressful and it's nice to decompress in a safe space with your own people.

I guess I feel like I'm missing something.  Everyone talks about getting back into your career when your kids are in school, but how does it work?  Has anyone found themselves working less, or not at all, once their kids reach school age?  And if you're successfully working full-time, how do you balance everything?"

Heck if I know. Seriously. I can't even balance working at home with two kids. I feel like my oldest never gets enough time to just hang out and be himself without his brother around, and like I never get enough time with them that's just fun, goof-around time (part of my custody arrangement that I never anticipated until it was too late).

The one thing I do have going for me is an awesome, awesome babysitter who loves them like she's their aunt. So I know when they're off school and I'm working she's having fun with them. She takes them to the zoo or to Central Park (two summers ago she literally bumped into Bono with his kids in one of the paddleboats in the Pond), or just lets them hang out in their pajamas all day and decompress if that's what they feel like.

But, as they get older and our situation changes and she leaves to get a different job (she finished her college degree in December), I honestly don't know what's going to happen. And you're right. Summer camp is fun, but it's not for all kids. And when do *you* get to have fun with them? And how many activities do they want to do, and how do the activities of one affect the others?

I remember when my older one became a toddler at around 13 months or so and the energy suddenly changed. I went from taking physical care of him to taking emotional and logistical care of him. And part of me was relieved that he wasn't physically on me all the time anymore, but the increased difficulty of the emotional needs hit me harder than I knew it would. And then each progressive energy shift seemed not necessarily to be harder, but just way more complicated.

So I think it just gets harder and harder until the kids start to take a lot of responsibility for their own schedules, at which point they're gone from you anyway.

Does anyone with slightly older kids have any tips? How do you possibly manage to find any space for your family in the middle of work and school and everything that has to get done? Or does it just seem to fall into place?