Susan Dykstra worked through two pregnancies, delivered two boys and each time returned to the office quicker than some people master diapering. She kept working as her sons started crawling, kept working during their play group years, kept working when they began elementary school. Long hours, frequent travel -- such were the demands of an executive career. And Dykstra, investment analyst, vice president, was a high-energy career woman.
But two years ago, as Case hit 10th grade and Gregory eighth, their mother quit. Packed up the files, stepped off the corporate track. At the very stage when parents often expect to be providing less attention, Dykstra and her husband thought their family needed more. So for the first time in her life, she became a stay-at-home mom in McLean.
Ever since women entered the job market in force in the '70s and '80s, then commenced having babies in the '80s and early '90s, the angst of working parents has centered primarily on young children and day care. Ditto the most emotional public debates, the ones fueled by conflicting experts and family values politics.
Nowadays, though, some households are considering different issues. With children slouching toward adulthood, parents who never took off during those initial years are rethinking priorities. Some radically modify office hours or arrange lengthy leaves. Others clock out for good. Given the potential pitfalls of the middle school transition, or how suddenly high school comes and goes, they want to be available in ways that seem perhaps more important than when sons and daughters were little.
"I'm just here for him now," explained Joy Gough of Arlington, who retired early from the International Monetary Fund in August so she could savor the last two years before her son heads to college. "Somebody said, 'Oh, did you stop work because he was a problem?' And I said, 'No, he's a good boy.' "
The return on investment can be significant. In the last decade, studies repeatedly have shown that parents continue to hold major influence with adolescents.
"We've tended to think that it's okay for parents to step back a little and let other adults play more of a role. The research doesn't support that," noted A. Rae Simpson, author of "Raising Teens," a synthesis of more than 300 studies that the Harvard School of Public Health published in 2001.
Savvy parents realize teenagers require as much attention as toddlers, not just to solve problems but also to avert them. There are more bases to check, more challenges to monitoring behavior. Confidences are not shared on demand.
"Being the parent of a teenager is indeed time-consuming," Simpson stressed. "It takes reflection to think through what teenagers need and what teenagers are trying to say."
While federal labor statistics indicate that more than eight in 10 adolescents have working mothers, the data provide little insight on how parents adjust their schedules as children grow older. According to a business coalition called Corporate Voices for Working Families, the gap between when teenagers get out of class and parents walk in the door can stretch to 25 hours a week -- frequently, unsupervised hours that may invite trouble.
Parents who choose to stay home with this age face skepticism: Why are you doing this now? Or surprise: "Wow," one colleague told Dykstra, "you're the last person I would have expected to make this decision."
Or, most typically, envy: "So many people said they wished they could do it, too -- men and women," recalled Kathleen Drew of Chevy Chase. "I think it says parents want to be with their children, want to spend more time with [them] while the children are still around."
Drew is five years removed from her former job as a network television producer. After unrelenting evening and weekend hours away, as well as tag-team parenting with her New York-commuter husband, she resigned because she wanted to ensure a solid rapport with her son before he hit any teen turbulence.
"If you're going to do this, do it before he stops talking to you," a friend advised.
She has filled her break -- her preferred term -- with Sam's soccer and baseball games (which she had never attended), his basketball team (which she organized and manages), a stint as PTA president and mentoring at school. Sam is 13 and happy to have her.
"It's a full-time job," Drew said, cheerfully. "It's just not the one I had."
She admits her attitude would have been less sanguine earlier in her career when she was making her mark. It is a common sentiment; at this point in life, these parents say, they've already accomplished much of what they had intended professionally and reached a more secure place financially. They've accumulated expertise and seniority. That's particularly true of women who delayed childbearing until their late thirties or early forties.
For those who cut back hours rather than cut out entirely, time has been on their side in other ways, too. Working from home, working as a consultant, telecommuting and teleconferencing no longer are unusual ideas. And between fax machines and cell phones, the Internet and e-mail, few assignments are infeasible.
Mostly, it is women who divert, but not exclusively. At the Stilwell house in Alexandria, Dad has been meeting the school bus since 1996. "It's amazing the things they come home and tell me," Mike Stilwell said. But the catch is: "You have to be there when they're ready and willing to talk."
His boy was turning 10 and his girl 8 when he and his wife sat down to figure how to restore sanity on the home front. Everything was a mad rush between the office and sports practices and other activities. With a third child on the horizon, that seemed destined to get worse.
The couple agreed that her career at Fannie Mae would take precedence over his in fleet management. Ever since, he has been their children's central presence mornings and afternoons -- chauffeur, coach, confidant, taskmaster.
"We're committed to it because we've seen the difference it's made," with improved grades and fewer pressures, Stilwell said. Yet some days, dirty diapers would be easier to deal with. "At least you knew what the outcome was going to be," he joked.
No one knows how many other parents would make the same choices if corporate policies were more flexible and savings accounts better padded. Organizations such as the Family and Home Network, a nonprofit group based in Fairfax County, and Mothers & More, a national group out of Illinois, advocate for parents to be able to share generously in all stages of their children's growing up.
When parents of adolescents pick home over work, it helps counter "the notion that once your child hits 5 or 6, they're cooked," said Joanne Brundage, who founded Mothers & More in her living room in 1987. "You kind of kid yourself. You think to yourself that they're independent individuals without the need for a lot of parental support. It gets harder to see when they need you." Until, that is, things start to blow up.
Teenagers don't necessarily view greater parental contact as positive. Joy Gough remains amused over 16-year-old Matthew's first reaction. "He was a bit horrified. 'What? you're going to be home? You're going to make me do my homework?' "
Sausage-and-pancake breakfasts have softened him slightly, as has his mother's willingness to drive him and friends around. This year, she'll have total flexibility as Matthew applies to colleges.
"We'll be able to travel to colleges and check them out," he said. He's still weighing other pros against the cons. "It was such a shocker, when someone who's really demanding tells you she's going to be around all the time."
In McLean, the catalyst for Dykstra's metamorphosis was younger son Gregory and the disaster of sixth grade. He went away to a special program in New England the following year, and his parents felt one of them had to be around more when he returned. Maybe it would benefit older brother Case, too; both boys had been "spoiled to death" by their beloved nanny, Dykstra realized.
"I was a little bit more worried about them missing Helen," she said with a laugh.
Greg remembers the conversation with not a hint of trauma. "I was happy," he said. "Suddenly we were going to see more of our mom. . . . I was only in eighth grade, but I still understood the importance of her job. I was shocked but excited that she would give that up for us, that she would make that sacrifice."
The changes day to day have become routine. Instead of the nanny in the kitchen making lunches, it's Mom. And it's Mom picking them up from high school, and Mom sewing 18-foot-long togas for Latin Club, and Mom nearby to talk.
In between, Dykstra is working again, but as a consultant on specific projects, for a limited number of hours a week. She misses the intellectual stimulation of her previous work, but she has no regrets.
Her time at home has been well spent, she said.