Working Parents Are Overwhelmed.

Could There Be an App for That?

A few months ago a friend of mine invited me to an after-work meeting of working mothers in Palo Alto, “but there are some ground rules,” she warned. My friend, a top lawyer at Google, was not one to mince words. “It’s not a forum for networking, talking about your kids, complaining about your husband, or crying on each other’s shoulders. We get together to talk about the challenges of being working mothers in tech.”

Being a startup founder myself and the mother of 2 kids, I was eager to meet these women and appreciated the no-nonsense approach. After a glass of wine and snacks, we gathered in a large circle and introduced ourselves. The moderator asked us to describe our “current state of mind” as we went around the room. All of the women held management positions at Google, Facebook, Dropbox, and myriad high-growth startups. And their state of mind? “Overwhelmed.” “Stressed.” “Exhausted.”

These women were being stretched to the limit, but their concerns were a far cry from the working mom headlines we’ve become used to from parenting magazines. Not a single woman at this meeting questioned their decision to have a career, or to have kids, or claimed to feel guilty toward their families, or even expressed concern about their earnings. What these women were lacking was time — time to simply get through the logistics of each day when meetings run late, kids need to be ferried to activities, and dinner must magically appear on the table. Many complained they didn’t even have the time to do the research and interviewing to get the help they need.

Most children today are growing up in dual-income households where the chief resource constraint is time.

This was a highly educated group of women in Silicon Valley, but their experience is representative of broader trends in American families. Fully 70% of mothers with children under the age of 18 work outside the home (Source: U.S. Dept of Labor, 2013). That percentage has essentially held steady for the last 15 years — it is the new reality, and is likely to rise as wages fail to keep up with increasing costs of living. So, most children today are growing up in dual-income households where the chief resource constraint is time.

In her bestselling book “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” author Brigid Schulte identifies the number one challenge for working parents as finding uninterrupted blocks of work time, instead of the shreds of “time confetti” that leave us with a sense of having accomplished nothing at the end of the day.

When childcare falls through at the last minute, it’s usually working moms who drop everything to pick up their kids.

Schulte, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post, interviews psychologists, time management experts, statisticians, and anthropologists to try to get to the bottom of why modern-day parenting has become a race without a finish line. But it was one of her personal anecdotes that really resonated with me.

One afternoon Schulte was working under deadline for a story about a Somali war criminal. She was interrupted by a call from her babysitter, informing her at the last minute that she would not be able to pick her 3rd-grade daughter up from school and take her to her ballet class at 4:30. “Without giving it a second thought, I began making plans to take her myself,” Schulte recalls. After a traffic jam, rushed snack, and argument over her daughter’s hairstyle, this working mom’s day was reduced to time confetti, with a work deadline still looming over the dinner hour.

Does it have to be this way? All this young ballerina needed was a ride from school to her lesson. Was it really in the best interest of Schulte’s career, or of her family life, to drop what she was doing to shuttle her daughter across town? With stress levels running so high, it’s unlikely that the drive was quality mother-daughter time.

The next generation of caregiving solutions will blend far better vetting and quality controls than the traditional caregiver networks, with the convenience and on-demand efficiency of an Uber.

I often feel like each day begins as a house of cards — meticulously planned and constructed, but if one piece falls out of place, the whole thing comes crashing down. In talking to that group of mothers in Palo Alto, as well as my own friends and extended family, I’ve discovered that what many working parents need is a Plan B and C for childcare, so when Plan A inevitably falls through every so often (after all, caregivers have complicated lives too), parents don’t need to risk their jobs to step in at the last minute.

Very few of us have the extended family networks of days gone by, and carpooling is fraught with conflicting schedules and being obliged to return the favor. What if technology could help working parents access a trusted network of caregivers, to guarantee that their kids get picked up on schedule, and ensure that their work time wouldn’t be interrupted? Internet companies like Care.com have been successfully matching parents and caregivers for years, but families with older kids might not need a dedicated sitter anymore.

The next generation of caregiving solutions will blend far better vetting and quality controls than the traditional caregiver networks, with the convenience and on-demand efficiency of an Uber. And since they will need to build trust with busy families, they will provide personalization, continuity, and consistency that families and kids expect.

Tackling the problems that face working parents will take a combination of societal change, better corporate policies, and political action, but many of us can’t wait for those slow-moving processes to yield results. In the meantime, thoughtful tech solutions may help solve some of the day-to-day logistics of working and raising a family, so we can focus on work at work, and on our families at home.