When she’s planning corporate events, Melissa Devlin Edwards develops a minute-by-minute master schedule — at the same time anticipating that best-laid plans will be foiled. Managing her household isn’t much different.

So last weekend, ahead of the start of the school year, Edwards and her husband held what she called a “calendar summit” — they merged the dates of his seminars and football coaching, her work travel, their 16-year-old’s lacrosse and SAT prep, their 4-year-old’s flag football, and the one-off family events like a nephew’s birthday party.

She knows that come fall, someone will inevitably get picked up late or forget to eat breakfast, but at least attempting to manage the complicated schedule ahead of time can alleviate some of the stress of the shopping trips, hair appointments, committee meetings, and paperwork — all the paperwork — that come with the back-to-school season.

“I just accept that I’m not going to be Pinterest mom-ing through this next couple of months,” said Edwards, of Phoenixville.

The assumption has long been that parents are thrilled around this time of year, evidenced in that iconic 1996 Staples commercial that showed an overjoyed dad skipping through the store while the holiday song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” played in the background.

While plenty of parents still admit to the relief of getting consistent child care for eight hours a day again, many others feel a calendar-induced anxiety that’s unique to this time of year, when camp and vacation give way to Google Calendars packed with color-coded practices, due dates, meetings, and recitals.

It’s the dilemma of the modern parent: There are more demands at work at the same time expectations for parenting have intensified. After-care must be coordinated, IEP meetings scheduled. There are seven extracurricular activities to try. And you really should help your child with school work, which is what you’ll be doing from dinner to bedtime.

“There are just a lot of places to be at once,” said Samantha Harris of Merion, a lawyer and mother of three kids, who are entering second, fourth, and sixth grades. She said a lot of her stress just comes from coordinating with her husband the seemingly small things: Who is going to get the kids to preseason practices during work? Who is going to the back-to-school picnic that starts at 5 p.m., or the orientation in the middle of the day?

Melissa Devlin Edwards with her husband, 16-year-old step-daughter and 4-year-old son.
Courtesy Melissa Devlin Edwards
Melissa Devlin Edwards with her husband, 16-year-old step-daughter and 4-year-old son.

While studies show moms and dads in 2019 both spend a considerable amount of time actively parenting — reading to their child, attending sports, listening to them squeak through clarinet practice — this calendar anxiety is still most acute for women, who dedicate significantly more time each day to caring for the home, elders, and children. The 2018 American Time Use Survey, conducted in concert with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found women spend an average of 3.1 hours per day on this unpaid labor — 74 minutes more than men.

That increased pressure to give children more face time hasn’t coincided in this country with new support structures, like universal child care or mandatory paid family leave. Meanwhile, more than one-third of parents worry they’re not spending enough time with their children, according to the Pew Research Center, and more than half say they don’t have enough time for their own friends or hobbies.

It’s often the to-do list that piles up the week or two ahead of when school starts, plus all the forms that come home over the course of the first week, that can feel most daunting.

“You get so much paperwork every day,” said Brandyn Campbell, a communications strategist and mother of two from Chester Springs, whose son is entering first grade. But beyond that, she sees school starting as a net positive for her calendar — piecing together camps all summer that had different start and end times worked well enough, but the routine the school year brings is a relief.

Brandyn and Rod Campbell with children Matthew, 6, and Riley, 2. Brandyn said managing all the paperwork is among the most stressful aspects of back-to-school time.
Christa Thorpe Photography
Brandyn and Rod Campbell with children Matthew, 6, and Riley, 2. Brandyn said managing all the paperwork is among the most stressful aspects of back-to-school time.

Ashley Meier, a real estate agent and mother of two from Phoenixville, whose older child starts at Oaks Elementary on Monday, said this week she’s tackling “the mountain of laundry,” a pre-first day haircut, and figuring out the school bus, never mind what scheduling conflicts might exist in November. “If you just kind of take it one week at a time," Meier said, “it’s a little bit easier to manage.”

Brandi Davis, a Philadelphia-based parenting coach, tells her clients the most important lesson they can learn in terms of schedule management is to get more comfortable saying no, whether it’s to other parents or their own kids.

“It may not feel good for 15 minutes, but the truth is you’re going to forget tomorrow,” she said. “The more you say no, the easier it becomes.”

Davis also said it’s important that parents accept that things will slip through the cracks. You’ll forget that Child A needed red markers instead of black, and Child B will forget his trumpet on a semi-routine basis.

The Meier family.
Courtesy Ashley Meier
The Meier family.

Amanda Dabbeekeh, a wedding planner from Limerick, Montgomery County, and a mother of two elementary-age boys, keeps a meticulous calendar, but still likes to joke that while her business is “type A perfect,” her home life, especially this time of year, can sometimes look and feel like a mess.

“Don’t come in my kitchen right now,” she said, “because something has to give.”

It took Dominique Danielle a couple of decades to really embrace the priorities. The mother from Voorhees has three kids, ages 24, 17, and 8, and while she has some worries about her third grader going back to school, she’s learned to relax about making sure to schedule the haircut before school starts or signing up for enough extracurricular activities — even trying to orchestrate her children’s happiness.

“You find out too late that we’ve told our kids what they have and how they perform is who they are," she said, "rather than how they feel and what they say and how they treat other people.”