Parental guidance … evidence suggests that teens actually need more contact with their parents than toddlers.

Parental guidance … the common trend to stepping back as children get older is being questioned. Photo: Corbis

Melbourne dermatologist Josephine Yeatman returned to work six weeks after her oldest child, Miles, was born. And because she was working long hours as a doctor and studying to become a skin specialist, she only took a couple of months off for each of her next three children.

Her busy work schedule – crammed into four days so she could have Fridays with the kids – was fine for a decade. Her husband, Jim, stayed home one day a week, a wonderful nanny ran everything three days a week and grandparents helped out.

Then, five years ago, everything changed. The nanny resigned just as Miles was starting secondary school, and Yeatman's daughter, Esther, was navigating the challenging friendship issues typical for girls at about age eight. "I just realised I needed to be around more," says Yeatman, who now schedules her last patient at 2pm. Either she or Jim picks up the three younger children from school every day and Yeatman is home most afternoons.

Family time … Josephine Yeatman with her four children (left to right), Esther, Raphael, Ambrose and Miles.

Family time … Josephine Yeatman with her four children (left to right), Esther, Raphael, Ambrose and Miles. Photo: Damien Pleming

A typical work/motherhood plan looks something like this: spend as much time as you can with your children while they are babies and toddlers then gradually ramp up the working hours until you regain the semblance of a career when they're at high school. But what if your kids need you more, not less, as they get older? Can a 10-year-old be more needy than a toddler? It turns conventional wisdom on its head, but Yeatman says the answer is yes.

"There's so much going on with school-age kids," Yeatman says. "Late afternoon is when you can talk to them – you can't do it in the morning. You can delegate a lot more when they're little, as long as they're with someone who cares, but with teenagers it's important that it's a parent."

Child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg agrees. "My experience is that toddlers are amazingly adaptable, and as long as they feel safe, valued and listened to, they are fine. It is teenagers – especially those who are immature and impulsive – who need their parents around. Those are the ones who are in need of close supervision, which is impossible to do by mobile phone."

Carr-Gregg says the pivotal age is between 10 and 14. That's when friendships get more complex and some kids lose interest in school. It's also, he says, the window of opportunity to help children find their spark and become more independent. "You have to help emancipate them," he says. "But in so doing you need quite nuanced parenting, with quite subtle changes."

While Carr-Gregg emphasises that the period before a child's second birthday is also crucial, he says many problems stem from "free-range" parenting of teenagers. "I'm seeing a lot of kids left to their own devices who get themselves into hot water," he says, listing alcohol and addiction to computer games as examples.

"They still need supervision, but it's different supervision. Not helicopter parenting – we don't want that. But they need structured activities after school and on school holidays – art, music, drama, sport – and a parent looking in every now and then to check the homework is being done."

Although the work/kids juggle gets plenty of coverage, the focus is usually on toddlers. Last year, however, in a soul-searching essay in Atlantic Magazine, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote of her "rude epiphany" in resigning from her high-powered job in the Obama administration to spend more time with her two teenage sons. Her widely debated story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All", found that most mothers require maximum work flexibility when their children are aged eight to 18. A job such as hers, with back-to-back meetings, weekdays spent interstate and little control over her schedule, was impossible.

"A lot of people are surprised by the mental demands of teenagers," says Barbara Pocock, director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia. "It's a different kind of task to the physical demands of a toddler. Teenagers can prepare their own two-minute noodles; they won't starve. But it's important that parents are not exhausted and preoccupied with a demanding job. Preschoolers love you whenever you walk through the door. Teens are much more conscious of the state you're in and whether you are truly present."

Port Macquarie mother Janine Fitzpatrick has been shocked to realise how much time is required by teens. She spent 10 years at home after her daughters, now 16 and 13, were born. Although she had no grand career plan, she assumed she would focus more on work once the girls became teenagers.

Now she works four days a week at a not-for-profit organisation but finishes at 4pm to be home when her daughters return from school. "You definitely need to be around," she says. "The world is very different to when we grew up, with serious stuff like cyber-bullying, self-harm, depression. You have to be available when they are ready to talk, which is not always on your schedule."

Her comments echo those of former Sydney Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull in Sunday Life last year, when she explained how she worked full time as a lawyer and banker when her two children were small, then took time off to write a book when they reached their early teens. "I have a theory that when kids are little they can be looked after by any competent, caring person, but from the age of about 10 onwards they actually want to engage a lot more with their parents," Turnbull said. "That's the time when, for me, it was important to be there when they got home from school."

Statistics suggest that most working mothers still adhere to the traditional model of cutting back their hours when their children are young, then increasing their paid work as their children get older. Figures from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) show that mothers with children aged under five spend an average of 14 hours a week in paid work and commuting, rising to 25 hours a week when their youngest child is aged 5-14. Overall, 65 per cent of mothers with children under 18 are in the workforce, according to the 2011 census, compared with 55 per cent 20 years earlier.

Learning and development consultant Anna Mezger followed the typical pattern of scaling back her work hours when her two sons were small and ramping up when they became teenagers. She set up her own company, Strategic HR Solutions, in 1996, a year before her first son was born, because she didn't want to stop working entirely but needed more flexibility than her previous corporate roles allowed.

"I was very selective about what I took on; I didn't travel and I mainly worked from home," says Mezger, from Melbourne. "That was a hard thing for me – to learn to say no." But, she adds, she didn't miss any milestones, such as her sons' first steps, and she enjoyed being on kindergarten and school committees.

When Mezger's youngest son went to school, she increased her workload to six hours a day. Last year was another turning point, with both boys catching public transport to and from high school, allowing her to take on longer-term projects for some of Australia's biggest retailers. "I'm really enjoying the new energy of work, this is really my shot now, my time to do some interesting things," she says. "The boys are growing up and increasingly leading their own lives, and I need to have an independent future."

Mezger describes her work as full time, but the details – self-employed, based mainly from home with flexible hours encompassing late nights and weekend work – do not show up in the statistics, as AIFS demographer Jennifer Baxter acknowledges. "Mothers move in and out of the workforce, they switch from full-time to part-time and back, they work from home, they work at night," Baxter says. "There is so much diversity in how they combine work and family."

Her recent report, Parents Working Out Work, concluded that although full-time work is more common as children grow older, part-time work is still the preference for many mothers, even those with older kids. One of the reasons is that late-afternoon danger zone. Long daycare hours for toddlers don't end at 3.30pm and primary school kids are happy to be picked up by others. But teenagers are testing their independence.

"The work/family balance is quite tricky for mothers of adolescents," says Lyn Craig, a researcher at the University of NSW's Social Policy Research Centre. "They get to 11,12, 13 and they don't want to go to after-school care, but you don't necessarily want them home alone. It can be a bit of a crisis point."

The problem, as Craig points out, is that government and employer policies are usually based around small children. "The mould is that children need us when they're very little – everybody gets that. But these things are very gendered. A male boss is much less likely to be dealing with his teenagers' issues, so awareness is not very high." Many women try to build in their own flexibility by working shorter hours or setting up their own business.

Craig's 2009 paper Work and Family: How Does the (Gender) Balance Change as Children Grow? noted that there is more focus in Australia on the needs of families with young children and little is known about the needs of parents with older children. The paper found that balancing work and family is easier when children are older, because the domestic burden reduces. But it also warned that the early teenage years are particularly challenging, as children become more independent but still need parental supervision.

There are no easy answers. Slaughter concludes that "having it all" depends largely on job flexibility and the recognition that a mother's career is likely to proceed in irregular steps, with periodic plateaus and even dips.

Perhaps the best advice comes from Lyn Craig, who says there is no right or wrong way to handle the work/kids juggle, but women need to accept that their plans may change. "We all think everyone else must have it right, that we're supposed to be able to work once our children go to school and that as they get older, it gets easier. Actually, it's never the same again."