Fifteen hours a week. I’m embarrassed to call point this out, but I really only spend 15 hours during the week with my kids. There’s the frantic morning hour between wake-up and school drop-off, and then there’s the couple of hours between school pick-up and bedtime. When I add it up, our Monday through Friday together time clocks in at about 15 hours. I spend more time in meetings than I do with my own kids.
But that’s not even the most gut-wrenching part. The real tragedy is that I spent years of those precious after-school and after-work hours in a bad mood. The kids are tired. I’m tired.They are hungry. I am hungry. I’m sick of having the same arguments about why the oldest can’t have jelly beans for dinner, and I’m sick of picking the baby’s food off the floor. I want to get them to bed, because hanging over my head are the millions of other things I need to do around the house, the work I need to finish, the dinner I need to cook, the emails I need to return—all before I could relax for the first time that day. The kids are aware that our time together is limited, so they want all of my attention. (Who can blame them? See: 15 hours a week.) Recently, as we were slogging through the usual arduous dinner-bath-bed routine, I looked over at my husband and saw the frustration and exhaustion on his face, which no doubt mirrored my own. At that moment, I realized that what should be the most cherished time of my day – the few hours we spend together as a family — is actually my most difficult.
And then I remembered something a co-worker once said to me. She said that in most cases, when we get frustrated at our kids, it’s because they are not doing something that we need them to do. I need to be at a meeting and they won’t get dressed for school. I need to get to a yoga class and they won’t eat breakfast. I need to answer emails and they won’t get into bed. They are just being children. The tension comes when they don’t adhere to my adult timeline.
That was exactly what was happening night after night. I was constantly to multitasking, trying to fit in a little dinner chopping while they ate, answering a few texts while they splashed in the tub, catching up on Instagram while they built Legos, replying to work emails while they got in their pajamas. I figured that squeezing in a few adult things here and there would make the rest of my night easier, make that to-do list shorter. In fact, it was doing just the opposite. My head wasn’t anywhere — not with my to-do list, and most importantly, not with my kids. I was the one causing the frustration.
So one night I decided to try something new. I left my phone in my bag when I got home. It took some discipline not to drop my daughter’s dinner on the table and begin to prep my own, but instead I sat and talked to her. I would jump up every time I heard a text buzz, but I stayed strong. And you know what happened? The kids were their normal tantrum-throwing, impatient selves, to be sure, but I was much more accepting, much more relaxed. Why? There was nothing else I was supposed to be doing at that moment. Every time my to-do list popped into my head, I told myself that it could wait. The older one and I had a hilarious conversation at dinner, and the baby got more than a three-minute bath. My children got so much of my undivided attention that getting them to bed was easier. I didn’t mind spending the five minutes rubbing the four-year-old’s back, where normally I would would have stared down the clock, focused on all the all the things I needed to do next. I actually enjoyed the quiet time, maybe the calmest of my day, the sound of her breathing, hearing her before-bed thoughts. It felt more like a weekend than a Monday.
I went downstairs and was able to turn my attention to the rest of my night, wound up accomplishing everything I needed to and went to bed at the same time. All the little things that I used to try to squeeze in because I thought they would make my night easier, didn’t actually save me any time — now, the task in front of me got my undivided attention so it got done faster. But most importantly, I was less frantic and more engaged. My daughters were happier, too. I went to bed that night knowing that I made the most out of my 120 minutes with them that day.
Did I keep it up? Yes. Well, sort of. I will shoot off a quick text here or there, but I don’t get sucked into the iPhone or to-do list black hole, despite it’s strong pull. And I don’t think I’ll ever do it any other way again.