[This post was inspired by Wooden Forniture Store and by their campaign to encourage parents to spend more times with the kids. Are you balancing work and private life well? You can take their test here. ]
I am a full-time working mother of two toddlers, aged four and two. My husband, now temporarily at home in paternity leave, also works full-time. As ambitious professionals, family may not be our everything, but it’s definitely at the top of the list. In the latest years as a parent, I came to one important realisation: time is the only currency children understand. It’s not gifts, it’s not exciting trips, it’s regular day-to-day time. They measure the quality of our relationship with them, merely based on how much time we spend with them. As working parents, we have limited amount of that currency. Still, I think our family has found good ways to optimise what we have and I’m happy to share my suggestions with other fellow parents.
Throw away your work phone
When you are home, you must be really there. There’s no checking work emails and definitely not taking work calls. Sure, we all had our “crisis” at work, which required extra time in the evening. However, that must be the exception to the rule. If your job requires that you regularly have to work overtime, consider having a talk with your supervisor or even looking for a new employer.
You work to live, not live to work. And I say it as a professional who loves her job and happily hops into her office every workday. You will be the one drawing the line for a good work-life balance, no one else will do it for you.
Take a long parental leave
If you are allowed to take a parental leave, do it. And I’m talking to you as well, dads. I took a 9 month maternity leave for my first child and a 7 month leave for my second. My husband took 3 months off for our daughter and is planning to take a full year for our son. It made the world of difference in the relationships with our children. Money have been tight at times and we had to cut unnecessary expenses, but it was all worth it. Being a stay-at-home parent is against my nature – I know, awful mother – but I don’t regret it. It was essential to really get to know my children and build our relationship. I could breastfeed my daughter until she was one and I don’t think I would have succeed if I had to go back to work sooner. My son was adopted from India and our months together were crucial to build attachment and adapt to the new reality of the family. Again, this is not the right time to worry about your career.
Use any activity to engage with your children
Kids – at least small children – just want to be with us. They think we’re awesome! I used to think shared time meant kids activities. I put effort into planning playdates or finding children events to bring my daughter to. I reached a point where every weekend was a never-ending tour around town, jumping from art workshops to music classes. It was not sustainable, neither for me nor for my girl. I matured my views and found a better balance. We still go to events sometime, but I especially make the most out of daily chores and errands. When I need to go grocery shopping, we go together. They help me put food in the cart and later, help me put it away at home. Sometime I print a shopping list with figures, so that they can read it out for me at the shop. We do similar games with laundry folding, and loading the washing machine or the dishwasher. When I need to clean, they “help” me. This slows down everything, but we are sharing time. It takes a bit of imagination, but you can involve kids in a lot of your daily activities and they’ll be happy.
Use the screen power wisely
We have strict rules for our kids’ screen time, only exception being when we fly or when one is sick at home. Watching tv or playing a videogame can be a shared activity, but it’s no good when it’s a tool to hypnotise the kids. And it’s just so easy to get used to have the children still and silent (I’m sympathetic!).
There’s another aspect you should consider. It’s your screen time. I came to realise I was using my smartphone as a small mental fix. Kids were claiming my time and attention, and I used to “just check something” on my phone several times a day while I was with them. It was an unsuccessful practice to claim back my time. In practice, it was sending the message I wasn’t enjoying my time with them.
Find your own way, be no martyr
After this post, maybe you are thinking I’m one of those mothers who are in a constant ecstatic state while with their children. Believe me, this couldn’t be further from truth. I love my children, but it took work and experience to enjoy the time I spend with them. For instance, I found out I hate playing make-believe. When my daughter asks me to play with dolls or figurines, I say no nine out of ten times. Every minute is torture for me. On the other hand, I’m a great reader, I like doing crafts, and playing boardgames. I think it’s fair that our kids learn who we are, what we like and don’t like. It’s a healthy lesson on relationship building.
The more time you’ll spend with your kids, the more you’ll build your portfolio of shared activities, based on what you both like and your energy levels. With my daughter, I have a couple of low-effort activities I use when I’m in no mood to engage in play (book colouring and baking with a cake mix, if you are looking for ideas).
I cannot stress enough how time with your kids is important. In the developing and growing years, you are your children’s best teacher (no pressure). As a perk, playing with kids allows you to be a bit of a kid yourself. And let’s admit it, it’s nice to take a break from adulting here and there.