Kissing each child goodnight, I said the same thing – in my head so I wouldn’t wake them – I said “From now on, I’m going to be the best parent ever.” It’s something I often say when I’m kissing them at night – when they’re fast asleep and it’s easy to want to do better. When it’s too late to fix today but there’s still hope for tomorrow. This time, just home from a night out, I was certain I’d make a change.
I’d been out for dinner with some friends, and the conversation had turned as it always does to work and home and the elusive balance. We were a mixed bunch – some working full-time, some doing five mornings, some doing a three-day-week, but on the subject of kids, everyone had the same concern – are we giving them enough?
We talked about research and surveys and gut instinct. About being busy ALL THE TIME. About feeling there’s never enough of ourselves to stretch, to cover all of it. About coming in the door and being needed by everyone. About bedtimes that are tough, instead of the happy reunions they’re supposed to be. About sitting down at night, wondering where the day went and wondering if we did enough.
To the friends who work full-time, I gave my perspective – as someone who used to work full-time but doesn’t anymore. I told them that far from being idyllic, I feel I’m less present than ever. When I worked full-time, I used to come home to a clean house and kids who’d been fed. All I had to do was catch up on chats and put them to bed. Now that I’m home in the afternoons, I’m finding it close to impossible to manage – the school run, the food (the endless food), the homework, the lunch boxes, the notes, the homework journals, the dinner, the lunches for tomorrow. The time with the kids is functional at best. Urging them to sit down, to tell me what they want to eat, the get changed, to start homework, to finish homework. I keep thinking we’re just settling in to the new school year but it’s November now. Perhaps it’s time to accept that this is the new normal – maybe three in school is beyond my capabilities and it will always be chaos.
This attempt at reassuring my friends who work full-time was probably tinged by rose-tinted glasses and indeed some wine-filled glasses. I doubt it was as flawless as I remember, and I know I didn’t appreciate it – I spent too much time worrying about the number of hours I was spending away from the kids. But I think it’s true that just being there isn’t necessarily the answer. What I mean is, if you’re happy in your job and your kids are happy with their childcare, and you make the most of the evening time and weekends together, then don’t let that self-doubt creep in. Instinct counts for a lot. If everyone is happy, it’s probably all good. I hope some of my friends felt a little bit better after our conversation.
I didn’t though. I went home, thinking about what I’d been describing – our chaotic afternoons, when I don’t feel like I’m fully there for any of the kids. And so going in to kiss each child goodnight, I made that promise – the one lots of us make when they’re sleeping beautifully and it’s too late to change today – I promised to be a better parent tomorrow.
I lay in bed thinking about it, planning how to fix things – how to spend more time being really present. I know that at the weekends, when we go out, I’m present. It’s a chance to hold hands, to chat, to go for coffee, and to divide and conquer so the kids get something like one-to-one attention or even two-to-one attention.
But during the week there’s no time to go out (there’s no time full stop) so I figured I needed to learn how to be just as present at home as I am when we’re out. To put down the tea towel and the laundry basket and the phone and do something with the kids – not just be in the same house but actually do something with them.
So the next day, due to a combination of bad weather and an unintentionally late lunch, we decided to stay in for the afternoon. This would be my chance. We got out jigsaws. And K-Nex. And a perfume making set. And the other perfume making set (the surprised faces when I didn’t say no spoke volumes). And loom bands (they haven’t gone away). And a tea-set. And Cluedo. And a steam-mop. Sorry that last one was me. I did need to get some things done around the house, but I also sat down on the ground to help with small boy with his jigsaw. I admired perfume. I pretended to make things with K-Nex. I didn’t curse too much about all the loom bands underfoot. And then we played Cluedo. The girls loved it, but the small boy kept adding toys cars and plastic animals to the board, and putting the characters into helicopters he made with K-Nex and moving them from room to room to go to bed or eat breakfast. Eventually, trying to reach something on the other side, he knocked over the whole board. At that point, I begged them all to watch some TV so I could abandon our quality (well, *quality*) time and get started on dinner.
And in truth, throughout the jigsaws and the perfume and the Cluedo, my mind was on all the things around the house I needed to do – confirming what I already know: I’m not very good at disengaging from everything else and just doing things with the kids when we’re at home. Which is why going out at the weekends is good – there’s no house to clean when you’re sitting in a coffee shop or walking in a park.
Kissing them goodnight later on, when they were all sleeping beautifully, I made the same promise to them. I promised that I’d keep trying to do better and be more present on weekday afternoons – to add a bit of fun along with the necessary function. And as I stood on another piece of K-Nex and pulled a loom band out of my hair, I made a new promise to them. Again in my head, because who wants to wake the beautifully sleeping children: “Next weekend, I promise we’ll go out.”