Once upon a time, when I worked a lot more hours than I do now, I felt like I never had quality time with my kids. Each night when they went to bed, I thought about how another day had slipped by without me noticing. I would try to think back to conversations and interactions and I’d come up short. We’d somehow flitted through homework and dinner and bedtime in a chaotic muddle but without stopping to take stock and breathe and really spend time together.
Perhaps if I worked fewer hours, we’d get to slow down, I thought. The quality would go up along with the quantity. At the very least, there’d be more hours in the day in which to pause to chat one-on-one, and to punctuate the non-stop flow of busyness with real moments.
And of course, that’s not how it has been at all. Still the afternoons go by in a flurry of homework and dinner and bedtime. The clock tells me there are more hours, but I can’t find them. I don’t know how, but it’s as busy as it ever was, and every evening, before I know what’s happening, it’s time to put them to bed.
But I have a trick to fix it – when I’m kissing them goodnight, I specifically mention at least one thing we did together or something I noticed during the day.
Last night, for example, to my eldest, I said “Thank you for getting breakfast for the others this morning, it was a huge help to me, especially with dad away. And I loved listening to the song you wrote tonight.” Her eyes lit up and she smiled, and then asked me if she could be like Madonna when she grows up – a children’s book writer and a singer. She wants to see Madonna videos on YouTube. With images of conical bras going through my head, I kissed her again and told her she can be anything she wants to be.
To my six-year-old, I said “I loved when you told me about shells and shellfish when you were getting read for school this morning – I had no idea that shellfish kill limpets with laser type stuff that’s a bit like a snail trail. And I really liked when we played with the play-table thing you made tonight after homework.” She reminded me that it’s not a play-table thing but a “construction” and mentioned that she was surprised I didn’t know more about shellfish, me being a grown-up and all. Then gave me a big hug and settled down to sleep.
To my small boy, I said “Thank you for remembering that my back is sore when I went to lift you when you were getting up this morning – that was very kind of you. And I loved when we made a cake – you did a great job mixing the ingredients for me.” His sleepy eyes opened wide. “Can I have cake now?” Maybe that wasn’t the best moment to bring it up.
I don’t remember to do this every single night, but I try, and I hope that it reminds them of the good stuff we did in between the rushing through homework and school-runs, and that it shows them that I am sometimes paying attention to what they’re saying and doing, even if I’m often distracted and not fully present.
It also takes away the overthinking and the guilt. Instead of walking back downstairs wondering what we did today, I have my moments – the ones we just talked about.
And lastly, I think it also nudges me into creating the moments in the first place. Once I got into the habit of having these night-time conversations, I found I was making mental notes during the day – little interactions and incidents that would fit the bill for the goodnight chat. I suspect that as a result of this conscious habit, I’m more inclined to stop and listen and engage and be present. And to say yes when I’m asked to play with a play-table thing that’s really a construction while the dinner sits uncooked on the hob for another ten minutes. I know which one will matter more when I’m trying to work out what we did all day.