Ease Your Working Parent Guilt: What I’ve Learned Being Part-Time

Photo by Sue Zeng on Unsplash

So many full-time working parents daydream about what it would be like to have more time with their kids. It weighs heavy on the parent conscience, and with that comes the ever familiar feeling of guilt. We envision all of the activities, memories, and bonding experiences we could be having with our children were it not for the hours we have to put in at the office or on our lengthy commutes. I know these feelings and daydreams intimately, because I was full-time and working outside of the home 8 short months ago. in fact, one of my favorite cubicle daydreams consisted of me surprising my kids after school, their arms in hug mode, sprinting over to me, with toothy grins painted on their faces, pumped for whatever plan of action I had for that day.

These feelings of guilt would visit me on the regular while sitting in my cubicle or while in the car muddling my way through traffic each morning. That’s why shortly after I decided to resign, I was punch drunk at the notion that I would get more time with my sons. About a month later, I accepted a part-time position, with a lot of flexibility, and a family friendly approach to the work day. While working part-time and at home, I’ve come to realize my fantasies about all the extra bonding, all the new memories we’d be making, and all of the overflowing happiness the kids would be feeling, were actually just that-fantasies. I came to the realization that our quality time together is truly predicated on these three things: current mood, agenda, and the chosen activity.

For us parents, it’s fulfilling and satisfying to have all of this extra time with our kids. But when examining the kids and their take on it, there’s a lesson there that I hope will help squander those lingering feelings of guilt for other working parents. My hope is that after you read my experience, it will allow for some peace to push aside those feelings of guilt.

More than likely, you’re familiar with the saying quality over quantity. That phrase applies as a good anecdote for many things in life; food, friends, clothing, shoes, etc. Believe it or not, it also applies to how you spend your time with your children. Quality time spent with your kids over the quantity of time you’re spending with them is really what’s at the center of my observation. Think about a recent moment when you had a quality connection with your child and ask yourself if there was any way that could have been forced? No way, right? Certain things, mainly intangible, had to take place for it to all come together.

Mood

I now had 3 to 3 1/2 more hours per day with my kids. I dove into my new found time with them- excitedly. Embracing it to the fullest, I made a lot of plans those first few weeks. There was just one problem. Both of my sons were not necessarily on the same page as me. Just because I was eager to share and plan activities with them after school, didn’t mean they necessarily wanted to partake in them. This was shocking and a bit disappointing to be honest. I had not entertained the idea that maybe my kids wouldn’t be as excited as I was about all this extra time together.

This is people we’re talking about here, and although young, they still have quite large opinions, emotions, and desires in terms of what they would like to be doing at any given moment. I had forgotten this important fact. There are various arrays of moods that they cycle through in one day alone, just as we adults do. As a result, we’re not always aligned in terms of what we want to be doing together. No matter how much blissful bonding I had anticipated, it was just not happening as often as my fantastical projections from my cubicle had told me they would.

Reality vs. Fantasy: The Agenda
 When I explained to my 5 year old that he would no longer have to go to his after school program-he leapt for joy. However, my older one did not react in this way at all. He loved his after school program, and didn’t want to abandon his two friends at the program. It’s already paid for, so it wasn’t a situation where we’d be getting money back. So he and I ended up making a deal. He would forego his after-school program twice a week. Still, on the mornings of the days I get him straightaway after school, he begs me please not pick him up. To further tip salt in the wound, when I pick him up from his after school program, he complains that I’ve come too early and can he please have more time with his friends? Remember that vision I had of the excited child running out of the school doors into my arms? Not quite what I had envisioned was it?

While my pre-schooler was pumped to be picked up right after school, when it came to the activities and bonding I had imagined, those fell flat. Each day at pick up, he would run into my arms with a smile. I could mentally check the box that my dream of this moment was realized. But, while I relish that particular moment every day, it is perpetually short lived. I learned quickly to soak up that moment-because it’s typically over in 2 seconds. It’s usually followed by a whiny complaint that he is bored, tired, and just can’t wait to go home. When I counter that with an exciting activity I’ve got planned: insert a tantrum here. When I go to said activity anyway and bring him unwillingly, it’s a toss up as to which version of my son will show up; the pissed off pouty one or the brush it off and have a good time one.

The truth of the matter is while I like to be active and go for walks, hikes, go the library, etc., he needs a good hour or so to decompress and chill first. He’s a homebody and introvert through and through and he needs his quiet time on his terms. He could binge watch the heck out of PJ Masks for hours at a time. And as it turns out, his time to chill butts up against time to make dinner and then pick up his brother, thus the time for my usual planned activity can tend to evaporate if we don’t do to it shortly after school. Most of the time, what it boils down to now is me sitting next to him while he watches his favorite show. Usually he will strong arm me Tom and Jerry style, telling me he likes to watch his show alone. In these instances, I ditch the snuggles for what I like to call “passive bonding”. My presence is known, but the fact of the matter is he doesn’t really seem to want me there anyway.

About a fraction of all of this extra bonding I had envisioned actually came to fruition. The times I did have solid connective moments have been just as often as when I worked full-time outside of the home. I had been so certain having these extra hours in the day with my sons would equate to more closeness,connection, memories, and experiences together. Realistically, what it’s meant is more time quantitatively, but not necessarily qualitatively for them. Sure, I get to see them much more, so, personally, I get a solid chunk of fulfillment from that. Additionally, I’m soaking up every ounce of being part-time selfishly because the day will come when I’m full-time again. But if we’re just taking a hard look at the children, not the parent, and whether or not they feel closer to me, or that they’ve noticed that we’ve had more quality time, I would say a firm no.

Quality Time & The Activity: The Real Bonding Moments

When you’re working full time and commuting, you get home and there are things that you must do before you can sit down to hang out with your kids. You feel like you can’t really “be” with your child or children during the moments of making dinner, helping with homework, bath, and bed. It’s more of you doing things for them.Take a listen to the podcast by the author of The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children . It discusses this very thing: doing for your children vs being present with your children. If we change up the routine a bit and play a game with them after homework is finished, converse with them while sitting down together at dinner, ask them to choose how they’d like to spend time with us, then connectivity is organically happening in that moment. It’s not as black and white as I once thought. This is because everything has to line up for the quality to bloom. In other words-it can’t be forced, no matter how hard you try.

My sons thoroughly enjoy being away from their mom. They don’t seem to crave more time with me or be overly happy about the additional time they are getting with me. What I’ve truly noticed is their appreciation and straight up glee in seeing me volunteer for field trips and for class holiday parties. They’ve noticed that mom isn’t as short tempered and frazzled at dinnertime and bedtime, so these chore-like times of our evening have a better vibe now all around. Again, mood, agenda, and activity all congealing make an all around positive flow to our evening.

The Lesson

There are tips I’ve picked up in my slower approach to things now that I could have applied when I worked full-time. But because of stress, fear, and guilt, it was hard to see the answers clearly.

Would I have been fired for taking time off to volunteer for a field trip? Absolutely not. Would I have gotten grief about it? Maybe, but so what? Either way, I was nervous to ask for it “too much”. Honestly, there are about 4 field trips per year and back when I was full-time I only volunteered for 1. I could have volunteered for more, however, I chose not to out of fear. Fear of burdening my boss, upsetting an already disgruntled co-worker (who does not have kids), perhaps leaving a ball up in the air that could lead to a mistake and thus an upset client. When I am now able to look objectively at that fear that I had, it should not have been significant enough to outweigh these memorable moments with my kids.

Since I have uncovered that both of my sons are most happy and appreciative of my time when I show up at school for things- this is now what I prioritize. It’s like working part-time allowed me to see the cliff notes through some kind of backwards intervention.They could care less about what we do at home together most days as hard as I might try. For us parents, we relish the time we get with them. We’ll always opt for more time. But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up into thinking they’re suffering with the time we’re currently giving of ourselves to them.

For all you moms and dads that are feeling that working parent guilt, I’m here to tell you, all the quality time you’re taking with your kids during the week after work and on weekends goes a long way. Having more time during the week with them doesn’t automatically equate to them feeling more bonded to you and being happier or well-adjusted. Go easy on yourselves. Volunteer for the field trips and class parties, ask them where they would most like you to show up, and ask them how they love to spend time with you. Then sit back and watch their faces illuminate when you engage in these precious moments alongside them…as long as they’re in the mood.