Q. Like many mothers, I am trying to balance a busy full-time job with caring for my four children, aged three to 10 years old. I’m very aware of the need to give my children one-to-one attention though it is very hard to find the time. A particular challenge is when I get home from work in the evening and my four children clamour for my attention, sometimes crying and pushing each other out of the way to get to me, and it all can become stressful and pressured. Sometimes they are tired in the evening and there is the additional pressure of getting to activities, not to mention having dinner, getting homework done and so on. How do I give all of them attention when I get in and make it a better experience for everyone?
A. I think your question will resonate with many parents who are trying to balance the challenge of parenting with keeping up a full-time job outside the home. As you have discovered, the evening time can be a particularly pressured period, when there is so much to be done within a short window of time before you can get to spend quality time with children, let alone attending to your own personal needs.
The scene you describe of children clamouring for attention is a common one for many parents. Greetings and departures are important rituals for families, and the expectations for personal attention can be high. Further, after a busy work day many parents are tired and stressed and young children can also be tired, ready for bed and less available for their parents. Many parents can feel guilty at the lack of time they have with their children and this can add to the pressure and expectations during the evening.
In dealing with these challenges, it can help to be really organised and to establish a clear weekly and daily plan. Because the evening “window” is so short, and there is so much to do, you can’t be laid back and leave it up to chance as the danger is that the important things may not get done.
Sit down and think through a clear routine for the evening from the time you come in to the time the children go to bed and afterwards.
To include the children and to make it more fun, you can sit down as a family and do up a weekly routine chart which you can display in the house. You are right that regular one-to-one time is important with children but when you have four you have to be very organised and creative about this. The weekly routine chart can help by making it very specific, so each child knows when they are getting time with you (such as their bedtime story, or being dropped to an activity with you on a Tuesday, etc).
In addition, it can really help to turn the everyday chores that have to be done into times of connection with your children. For example, you might chat with one child who helps you make the dinner and another who helps you with the laundry, or when you have to take an older child to an activity, you have the goal to spend the time in the car to listen and be present for him or her.
As your arrival home in the evening is such a crucial time, it can be a good idea to include a special greeting ritual or family news time in the routine when you come in. This might mean that after hugs and kisses, you all go and sit down for a few minutes and give each child a turn to say their news.
The key to make this work is to have the rule of one child speaking at a time and to make sure everyone gets a turn to speak. This encourages the children to listen to each other as well as speaking and thus helps them connect with each other as well as you.
In building a good routine, you need to construct a work-life balance that works for you. For example, one father I worked with found himself taking his work stress home in the evening, meaning he was snappy and grumpy and not present with his children. To address this he negotiated with his work to leave 15 minutes earlier and before he came home he would take a short walk to clear his head. Then he could draw a line under work issues, so when he arrived home he could be really present to his kids and respond to their many demands for his attention.
Due to work commitments, another working mother I worked with was arriving home when her children were going to bed, meaning she had little time to be with them, leading to both of them missing out. She could not change her time for coming home but arranged it so she could get in later in the morning. She then made the morning routine her special time when she would get up early, have a more relaxed breakfast and even some playtime with the children before taking them to school.
You need to include your own personal needs in considering your daily routine. The more relaxed and content you are as a person, the better able you will be to parent your children. This might mean taking time to think through your work-life balance and making some hard decisions such as addressing stressful issues at work or setting a boundary on time spent there.
Or it could simply mean that rather than just chores when the children go to bed, you also make sure to schedule relaxing activities for yourself as well. Or in the case of the mother in the last example, it could mean making sure to get to bed at a reasonable hour yourself, so you can be relaxed and prepared in the morning as well as present for your children to get the most out of your time with them.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, March 2011. John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.