With the first day of school looming a few weeks ago, my youngest son—ready to stroll into kindergarten—looked at me and said, “You have to get all of your work done while we’re in school so you can play with us every day when we get home.”
He did not follow this up with, “No pressure.” The heat was on.
And it just about boiled over.
After all, isn’t his command my actual dream? I’d love to use my daytime hours to go to the gym, bust out work assignments, whip up Kix-level meals (that’s “kid-tested, mother-approved” for you youthful parents), and schedule afternoon adventures guaranteed to get all our energy out, and bond our crew together as mom and sons.
And yet. Life looms larger. Most of my plans come with kinks. Sometimes the kids—cute ones, no doubt—come home cranky. And there’s laundry and dishes and bills and chores and showers and baseball and Cub Scouts and . . .
Can you relate?
When I’m not wallowing in questions like, “How, exactly, did my mom do this with five kids?” I swing wide in the other direction:
“There’s gotta be a way I can make my little one’s desire kinda, sorta happen. But in a balanced way.” To be the parent who’s productive and present. That’s what I’m going for.
And here’s how I’m hoping to get there:
Plan for Being Present
I don’t know about you, but I don’t really stumble into quality time with my kids. If we’re at home, I’m more likely to be picking up around the house, chatting with a friend, or conducting research for an upcoming article.
I’m not plopped down on the ground playing LEGOs or outside sword-fighting in the fort. And that’s okay, right? But if I’m not careful, hours can go by like this. And I’ll find myself in bed at night thinking, “Man, I miss those little nuggets.”
The solution? I plan ahead. I use those missing-them moments—in bed, while they’re at school—to ask myself how I want to spend quality time with my boys at our next opportunity. Sometimes a hike sounds nice. Other times I’ll set out a board game or ingredients for making a snack together. (Orange Julius is always a winner!)
The key, of course, comes not just from planning, but also from preparation. I try to make it so that the most natural thing for us to do when we meet up is follow through on my intention to connect: “Here’s a snack and a Nalgene, let’s hit the trails!”
It helps to remember that kids don’t need endless hours of togetherness to feel close to their parents—the average family gets just 37 minutes a day together. School kids especially also need time for free and independent play—where no one else tells them what to do or how to do it.
When it comes to you being present with your children, think quality over quantity. Think intentional over impromptu. Think practice over perfection.
Write Down Everything—and I Mean Everything
Halfway into a game of Guess Who my mind is bound to wander: Should I go ahead and preheat the oven? Did I send that email? Wonder what’s happening on IG?
Still. I gotta be all in if I’m gonna correctly flip down the guys with mustaches but not the full-on beards. And, let’s be honest, I don’t wanna miss my older son’s victory clap—just one clap—when he beats me again.
The best way I can be sure to be fully present when my boys are home is if I’m fully productive when they’re not around. So I make lists. Lots of them. I make lists for work, lists for chores, lists for food, and lists for the future. I add stuff that matters immensely and stuff that matters not at all. Sometimes I’ll even include an item or two I’ve already done. It gives me a boost, okay?
My point, though, is to convey the power of writing everything down. Is your mind wandering with things you need or would like to do? Add it to the list. Have time to tackle a few items? Consult your list and prioritize accordingly.
This is such a simple task I almost didn’t mention it. But then I remembered how satisfying it is to mark off a final item for the day. And how, even when a list is full to the brim with not a check mark in sight, it calms me to know all the to-dos swirling around in my head found a permanent landing spot on the paper.
With a list I can even tackle the greatest parenting struggle around: prioritizing the important over the urgent. A dream indeed.
Ask for Help
Of course, none of this is possible without help. I mean, okay, it’s possible. But not in a healthy way. Without the help of others, I may be productive and I may be present, but I likely won’t get there without totally losing my patience along the way.
So I’ve learned to ask for help. I’ll check in with my husband—who also works from home and, let’s be honest, does as much or more around the house as me—midday to say, “Can you load the dishes when you get a minute?” And I’ll remind my kids on the way home from school, “I need the LEGOs put away and your room clean before bed tonight.”
We hire a sitter every other Friday so we can ditch our responsibilities for a few hours. And we take the grandparents up on the occasional request to keep our kids overnight.
As parents—as people—we have to let go of the notion that we can do it all. We can’t.
Sometimes we’ll have to be productive when we want to be present. Sometimes we’ll choose to be present when we probably should be productive. And sometimes, we’ll disappoint our kids doubly when we ask them to be present with us in our productivity.
But that’s okay. Asking for help and checking things off of our to-do list sets us up to be able to have fun, go on grand adventures, and enjoy time together as a family.