When I was a new mother, and a full-time grad student, I constantly heard this phrase: When it comes to time with your children, quality beats quantity every time.
The point being, any guilt I had from sometimes ignoring my kid while I worked on my dissertation was silly; I more than made up for it with a weekend trip to the zoo, during which all of my focus was on her. This phrase has also been helpful to me as a mother of two. I’ve been able to let go of my guilt and focus on the moments with my kids where--even in smaller bursts of time--I am completely engaged with them.
Given that Jim and I both work high-pressure jobs with somewhat erratic and demanding schedules, this had practical application with marriage after kids, too. It’s okay that most days we can’t finish complete sentences to each other, so long as we get quality time together on a date night. All we have to do is arrange a sitter, straighten up the house so the sitter doesn’t think we are slobs, prepare meals for the sitter to give the kids, lay out their jammies, give the sitter instructions for bedtime, make a dinner reservation, get a little dressed up, go out, and then spend two solid quality hours talking about how much we love our kids.
For quality family time each weekend, we focus on one activity. A trip to the botanical gardens. The science museum. The water park. The movies. Cell phones are put away and we focus intently on enjoying the moment.
We also work really hard to make sure we sit down to dinner on nights we are all together. Even if the kids only last 15 minutes before squirming right out of their chairs, we prioritize those moments of quality time, sharing a meal and bits about our days.
But as is always the problem with quality, there are control issues.
You see, my work schedule is already complicated given that I teach night and weekend classes to grad students. I give up two nights a week with my family, and, depending on how late I need to stay after class to meet with students, I may not get home until 9 p.m. or later. By that point, my kids are asleep. So, I always shake them awake so we can see, feel, hear, and hug each other. A quality moment, however small, to keep us connected.
But I recently had an unusually hectic week. There was an evening event I had to attend, and an unforeseen issue arose at work, which had me getting home late two additional nights. So, if you’re counting at home, four nights in a row. On the fourth night, I tore into the house, tears streaming down my face, and charged up the stairs, weeping as I rushed into my eldest’s room and startled her awake.
“What's wrong?” she asked, groggy and confused.
“I just needed to be with you,” I cried into the back of her neck. At that moment, my sleepy-eyed youngest tip toed around the corner and asked, “What's wrong, Mama?” And then came running to jump into the huddle.
Within minutes I was fine. The urge I felt to be with them was calmed once I was, and then it quickly turned to managing their emotional protests as I forced them back into their beds.
Once I was back downstairs, my husband embraced me and whispered: we’ll do something special this weekend to make up for this week. So now, to counteract missing my girls four nights in a row because of work, I had to do more work to come up with high-stakes quality time.
After all, quality is the product of intense work and pressure.
And as I’m reminded every day--both by the ever-changing size of my children, and by any older woman who catches my eye--children are only little for so long. I won’t get this time back. Not a second can be taken for granted.
And so, while being embraced by my husband and thinking of quality time opportunities, it suddenly hit me. I don’t want quality time with my kids and husband. I don’t want a focused block of time in which we are enjoying something fun, all focused on each other, and not at all distracted by our worries or our apps.
I actually just want endless amounts of low-quality time with my family.
The kind where I’m cooking dinner while the dogs and kids are swirling around me as I work like mad to finish telling Jim a story. The kind where I’m lying on the couch mindlessly thumbing through a magazine while the girls chase each other around the living room. The kind where I’m working on my computer while music plays and the girls are coloring.
I want a boat load of meaningless, distracted, wasted time with my family.
Because the thing about quality time is, you’d practically share it with anyone. If someone I hated offered me front row seats to see Steve Martin give a talk at the 92nd Street Y, I’m probably gonna go.
But to do nothing with someone? Well, you really gotta like ’em. You can’t pay me to lounge around the house zoning out on Instagram with someone I dislike. Nope. To waste time with someone is the highest form of flattery.
All this to say, I love my family so much I want nothing to do with them.
I want time to be less precious. I want to be released from the pressure to soak up every minute. I just want to chill out near the people I love while we each let time tick away without constantly trying to capture it.
I long for high volume, low-quality time with my husband and my kids. And to recoup the time I spend purposefully planning purposeful time together. To feel that seconds, minutes, months, and years are endlessly available to me so I can just relax and enjoy doing absolutely nothing with the people I love most.
Because trying to make every second count feels like such a waste of time.
Everything Is Negotiable: The 5 Tactics to Get What You Want in Life, Love, and Work comes out November 6th