Hey Laura, how do I balance me-time and attentive parenting?

Guilt-ridden writes:

How do you balance being on the computer with being an attentive parent?  And then add in that I work almost full time and am a full time college student and there’s just not enough time in the day!

When I come home from work I just want to sit and veg out on the computer for a little while.  My husband’s the same way.  We both feel like we’re ignoring our daughter, but waiting until after she goes to bed (around 9pm) doesn’t seem plausible either.  HELP?!  How do we play with her as much as she needs it but still get our much needed PC/break time?

As any parent knows, kids require so much attention, especially in the early years. It can feel like you are being completely sucked dry if you don’t get a reprieve once in a while.

I’m approaching this from my own experience, which is as a full-time, at-home mom. I don’t have the other pressures on my time like work and homework to deal with! However, I think there are some generalities that can be true for both our experiences as mothers of small children. Here’s what I’ve found that helps immensely.


Love buckets First
Kids have pretty big love-buckets that need to be topped off rather frequently. The thing that I figured out a while ago is that if I focus my full and undivided attention on my 4 year old for even just 10 minutes, she’ll often get her fill and wander off on her own accord to play independently, leaving me to take my brain-break in peace. Not so if I am distracted and brushing her off for 30 minutes while I try to get my Facebook fix before seeing to matters of Real Life; when I do that, her need of me seems to escalate. If I ignore her first, can’t get away with just 10 minutes of deep interaction; she wants all of me for a lot longer.

Try making the time for your daughter immediately. Let her see that she is of utmost importance to you; that you prioritize your time around talking with her about her day, playing a game of Chutes and Ladders, reading a book, or some other short but intense interaction. My bet is that she’ll get what she needs and then wander off.



Time it
Remember being a kid and feeling like everything too fooooooooorever? When you say “Just a minute and I will play with you,” she has no real concept of what that “minute” means, other than “Not right now.”

I find that setting a kitchen timer (an analog one that makes a satisfying clicking sound) really helps keep my kid off my case. It also keeps me honest; when I say “I will, in 5 minutes,” I can’t stretch that to 15 or 20 (knowing full well she doesn’t have a real concept of time yet!).

If you have stuff you really need to get done (dinner prep is usually my crunch time), when you turn your attention to your daughter, you can set the timer again, saying “Okay, let’s have fun together for 10 minutes, and then I need to go do x, y, z.” Or you could tell her you can play together for 10 and then work together for 10!  :)



The Planned Put-off
If you absolutely cannot face family time until you’ve had a chance to decompress from your day (this is completely legitimate, by the way), make that part of your plan. If you stick to a rhythm, your child will catch on that you’re not purposefully avoiding her so much as preparing for your evening together.

I like to call Facebook the stay-at-home-mom’s “Water Cooler Experience.” When I’m stuck at home with two little kids, seeing other sentient activity happening on Facebook feels like my lifeline, some days! We moms gather around each other’s status updates with commiseration and encouragement. Sometimes, just knowing there are friends “inside my computer” helps me get through the day.

Some people might think this is cheesy, but for me at least, Facebook is an essential part of my life right now. It’s part confessional, part baby book, part cocktail party; I love it. I keep a short friends list of people who really matter to me and I rely on the interaction there to get me through the long days of childrearing.

So, I set aside time for Facebook. I catch up with my news feed in the morning, afternoons, and before bed, and I post status updates quickly (without sitting down and scrolling through everything) throughout the day.

You might do this for Facebook, or whatever blogs you read. Or television - watching a bit of a show here and there, or catching the morning news. Maybe you’re a voracious reader and set aside time to read a chapter every night.

My point is, if it’s built into your plan for the day, you’re less likely to feel guilty about the way you’re spending your time. So maybe you can come home to your family and immediately “veg” on the computer. But call it Quiet Time and invite your daughter to find her own ways to unwind from her day as well. Then when the timer has rung (hee hee!), you can all meet up together as a happy family, refreshed and ready to interact!



Involve her in your stuff
Preschoolers are exceptionally capable of doing small household tasks alongside you. And since alongside you is where they want to be when they’re craving your attention, use it!

The other day, my 4 year old just wanted to be cuddled. I was feeling harried about the state of the floor (my pre-crawler was eating all manner of grossness as she mopped up the dog hair with her belly!). After about 5 minutes of cuddling and focusing on my 4 year old, I was ready to get a move on my chores. She still really wanted to be close, so I explained that while I was going to be doing some chores, she was more than welcome to help out!

(This invitation has one of two acceptable effects: it will either scare her off to her room to play independently because she doesn’t want to help, or she will gladly participate in whatever chores I’m doing!)

That day, she washed the windows for me (after we drew on them with her markers!) and sorted the clean silverware into the drawer while I put all the other dishes away. She was happy because she was with me, and I was happy because not only did I get my chores done, I got some help too!

If she has homework from school, sit with her at the table and do your “work” - be it your own schoolwork or surfing the web.



Be deliberate
When you’re exhausted, it’s usually easy to slip into habits quite mindlessly. If you find yourself getting frustrated by your daughter’s pleas for attention (or perhaps just feeling that niggling guilt that you are wasting time) - stop and listen. When I know my time is limited in the evenings, I sometimes have to ask myself at each step: “Is this a good use of my time? Is this what I really want to be doing right now? What’s really important?”

I think the most important take-away here is to have a plan. Most people (and almost all children) thrive on some kind of schedule or rhythm to their days; it’s nice to know what to expect. It’s going to matter far less to your daughter that she doesn’t get your attention “right now” if she knows from experience that she will get it after you are done with your 20 minutes of decompression time. Likewise, you’ll feel better about taking those much needed moments to yourself, knowing that your daughter is learning patience and independence while waiting for Family Time!




Hey Laura, I think... Hey Laura, how do I balance me-time and attentive parenting?

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