Let me start this piece by saying I am not a researcher, nor am I child psychologist. What I am is a working mother of a 5-year-old boy.
Recently, there was a study that came out that suggested that parenting time doesn't matter in a child's ultimate success in life. It didn't seem to add up to me, and while it seemed like a bit of a relief that the hours I spend away from my child aren't affecting him, I knew there was probably something wrong. The word "Duh!" comes to mind...
Justin Wolfer, journalist for The New York Times dug deeper, and he found out what I had felt must be the case: The study is skewed, so you're not getting off the hook for spending time with your kid. (Nor do most parents want to, but we are tired, we are overworked, and we are burning it at both ends...)
It got me thinking about the choices we have to make as parents, and how difficult it can sometimes be. Is spending time with my kiddo important? Absolutely, and for a long time I thought work-life balance meant that I work, and I leave time for my kid. But I've been learning more recently that there's a third part, that I think, we as parents are inclined to neglect... for the best possible reasons too -- because we love our kids so damn much. That third part is our own happiness. Outside of work and outside of being a parent, finding joy in our life that is not tied directly to our children.
The reason, I believe, parents wanted the skewed study to be true comes from fear, and ultimately, guilt. I'm no exception... I have guilt for the business trips, for working and missing the karate classes, for.... not always being there. And that's before I even factor in taking any time for myself.
So, I started thinking, what if we replace guilt with faith?
Faith that we can exist in a world where we work hard, take care of our kids but also take care of ourselves and trust that they will be ok. I put this out to friends, co-workers, anyone who would answer. I was immediately struck by how it resonated with so many people -- single dads, single moms, divorced couples, happily married folks. All of them with one thing in common: they want their kids to thrive, but they would love to have a life in the process, and all pretty much agree that they would be better parents if they did. One person I spoke with summed it up simply and beautifully:
"The best gift i can give my child is showing him what a happy person looks like."
I'm reminded of the expression "do what I say not what I do." I want my child to grow up with a healthy sense that he matters in this world, so what would I be showing him if I didn't find a way to take care of myself, and show him that I matter as well? This is hard because we want to protect them... But kids are insightful -- they know if we are phoning it in. They know if we are faking it.
So, how do we balance it all? Perhaps the question is better phrased like this:
How do we give our kids the best of ourselves during the times that we are there?
To me, it's a matter of quality. It's so easy to be there without actually being present. We live in a world of distractions, cell phones, computers, and good lord even now our watches are becoming devices connected to the digital world, so it can be very difficult to unplug enough to be there. I believe that one hour of true quality time is better than four hours of half-assed, cell-phone-attached-to-my-hand time, so I try everyday to be mindful of this.
It's about love.
As I typed this article on a train from Boston to NYC, I saw a mother sitting with her 16-year-old son. I decided to break the rules of train travel and talk to the person across from me, so put the question to her that I had already put out to so many people, just to see what a complete stranger would say to me. Once she realized I wasn't a lunatic but was actually making pleasant conversation on Amtrak, she thought about it, and her response was brilliant. I believe is a fitting conclusion to this article.
She said that while she was fortunate to have a job that kept her close to home for most of her kids lives, she believes that the most important thing a child can feel is loved, and the more of it the better. Parents are great, she said, but if you can ever get the whole "it takes a village" thing going for your kids, they will be surrounded by so much love that they will absolutely thrive. So maybe that's it. Maybe we need to, as a society pull together more, help each other, and in that, perhaps we can also thrive ourselves and give our kids the best gift we can give them: showing them what a happy person looks like.