My mom just sent me an old video of my children that she took on her phone. It was taken the day of my daughter’s second birthday party, so in the video she is 2 and my son is 4. It is adorable. My daughter sings “I’m a Little Teapot” complete with all the tip-me-over-and-pour-me-out moves, my son excitedly exclaims that he’s carrying a purse full of jewels for a princess, and I….I am visible in the background, typing away at my computer, completely oblivious to my kids and their antics.
I never look up. Not once.
Watching that video of myself ignoring my children was a gut punch. It brought back all of the angst of my old job, which I loved but which was undoubtedly ruining my life. It reminded me of a time when I most definitely did not have my priorities in order. When I constantly felt like I was being pulled in seven directions at once. When I regularly woke up in the middle of the night sweating from stress dreams.
When I felt guilty all the time.
Luckily, about two years ago, I got the kick in the pants I needed to reevaluate my life. Actually, it came in a series of small kicks, one of them in the unlikely form of advice from a children’s sleep expert.
Allow me to explain. My daughter, who had been a really excellent sleeper since infancy, suddenly stopped sleeping through the night when she was about two and a half years old. She’d wake up crying inconsolably; it could take literally two to three hours to get her back to sleep. It was brutal, and it went on for months.
Out of desperation, I finally called the smart, kind, and empathetic Jen of Sleepy Planet. During our meeting she asked about a hundred questions about our family’s evening routine, including this: “What do you do when your children are playing during the last hour before bed?”
I didn’t have to think very hard about my answer. And I was so desperate for all of us to get some sleep that I ignored my first instinct, which was to lie to her, and told her the truth: “I usually answer emails on my iPhone or my laptop, or work on a contract.”
She nodded. “So you’re in the same room with them, but you’re working and not engaging with them?”
I felt shame flush through my entire body, but I admitted that this was correct.
She looked me straight in the eyes and said words I will not forget: “You need to put your iPhone away. Check your tech. Pay attention to your children for the hour before bed, so their little cups are filled up with love, and that good feeling carries over into bedtime.” Then almost as an afterthought, she added, “It will be great for you too. You’ll see.”
She said all this without judgement, as though she was simply presenting facts.
She was right.
My husband and I immediately implemented her suggestion (he was MUCH LESS of an offender than me with the tech, but not exactly a model citizen either). Every night, one hour before bed, we starting putting our phones away, and making a really big deal to the kids about how the phones were being turned off and “Family Time” was starting.
I have to admit this was really hard for me in the beginning. Turning off my phone for one measly hour was hard! Addiction comes in many forms, I suppose.
But I did it. My husband did it. And I cannot oversell what a difference this has made to all of us. The children were thrilled about the new routine, although incredulous at first (and their enthusiasm and incredulity hurt a little – it hammered home exactly how much time we were spending with our phones rather than with them). We started doing old school stuff like playing board games, playing cards (my daughter is an epic cheat at Uno), or just hanging out on the couch and talking.
My daughter’s sleep improved in dramatic fashion, but what’s been most surprising is this: my sleep improved, too. Why? Because a big chunk of that working mom guilt that I carried around with me all the time fell away. That one solid hour of quality time with my kids, of really appreciating my kids, caused the typical working mom guilt to lessen significantly. Because now I know every night, without fail, that before they went to sleep my kids felt heard, felt cared for, felt loved.
So that is the lesson I pass on to you. For at least one hour a day, don’t multitask. Literally one hour ought to get it done; no need to disconnect from work or texting or Facebook for weeks at a stretch.
Spend the hour just hanging out with your kids. I swear to you, as a fellow high-stress-job-haver and type-A-obsessive person, the office will not collapse in your brief absence.
But some of your guilt might disappear. Your soul might feel a little more full. You AND your kids might be a little more contented and happy.
And really, isn’t that the point of all of this?