As a single parent, I think about quality family time a lot. Usually, the concept slips into my head at 7:50 on a weekday morning, as I’m walking my crying three-year-old to her pre-k 3 bus. My laptop bag is slung on one shoulder, my gym bag is slung on the other, and I usually have my phone in my hand. We’re both cranky, we’re both rushed, and I feel guilty for the anything but easy start to the school morning.
That’s because, sometimes, if I plan it right, our weekday mornings can be glorious. We can squeeze in a quick coffee and croissant on the steps of our favorite coffee shop, saying hi to local dogs who walk past. We can wander to school and literally stop and smell the flowers. My goal this year is to find more of these moments, especially since a family vacation isn’t on the horizon anytime soon. But, at least in our case, what may look like a carefree parenting moment requires prepping all our things the night before, two set alarm clocks, and a commitment to not check my phone or email until after my daughter is dropped off. In short, magic moments take work.
But they can happen. Here are top tips for how to find family time in the midst of working parent chaos.
Divide and conquer
“My husband and I both have demanding jobs, and the first year of our son’s life, both of us were stressing out so we could do our son’s bedtime routine together. But we were both only half there since we were also on our phones,” says Emily, a marketing manager. “So we made a decision that I would do late nights at work on Monday and Wednesday, and he does late nights on Tuesday and Thursday. This can change based on need, but we keep it pretty solid. That way, we can schedule later meetings and not be in a rush, and then be fully present for our son. Yes, it’s just one of us on bedtime duty, but we’re fully present and enjoy it.”
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Outsource (almost) everything
A 2017 study suggested that “buying time” — ie, outsourcing household maintenance tasks, like cleaning and food prep, may make people happier than using the same money on material items. If your household has the budget, it may make sense to take one or two big tasks off your plate and then use that time to spend with your family, instead.
Know and honor what you do enjoy
Whether it’s packing lunches, making baby food, or even cleaning the bathroom, chances are there is one thing on your to-do list that you’re reluctant to outsource because it’s something you like. I get it — cleaning toilets brings no one joy. But knowing and making time for the tasks that are important to you can help you decide what to outsource. Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, felt major time constraint as a working mom when she was making baby food for her infant son — until she realized that deep down, that task was actually soothing and Zen-like to her. Once she realized that, she prioritized that task — and asks for help with others.
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Keep the phone off in the AM
For business manager Jen, a mom of three, merely keeping her phone out of sight in the morning has helped her start her day on a calm note. “If there’s a true fire at work, they can call me, but most of the time, checking email in the morning doesn’t make me feel ahead of my day, it just makes me feel stressed out.” While a family breakfast isn’t always possible, Jen says that simply being present in the kitchen has led to more spontaneous conversations between herself and her children than she feels she would have had if she were engrossed in her phone.
Make a standing date
You know how writing something in your calendar makes it real? Consider an easy weekday date you can swing with your entire family, or just your kid or partner. Friday night pizza is a no-brainer example. Hitting up a park every Tuesday, walking to school every Wednesday morning, or making pancakes on a Sunday morning can create routines you can then schedule work things around. Of course, things may come up and the “date” may not be a reality every week, but having a plan can help ensure it actually happens.
Have games ready that you want to play, too
My daughter is in a huge “play with me” phase, but after a draining day of work, I find my creativity pretty tapped out. What I’ve found that works for us is having a few activity suggestions we both like — drawing, playing simple board games, or bringing a ball outside for a “soccer” match. That way, I feel like we’re doing something beyond scavenging her toy chest. Having the materials required at the ready also make it easier to segue from work into play. The bonus, of course, is once I’ve indulged in a sweaty game of toddler soccer, I’m always in a better mood and feel in the “family time” zone.
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Enlist kids to help with chores
I know, I know, it takes forever! It’s faster to do it yourself. That’s what I thought, too, until I read the argument for having kids help with chores, by popular Australia-based parenting blogger Kate Surfs. Her point is that inviting them to help out can be a fun way to bond in itself. Now, when I’m prepping dinner, I have my three-year-old “cut” veggies with kid-safe knives. I also have her help sort the laundry and she helps pick up the playroom with me every night before bed. I like that she’s learning that part of being in a family means helping out, and also I know that these little lessons now will (hopefully!) lead to a teenager who can sometimes take over dinner duty in the future.
Reconsider what “family time” means to you
It’s easy to guard the weekends with your life, especially when you work full time. But turns out, inviting other friends with kids into your plans can lead to relaxing times for grownups and kids alike. One good friend of mine set up a standing play date for families that attend our daycare to meet at a local beer garden every Sunday afternoon this fall. The beer garden had a playground for the kids, beverages for adults, and was a low-key way to socialize and let our kids roam semi-free. Win-win!
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Buy tickets now
Once Saturday rolls around, it can be tough to summon the motivation to come up with a plan, which can lead to weekends flying by without it feeling like you really “did” anything. Fall can be a great time to look at the upcoming calendars for local children’s theaters, holiday family events, or any special activities that your family might enjoy. Once the tickets are in hand, it’s that much easier to build anticipation and schedule around the activity.
Let your kids see your work
It happens: Sometimes you’ve got to bust out the laptop after hours. Instead of hiding away in a home office, consider doing your work alongside your child doing homework. As your child shares their frustrations with you, consider sharing some of your frustrations — a presentation took longer than planned, a manager has asked you to redo your work. Not only might your child draw parallels between what they go through during the school day, they see that “work” isn’t code for “I want to be by myself,” but that it’s something that sometimes has to get done, even if you’d rather be doing something else.
Forget about balance
More and more career experts are railing against the phrase “work-life balance” and using phrases like “work-life integration.” But buzzwords can only go so far. Instead, it can be helpful to focus on the big picture, not making sure that you get x amount of work hours and y amount of home hours each day. That may be finding the natural ebbs and peaks in your work life, or it may be making weekends a strict no-work block of time. Whatever the “rule” is — and I know it’s something I, as a working parent, will always be adjusting mine — it’s finding a rhythm that works for you and your family.
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Anna Davies is an editor at Haven Life. She has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Refinery29, Glamour, Elle, and others, and has published 13 young adult novels. She lives in Jersey City, NJ, with her family and loves traveling, running, and trying to find the best cold brew coffee in town.