Last week, we talked about making sure that those things that are important to you get done, and there is a clear advantage to learning to prioritize tasks and taking control of your time. But what happens when the time you want to contribute to something exceeds the number of hours you could possibly give it? This is often the case with time spent with children. According to research, approximately half of America’s parents do not think that they spend enough time with their children (Mikie et al., 2004). Interestingly, this percentage has risen despite the fact that it was found that today’s parents spend objectively more time with their children than the parents of previous generations (Bianchi, 2000). Furthermore, parents continue to feel that they do not spend enough time with their children, regardless of how much time they actually spend with them (Mikie et al., 2004). Thus, this appears to do more with what parents think and expect of themselves than with the actual things they are able to do with and for their children.
Since there is a difference in the experience that mothers and fathers have in this area, the discussion below will focus on mothers, and we will talk about fathers next week. This is necessary because although fathers may objectively spend less time with their children than mothers, mothers sometimes feel more “time strain” due to the expectation that they should always be available for their children and put their children ahead of all other obligations. This expectation originates in modern culture but is also believed by many mothers. Therefore, again, the problem at hand is not actual time spent but beliefs about time and obligations.
However, before we can discuss how to change beliefs, let’s talk about some of the numbers that research has found. Mikie and colleagues found that mothers spend 50 hours per week with their children. Of that time, 16 hours were spent engaging in “focused activities,” which means that the mother was doing something with the child rather than doing the dishes while the child played nearby. It was also found that the younger the child, the more time the mother spent directly interacting with the child. Another interesting find was that the more hours a parent worked, the more likely they were to feel that they do not spend enough time with their children, again regardless of how much time was actually spent with them. Meaning that if each of the two mothers spent 15 hours per week with her respective child, the mother who worked more hours was more likely to feel “time stain.” The feeling of “time stain” is also exacerbated by the fact that if parents have other obligations, they may not be able to tend to their child if something unexpected comes up or may miss activities that the child wishes the parent attended.
So, what do these findings mean for us? Since only 5% of surveyed parents felt that they spend “too much time” with their children, mothers need to accept that no matter what they do, they will be left with the feeling that it is not enough. Thus, when a mother has the thought “I again didn’t spend enough time with my child this week,” she can try to combat that thought with “There is no such thing as ‘enough.’ I was able to take play with my son for two hours yesterday and that was a great experience for both of us.” So, instead of focusing on the abstract concept of “enough,” focus on the specific activities you were able to do. Moreover, once you identify specific activities that you would like to do more of going forward, they can be prioritized in the parents’ schedule using the techniques suggested last week.
Moreover, constantly focusing on the things you are not doing with your child, takes away from being able to derive pleasure from the things that you ARE doing. For example, instead of saying to yourself “I read a story to my daughter today, “ you are likely saying “Why can’t I find the time to read to my daughter every day.” The first thought is likely to lead to a feeling of happiness and the second is likely to lead to guilt. Thus, whether or not you read to your daughter the following night is unlikely to impact the feeling unless the underlying thought is changed. Furthermore, if we think about the numbers discussed above, mothers spend 16 hours per week in child-focused activities, for perspective, that is the equivalent of one full day from morning to night. Most mothers do not give themselves sufficient credit for the time they are able to carve out in their over packed schedules instead they continue to live with guilt.
Finally, because mothers have such a great fear of not spending “enough time,” they often have great expectations for the time that they are able to spend with their child. For example, a mother who works full time may take the day off to spend a special day with her child. However, on the morning of the “special day,” the child is in a bad mood or wants to spend some time by himself. This may leave the mother feeling more upset than she would have if this were a “typical day.” The mother is likely to be thinking of all of the things she had to cancel and ignore to make this day possible, and the child is “wasting it,” and as a result, she will again feel like she did not spend enough time with the child. This results in the mother feeling angry and potentially taking this anger out on the child. Thus, a day that may have been salvaged by readjusting plans to something that works for everyone, is ruined in the mother’s mind because it does not match her expectation of the day and brings her no closer to “enough spent time.” On the other hand, if the mother felt less pressure to make every single minute with her child “count,” she may be able to approach such a day with less angst. This is a parallel experience to why people are often disappointed in the holiday season: the expectation of perfect family time does not match what actual time with the family looks like. Therefore, accepting that you are doing your best and enjoying those things that you are able to do without added the pressure will likely lead to healthier and happier mothers , which in term leads to healthier and happier children.