The race home for bath and bedtime is one working parents know too well. I ran it for years, and still do because I refuse to be a weekend dad.
For a long time, I’d get home on time but it wasn’t worth it. I was frustrated because my kids were moving too slowly. I turned into a nag and often got angry. Half of my mind was still at work. Getting the kids to bed brought feelings of guilt and regret. After years of trial and error, that short time is now good time.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Weekday time is more important than you realize.
The average full-timer works about 225 days a year. If you’re a weekend dad, or mum, that only leaves 140 days to build a relationship with them a year if you see them every single day you’re not at work. You’re only there for 38% of their young lives. Little more than a third.
I knew that in my gut, but confronting the hard reality of the stats really made me stop and think. If I’m only there for such a short time, how do I make the most of it, and how do I get more.
2. That feeling of regret creeps in.
Bursting through the door on time is not the end of the race. It’s the start of a different event that runs on a completely different tempo. Before I recognized this, I would rush home, try and connect with my children, but couldn’t. I found myself nagging and frustrated. My mind just wouldn’t stop whirring with the next thing we needed to do, and I was always partly distracted by a thought about something at work.
At the time, I was familiar with a particular type of regret. When the children were in bed and the house was quiet, I realized I was a crap parent—too naggy, too impatient, and often angry. Despite not wanting to be a weekend dad, I was beginning to think it would be better if I wasn’t there.
3. Have the right mindset for the right place.
Work is fast, focused on getting things done. Home is slower, focused on creating connections and the conditions for learning and fun. It’s a different tempo. You fail when you bring the work mindset home. I learned to see the journey home as a time to transition between the two, instead of a race to get home.
This realization made the biggest difference. Making the transition is easy once you know how, but it took me years of messing up to work out. It’s all about intentionally turning off work and turning on parenting.
There’s a little trick to turning off work. Once you’ve done tomorrow’s to-do list, take it with you and let your mind wander on the way home. Something always pops up, because your brain knows what the loose ends are, you need to slow down enough for it to tell you. Giving your brain the space to bring it up before you get home, makes sure you don’t get distracted when you’re at home.
Turning on parenting requires conscious effort, too. It’s as easy as asking a question. What kind of parent am I going to be? I found asking it on the short path up to the front door worked best. I let my mind fill with images of me having fun with them, of staying calm in the face of tantrums, of being playful in the face of a stubborn 6-year-old refusing to eat dinner.
This question has been so helpful to me that I’ve got it printed on a postcard by my bed so I ask it every morning.
4. Make a real connection.
Connect physically by hugging, holding hands, getting down to their level, looking them in the eyes. Your actions show them you’re really there and force you to actually be.
Connect mentally by giving them your undivided attention to make them feel positive emotions as a result. You might ask them about their day and tell them about yours. You might share something you’ve seen, heard, or thought of, or something that will make them laugh. Sometimes this is hard, so give yourself a time limit, 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus, then you can go and sort dinner out.
5. If it’s still not working, you might need to change more.
In one job, I realized none of this was working. The job was too demanding, and flexible working, despite negotiation, wasn’t an option on the table. I saw my stress was coming out in my children’s behavior, which was the final straw.
I realized what my priorities were.
I don’t want to be a weekend dad. Ever.
This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.