“Mama, do you love your job more than me?”
When that question — or any of the variations like, “How come you work instead of being with me?” or “Why don’t you pick me up like the other mamas?” — comes out of your child’s mouth, it’s a punch to the gut. But, then you think, “I’m being an awesome role model, right? I’m showing my daughter women can be empowered!”
It turns out, none of that matters in the moment you hear those words. Even if you know it does matter in the long run. When it happened to me, all I could think to say to my darling 5-year-old was, “I do love my job, and I love you more.”
But as all parents know, our actions are far more meaningful than what we say. So how do we prove to our kids that they’re front and center in our demanding lives?
Here are 5 hacks that have helped me:
Wherever you are, be all there.
My dad signs off on all of his emails with this phrase. And the truth is, before I had kids — and possibly before my first Blackberry (you know, the predecessor to the iPhone) — I’m not sure I understood what he meant. But soon enough, the day came when it felt like everything in my personal and professional life was competing for my attention. I had to work hard to learn to take one thing at a time.
I started by setting up a separate personal email for all of my “mom” threads. This way birthday parties, play dates, summer camp lists — and everything else that comes with the territory — doesn’t distract me at work. I check my mom email at home and keep my head in the game at work.
I also try my best to not get lost in my phone if I have to check something. I focus on getting in, out, and back to the moment.
Set expectations. On all sides.
I learned a lot working for an amazing man named Dave Goldberg. He was my boss when I had both my kids, and I was fortunate that he was already a father with well-established boundaries. He led by example, leaving the office every day to be home by 6pm to have dinner with his family. There was a clear line drawn that he would be unavailable from 6pm-8pm. Period. I, too, learned that it wasn’t just ok — it was important — to put my phone aside and be fully present with my family in the evenings.
It’s also important to me that I continue to learn, mentor women in tech, go to evening events at my kids’ school, and continue to build my network. So — even though it’s my favorite time with my kids — I need to be able to miss bedtime occasionally. I set a personal limit of once a week and have explained that to my kids. On those mornings, I remind them they won’t see me that evening and I give them an extra hug. Not only does this set expectations for the kids (because, let’s face it, it’s no fair for your partner at home to deal with a disappointed kid), it also means I ruthlessly prioritize which events I attend.
Know — and prioritize — your must-do moments.
Chances are, you’re like me and depend on a village to help you raise your children. Our family is extremely fortunate to have a nanny who’s been a part of our family for seven years, and treats the kids as her own. Because I know my kids are well loved and taken care of, I was able to let go of the things I don’t find as bonding or rewarding, to ensure I do have time for my “musts.”
I say no to:
The stressful rush of getting the kids dressed and off to school in the morning. I kiss them goodbye while they’re still in their sweet pjs and head to work for the day.
So I can say yes to:
Being home with them in the evenings. Personally, I love that time with them, and because I’m relaxed and engaged, they love that time with me.
I say no to:
Preschool shows in the middle of the workday. The video of my son picking his nose while singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is good enough for me.
So I can say yes to:
Elementary school events. At a certain age, the kids notice if I’m there and I get real insight into what they’re learning.
I say no to:
Weekday dinner time. Healthy meal and bath battles. I found my frustration with constantly explaining why it’s important to eat vegetables or arguing over food flying was not making for quality time together. So our amazing caregiver deals with dinner time on the weekdays.
So I can say yes to:
PLAY! When I come home to well fed, clean kiddos, we have time for fun. You’ll find us playing tag, bringing out the board games, holding spontaneous dance parties, or engaging in imaginary play. Then we settle down with books and fall asleep cuddling. This is my heaven.
Don’t be afraid to ask for change.
Sure, there’s a “way things are done.” But as a working parent, sometimes you’re better in all of your roles if you shift the game to work for you.
If driving an hour to a 15-minute parent-teacher conference seems impossible, ask if the teacher is open to meeting via Skype.
Explore transferring paper sign-ups you tend to miss to Google forms so your kid doesn’t miss out. (Bonus points if you offer to do it for the teacher!)
Limit the never-ending distractions of pings by encouraging your team or manager to send urgent requests via text instead of Slack or email.
Create family rituals.
Early on, Dave also told me that every evening, he and his kids discussed the best and worst of their days. I loved the idea, and we put our own spin on it for our family. Each evening the kids have to answer one specific question. We ask things like, “Who did you particularly enjoy spending time with today?” or “What song did you learn in music?” or “What was one thing you learned today you didn’t know before school?” It allows us to be creative, and it gives the kids a starting point for talking about their day.
Though we don’t get to eat together every night, Sunday is reserved for our special family dinners. My husband is an awesome chef and he makes delicious meals like mussels, fish, or grilled steaks. The kids love it, and are eager to help out.
Come the kids’ birthdays, I plan a special one-on-one date with the honoree. We go out to one of their favorite places and I indulge them. It turns out these days have been some of the best memories of my life.
Last weekend my 7-year-old (or as she would say almost-8-year-old) and I were doing a Gixo class together. We happened to finish our class at the grocery store and I still had the app open. While we were checking out, the cashier saw my phone on the counter and asked what app it was. I explained, “It’s live, coached fitness classes, and you can take them from anywhere. Actually my daughter and I just finished one.”
Seren piped in, “My mama did more than take the class. My mama helped make Gixo and it’s awesome!” She was so proud, it nearly brought me to tears. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “I do love my job, and I love you more.”