Laura Vanderkam

Stop Telling Yourself You’re Missing Your Kid’s Childhood

The eternal problem of working parents can be solved with a shift in mindset

Illustration: Michael Rubin

Dear Laura,

I generally work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a 30-minute commute. I know this is a fairly normal work schedule, but now that my toddler has a set sleep schedule, she’s basically down by 7 p.m. each night. You do the math: I see my kid for just 30 minutes a day! Does being a working parent mean I’ll miss her whole childhood? Should I just quit my job?

Signed,

30-Minute Mom

Dear 30-Minute Mom:

Let’s separate out these questions. If you would prefer to be a stay-at-home parent, and that works for your family financially, great. However, if you enjoy your work, and/or your family is better off with the income — which is the case for the vast majority of families — then stop telling yourself that you’re missing your kid’s childhood. There’s a better way to frame this situation.

First, I’m quite sure you spend more than 30 minutes per day with your child. Family time doesn’t only occur at 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. for that matter. If she goes to bed at 7 p.m., I’m taking a wild guess that she does not wake up precisely at 8:30 a.m. when you leave for work. If your toddler is anything like my youngest child, you’re probably awakened every morning before 6 a.m. by a little voice yelling “Mommy!” This means that, on an average weekday, you are clocking two to three hours awake and together in the morning. Yes, you need to shower at some point in there, but you can also use this time to have breakfast together, read stories together, and play together. In the months when the weather’s nice and the sun rises early, you could spend some time outside.

This might require a rethinking of morning hours, and some preparation the night before (packing lunches and planning outfits, for example). The key is to change your focus: Don’t obsess so much about leaving for work that you miss the time that is passing.

Including mornings, your actual weekday tally of potential kid time is probably closer to three hours than it is to 30 minutes. Also, do you work seven days a week? I’m betting not. If you work five days a week, you are spending two days a week in full-on parent mode for 11–12 hours a day (even counting a toddler’s nap). I have no idea why people don’t build weekend days into their mental models of life, but this is real time, and you are really experiencing your kid’s childhood within it. Don’t discount it, or the holidays and vacation days (and let’s face it, all the time parents take off work to deal with toddler illnesses and school holidays and such) that you spend together.

And finally, just because you’ve always worked from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., doesn’t mean you couldn’t rethink this schedule now. Several years ago, for my book I Know How She Does It, I collected time-diary data from 1,001 days in the lives of women with professional jobs who were also raising children. I found that about half the women I studied worked what I called a “split shift” at least once during the workweek in order to maximize time with young kids.

Here’s how it works: If you have any sort of flexibility in your job, instead of leaving work at 6 p.m., you leave earlier, like at 5 p.m. Now, instead of getting home at 6:30 p.m., you get home at 5:30 p.m. This gives you a much longer stretch of time with your child in the evening before bedtime. If it flies in your workplace, you could even move your departure time back to 4:30 p.m. or so a few days per week.

Of course, the work you would normally do from 4:30/5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. doesn’t magically disappear, but here’s how you handle it: After your kid goes to bed at 7 p.m., you log back onto your laptop or smartphone and clock the time you would have worked at the office. You’re still working the same number of hours, but by splitting your shift, you’ve traded off work time for TV time instead of work time for family time. For many parents, this is a much more palatable bargain.

Now it might sound like you’d never relax in this scenario, but that’s not true. No one in my time diary study worked a split shift seven nights a week. No one even worked it five nights. It was more of a two or three nights a week sort of habit. Also, if you stop work at 8:30 p.m. or so, this still gives you at least an hour to watch Netflix before getting enough sleep to calmly greet a toddler who wants to do great things before breakfast.

I understand not everyone can work flexibly, which is why I think it’s important not to discount mornings and weekends.

There are variations on this theme. Depending on your office culture, you might be better off working really late one night (like until 10 p.m.). That night you don’t put your daughter to bed, and you work long past her bedtime. But then you trade off the time and leave an hour earlier on the other four nights. You’re working the same number of hours, but by forgoing one night’s half-hour with your kid, you buy yourself four hours with her over the rest of the week.

I understand not everyone can work flexibly, which is why I think it’s important not to discount mornings and weekends. But if you do have some control over your schedule, it’s quite possible to maximize family time while still working full time. In this sense, you really can “have it all.”

And, if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you in on a little secret: There’s evidence that this is exactly what some working fathers do. One study found that some men working at a global consulting firm took advantage of the inherent flexibility of the job. (Is he flying somewhere? Is he with a client? At the office? Who knows!) They’d work how they wanted to work, go have dinner with their families, and let people assume that emails sent at 9 p.m. were evidence of having worked straight through.

This seems pretty ingenious. And there’s absolutely no reason you can’t do the same.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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