Vindication for Guilt-Ridden Working Mothers Everywhere

How much time we spend with our children doesn't matter, research shows. Working moms can stop worrying and focus on what matters: Quality time.

Worrying about whether we spend enough time with our children plagues just about every working mom I know.

We literally calculate the hours and minutes. I know I have. Between waking up and leaving for childcare/school—let’s see, that’s about 60 minutes on a good day. From picking them up from childcare/school to putting them to bed at night—hmmm, about 2.5 hours if I get home on time. Don’t forget weekends, glorious weekends. And vacations! Can’t leave those out.

Are all those piecemeal moments going to add up to happy, healthy children?

Turns out, the number of hours doesn’t matter.

This according to the first large-scale longitudinal study of parent time, as reported in the Washington Post by Brigid Schulte (a working mom herself, and author of the book Overwhelmed).

In fact, it appears the sheer amount of time parents spend with their kids between the ages of 3 and 11 has virtually no relationship to how children turn out, and a minimal effect on adolescents.

You can read the entire article for all the juicy reasons and proof that “face time” doesn’t determine the destiny of our children. You might be wondering what does matter, then? It’s not time. It’s quality time.

Plenty of studies have shown links between quality parent time — such as reading to a child, sharing meals, talking with them or otherwise engaging with them one-on-one — and positive outcomes for kids. The same is true for parents’ warmth and sensitivity toward their children. It’s just that the quantity of time doesn’t appear to matter.

I also found this part of Brigid’s piece incredibly insightful: “When parents, mothers in particular, are stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious,” that time can actually be detrimental to our kids. Rings true for me. My kids are like little sponges, not just with knowledge but emotions, too. They pick up on the moments when I’m exhausted, stressed out or feeling bad. And they genuinely feel bad if they feel responsible in some way for those negative emotions.

How about instead of fretting over the combination of mornings, evenings, and weekends, we think more intentionally about how we spend those moments with our kids?

I, for one, have been making more of an effort to put down the iPhone and be 100% present with my kids at home. I try to keep the phone “parked” by the door to our garage, and only check it when waiting for, say, my food in the microwave or before I head upstairs for bedtime. I’m not perfect at this, but I’m better than I used to be.

We make our son James turn off the dang TV (he is totally obsessed with “watching shows”) so we can all be engaged in a family conversation around the dinner table. So what if it only lasts 15 minutes at best?

When my kids give me a hug (they’re 5 and 8, so hugging is still totally acceptable), I milk it for all that hug is worth. Sometimes I even ask for a do-over (“C’mon, buddy, I know you can do better than that! I want a real hug.”) I inhale their sweetness, squeeze them snugly and tell them I love them.

Even in hard moments, like when my son finally felt the loss of our dog (who had died weeks before), I look my kids in the eye and feel what they’re feeling (at that moment with my son, it was grief), let myself be vulnerable with my own heart, and simply allow us to be. Together.

That is what really matters, folks. And now? I have the large-scale longitudinal study to prove it.

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15 thoughts on “Vindication for Guilt-Ridden Working Mothers Everywhere

  1. YES! I read this and thought AHA! I KNEW IT! I know that I spend quality time with my kid and I’m a happier person because I work.

  2. another tidbit from the Brigid Schulte article that reported on this study: working moms,, on average, spend as much time today as stay at hom moms did in the seventies!

  3. “My kids are like little sponges, not just with knowledge but emotions, too. They pick up on the moments when I’m exhausted, stressed out or feeling bad. And they genuinely feel bad if they feel responsible in some way for those negative emotions.” ~ So true. Great article. Our kids need us to be happy. Our unhappiness and stress affects them deeply.

  4. I read the article you are referring to yesterday and was SO happy. I try to make every minute worth it when I am at home. I too struggle with the perma-attached iPhone to my hand and am slowing getting better at this. I have a rule at home- no TV during weekdays. This was very hard at first, but now we are all used to it. It ensures that the precious few minutes we have between getting ready, making dinner, and bedtime are filled with homework and fun activities instead of TV. Thanks for the post!

  5. I have definitely experienced that my guilt or anxiety can be detrimental to my time spent with my kids. And that’s when I try to refocus the most, finding new ways to get in the quality time since I know I have limited time. I love your example of just hugging your kids longer as a way of spending quality time. It really can be that simple!

  6. Quality over quantity wins again! I often fret that I’m not spending enough time with my boys, but when I stop and think about it, the time I do spend with them is focused and attentive. Phew!

  7. Totally rings true for me too, Susan. I’ve been happy and so have my kids, and I thought it was because of my flexible schedule, but I think the quality of the time spent is also important. I don’t stress or worry if they’re getting enough of me, I just try to enjoy them when I can (now if only I can tuck that smart phone in the other room like I keep swearing I would!).

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  13. It’s comforting and heartwarming to see your efforts, like putting your phone aside and participating in family conversations. Moments like holding your children close and sharing their feelings, even during difficult times, demonstrate your dedication to being there for them emotionally. It was a reminder to me that small, intentional actions can make a big difference in strengthening family bonds amid life’s challenges.

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