I’ve heard plenty of experts say that it’s the quality of time with our kids – not the quantity – that truly matters. Although I can see what they’re getting at – that it’s focused attention our kids really desire from us, not simply our distracted presence like when we’re checking email and saying, “Uh-huh” even though we’re not really listening to anything our child is saying and are instead immersed in the (probably unimportant) lifeless words on our computer screen (not that I’ve ever been guilty of that).
Still, I see a lot of virtue in having quantity time with kids.
Allow me to explain.
I’m a planner. I keep a detailed daybook. Drifts of canary-yellow post-its with to-do lists are sprinkled throughout my home. I meal plan and include an inventory of meals for the week ahead on my refrigerator. I like to look ahead. It gives me purpose.
However, I’ve learned there are some things that you just can’t anticipate or pencil in on your calendar. You can’t plan when your child’s going to first ask you about God or how to pray. You can’t plan when your child decides to give you a spontaneous hug or asks you about the day she was born. You can’t anticipate the moment when your baby’s fluttering, gas smiles will transform into an all-out, intentional grin.
All the planning in the world won’t guarantee you’ll be present for moments like these.
Sometimes they just happen. Then – poof! – they’re gone. Our children are living timepieces, reminding us that our lives stride forward with or without us. We can either be present for the ticking of these precious, living timepieces or not, but either way they’ll keep on growing up.
Every once in a while I’ll click through our thousands of digital archived photos, and it never fails: My favorite photos of myself and the girls are the ones that capture moments we could have never planned – like the time my husband took a series of shots of Madeline and me “washing” dishes together when she was a toddler, or when I took a snapshot of Rae feeding her papa, or when I was “caught” snoozing with one of our babies (all pictured here). These candid, impromptu moments are the most shutter-worthy, and we never look happier than when we’re living, not posing.
Most photographers will tell you that in order to catch a really good candid shot, you have to take a lot of pictures. Click. Click. Click. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that if we’re around more – if we have loads of quantity time – we’ll be more likely to witness these sacred moments? I’m no statistician, but I do have a grasp on the basic laws of probability, and the more time I spend with my kids, the more probable it is that I’ll have more quality moments with them.
Of course, not every parent can be at home with her kids. I recognize that even though both my husband and I have made some sacrifices for me to be an at-home mom, we’re very lucky that I don’t have to work outside of the home (and have a way of supplementing our income from home). And even though I am at home, sometimes my husband and I do have to plan ahead to make time together as a family a priority. That’s just a part of the busyness of life. There’s nothing wrong with planning a “date” with a child, but I have to be continually mindful to not overlook the “quality” time that makes itself available in the minutiae of daily life.
It’s easy for someone like me who’s prone to tackling to-do lists with evangelical fervor to put myself in drive and to just go, go, go. The good news is my kids are helping me learn to slow down and to take pause. When I do, I might find myself laughing at a funny thing my preschooler says out of the blue or watching my toddler climb onto the potty for the first time. When I have this new baby, I’ll savor watching her meet small and big milestones – her involuntary sucking after she’s fallen asleep on my breast, her first steps, the first time she reaches her hand toward me and then unexpectedly grabs a fistful of my hair.
Some of these quality moments will be anticipated; I’ll be waiting or even looking for them to happen. But there are also instances that catch me by surprise, flashes in my mothering journey when I’ve completely abandoned my own agenda and am fully present in my child’s life and see just how precious she is. I’m not sure my kids notice the significance of these moments at all, but I do. They always happen when I least expect it. I’ll be stirring a pot of soup or wishing my kids would just go to sleep so I could finally have some peace and quiet and suddenly, something strikes me about them and I’m all choked up and realize what a gift it is to be able to be present day after day in my kids’ lives.
One of my recent, unexpected “quality” moments involved some coupons, a pair of scissors, and my preschooler’s hands.
I’m watching Madeline’s little hands at work as she clips coupons – a task she’s recently started wanting to do for me. Her hands are still physically small, but there’s a sureness about the way they grasp the scissors that I swear wasn’t there even a few weeks ago. She’s humming a song. I don’t recognize the melody. It’s probably something she’s made up. I notice how her little hands carefully cut each coupon; there are no jagged edges like there used to be – only straight lines, perfectly-snipped rectangles and squares. She maneuvers around the dotted lines with ease.
The scene startles me – her remarkable independence wrapped in her smallness. I find myself experiencing synchronous emotions. First, a sense of pride for the little girl emerging from the baby who’s disappearing. Then, not so much a sadness as an aching nostalgia that she’s coming into her own, needing (and oftentimes wanting) me less.
She looks up and catches me staring at her. “Mommy, look at all these coupons I’ve cut for you. Isn’t it good?”
And it is. Very. It’s good that I was able to witness something as simple as watching my child cut with a pair of kiddie scissors. It’s good that I appreciate her littleness but recognize her growing up, too. It’s good that I’ve been around enough so that I can make out the smallest changes – even the ones found in the way she’s able to hold art supplies. It’s good that I have the quantity of minutes, hours, and days to capture the quality in the simplest moments.
“I love you, Madeline,” I find myself saying.
“I love you, too, Mommy.”
And it’s very good that I’m there to hear those words all throughout my day.