Finding Quality Time With Your Kids as a Working Mom

quality time with kidsHow do you deal when your work AND your child both need more attention than usual, at the same time? I saw commenters talking about this problem yesterday, and it’s been on my mind lately too, so let’s discuss the challenge of finding quality time with your kids when you’re a working mom.

My older son is only three, but we’ve already had a few times in his short life where it’s clear he needed more quality time with us — particularly me, it seemed — in a big way. I’m at the point now where it seems like if he’s continuously acting out, and if I can’t blame the three S’s (sugar, sleep, and screen time), then odds are good that it’s time to try more quality time. Sometimes this isn’t a problem — but now it’s the holidays, and there are a million things going on both professionally and personally, so spending the entire weekend building with Legos isn’t exactly what I want to (or can) do.

I often find myself thinking of Anne Marie Slaughter’s 2012 piece in The Atlantic about Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. My own life is nowhere near as crazy as Slaughter’s, of course, but she quit her “dream job” at the State Department when her 14-year-old son, who was acting out, needed more of her attention. (She also has another son, who was 12 at the time.) So I think it speaks to a bigger problem that all working moms suffer from — across all stages of childrearing. (Slaughter speaks about her decision in this short video.)

So how do you do it? How do you manage to give both your kid — and your work — the attention they each need? I’m no expert, but I have a few working theories:

  • Focus on the “quality” in quality time. If you have 45 minutes to spend with your child from the time you get home to the time he has to go to bed, really focus on HIM. Put the smartphone down, make something simple and easy for dinner (or order pizza), and give him 100% of your attention. Sometimes just 45 minutes of really focused attention can be better than 2-3 hours of only part of your attention.
  • Create and maintain special rituals for the two of you. If you always put him down to bed, or you always give him his bath, try to maintain that ritual, even if it’s hard to do with work. If after work isn’t great, try creating rituals in the morning instead — for example, you always make breakfast together.
  • Know what can — and cannot — be outsourced. Dinner: yes. Quality time: no. Sure, sometimes your partner can step in for you — but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and give your child that mommy time.

Readers, how do you deal when your child and your work both need your attention? (Do you say anything at work about it, to manage things on that level?) Do you sacrifice personal time (for example, the only 45 minutes you have to work out each day, or that extra 45 minutes of sleep you really need) for quality time with your child? Share your best strategies!

(Pictured: A fairly common image, originally uploaded to Flickr by Yoz Grahame.)


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  1. This topic makes me sad, yet it’s the reality of being a working mom. When work is busy and must be done, there is nothing that can be “sacrificed” in order to spend quality time with the kids. It’s not like I have personal time when work is on a deadline (or ever, actually), and I go to sleep later than the kids and wake up no later than they wake up in the morning. So quality time is just not going to happen. It’s awful, but I can’t sacrifice my work performance and job security for my family. Fortunately, it’s not always like this, only during busy periods.

  2. EB0220 says:

    I think your points are spot-on. I also used to do a “date night” with my older daughter once a week. It was a chore-free weekday evening where I would let her pick something fun to do (usually go to the playground or visit the horses at a local farm). I must admit that this little ritual has fallen off the map since baby #2 arrived, but I’d like to pick it back up in some form. I also like taking a random day off once or twice a year to spend with my kiddo. It’s fun to pretend to be a SAHM for a day and do an activity that we usually have to miss because it’s at 9 am on a Tuesday. My husband and I also try to involve our kids in our exercise. They come to every race and we will often set up shop at a local park/playground and take turns watching the kids while the other bikes or runs. Everyone has fun and gets a workout in. Finally, with both of my kids, I have really enjoyed wearing them in baby carriers as a way to stay in tune with them. It’s a really nice way to stay close to them while also getting things done.

  3. As a mom of one, can I ask if anyone has considered these issues is deciding on their family size? I go back and forth all the time about whether I would want to have a second. It seems like it would be a lot easier to have quality time with just one kid, but I also think time siblings spend together is valuable. Thoughts?

    • mascot says:

      We did. There were other factors that went into the decision, but “available resources” was a large part of our decision to be one and done. DH and I both have careers that we really enjoy and want to remain engaged in. We want to be able to go to his activities and not be worried that we are shortchanging him or a sibling when there are scheduling conflicts. Financially, it’s a lot easier. He won’t have siblings, but he has plenty of people in his life that love him and shape him. Merely having siblings doesn’t mean that you will be close with them or have better interpersonal skills because you have them.

    • CPA Lady says:

      This is probably going to make me sound like a terrible (selfish?) person, but I’m at least a terrible person who knows her own limits.

      We’re almost definitely going to be “one and done” as well, and there are two big parts that go into that. One is that my husband and I both work, and I work A LOT. While I may not always work the hours I do now, I can’t comprehend being one of those families with two working parents and a bunch of kids in a bunch of activities always on the go. That sounds like a terrible way to live (FOR ME. Other people may like the go, go, go thing.) The second is that while my sister is my best friend now, we spent the first 10 or so years of her life bickering constantly. The idea of coming home from a long and stressful day of work to bickering children would make me want to drive off a bridge.

      So, for me, having one child is not only better for me, it is better for her, because I am in a much better place to be a more engaged, happy, and healthy mother who has more “quality” to give during quality time. When things are difficult, I have a little motto “you only have to do this once, but you only get to do this once.” I know she’s still really young, but it helps me to be more in the moment with her.

      • I don’t think this makes you sound selfish at all! I commend you for knowing your own limits. I feel the same way – like I’m already stretched thin enough with one child and can’t imagine having two. FWIW, I’m an only child and I never felt “lonely” growing up – I always had lots of cousins and playmates around.

    • It’s a total trade off, and no question there is more quality time with one kid if you only have one. And more resources, easier to travel, easier to facilitate one kind being in different activities, easier to focus on your career, etc. However, with one, there isn’t even the possibility of the kid having a lifelong relationship with a sibling. Having been an only child myself, I feel that growing up with a sibling makes for a fundamentally different childhood and shapes your personality in a way different from having cousins, other playmates or a bunch of adults in your life. Some people enjoyed being an only child (I didn’t). It’s obviously a personal/family decision. Taking care of/parenting one kid was 10x easier than 2, but to us the tradeoff was (and hopefully in the long run will be) worth it.

    • I didn’t think about it until it was too late – when I had three kids and my oldest son had all these friends with no siblings or only one sibling, it’s really obvious. We don’t take him to the amusement park for big kids because his siblings won’t enjoy it. We can’t sit and teach him how to make rainbow loom bracelets or do perler beads all weekends. On the other hand, he has live-in playmates whom he adores, and honestly, when they aren’t around he gets really bored. I wouldn’t give up our largish family for anything, but I am conscious of the fact that parenting would be very different with only one (or even just two).

      For me it’s been hard doing one-on-one time. I’ve built in little pockets – my youngest gets cuddle time in the morning before we’re ready to get out of bed. My middle son gets stories at dropoff, just with me. My oldest gets daily play time with my husband where they build legos or play board games while the youngest is going to bed and the middle one is enjoying his video time. It’s not much, but it’s something.

    • Spirograph says:

      I never seriously considered having an only child until I was already pregnant with the 2nd one, so that ship has sailed. Even though new baby is almost here (and definitely wanted), I have had a lot of “why are we doing this?” thoughts and daydreamed about how nice it would be if my son were just an only child. The experience of being a working mom in a family where both parents have “serious” careers, has made me understand why some people choose to stop at one in a way that – as someone who grew up with siblings, loved it, and thought everyone who’s an only child is lonely and has selfish terrible parents – I didn’t before.

      As for quality time, mornings are it for me. Especially right now, I often do not want to do anything but lie down by the time I come home from work, so focusing on my son first thing in the morning when I still have energy is really key. And we always have morning cuddle time the last 10-20 minutes or so before I need to get up. This sounds crazy, but I think he has some minimum amount of physical contact he needs from me (and/or my husband, but he does bath and bedtime) every day, or he gets really whiny and upset. If he starts crying for no apparent reason, my first question is, “do you just need a hug?” and that almost always solves it. On weekends it can be spread out throughout the day, but on weekdays it needs to be front-loaded or he’ll be a nightmare in the evening.

    • Anonymous says:

      I never considered it until after I had the one (she’s 10 months old) and I realized how difficult it really is. I am of an “advanced maternal age” and I can’t imagine doing this again (I may change my mind when she gets a little more independent, but for now, I am strongly considering being “one-and-done). I grew up with, and have a fantastic relationship with siblings, so it makes me a little sad, but I also think we can give her a wonderful life (trips to Paris! special time with each of us!) and she had lots and lots of cousins (which isn’t the same, but its not nothing). Between my career taking a huge hit with pregnancy and maternity leave and daycare duties and doctors appointments, the sheer exhaustion of it all (not to mention the expense), and the love and bond I feel with my daughter, I’m thinking that we could have a pretty good life “just us three.”

  4. One of the biggest challenges in getting quality time is turning off my multi tasking instincts! It is hard to transition to home life and not be thinking about work, wanting to check email, etc. Or not want to also be cleaning the house, starting a load of laundry, etc. I need to tell myself to set everything aside and just listen/look/play with my kid. We also have a standing Saturday morning date. Dada gets to sleep in and we go to breakfast and do something fun. Even if we are running errands after breakfast, I bill it as an adventure and set down my phone, so we get some one-on-one time together. We’ve also started going on “dates” for dinner (son is almost 3) and I’ve been amazed at how much he loves it. I think after we have another kid, it will be harder. But carving out a small pocket of time for each of them will be high on my priority list.

    • mascot says:

      I keep reminding myself to “be present when present.” Put down the phone, stop cleaning, whatever, and spend that time just interacting with the kiddo. We do a better job of this when we get out of the house. The next week will be a quiet one at work because of the holidays and we’ve got time off. I’ve promised myself that we are going to have one of those lazy fun days of cookie decorating and hanging out. We don’t have anywhere to be so I’d like to take advantage to that.

  5. Lorelai Gilmore says:

    I am a big believer in play and physical contact when my kids need quality time – lots of hugs, roughhousing, chase games, and more hugs. The suggestions in this article feel a little goofy, but I found – especially when I had my second baby – that they really work. My oldest had some transition difficulties when the baby was born, and I drew on these tips to help reconnect with her.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Any tips on quality time when you are effectively a single parent and work is out of control? Spouse is out of town for 3 months for work; I am billing 65 hours a week and still falling behind; I am basically not sleeping; I’ve outsourced cooking and cleaning. But every night, when I tell my kid it’s time for bed, he complains that we barely played and I feel like a total failure as a parent.

    • Lorelai Gilmore says:

      *Bring in reinforcements. Is there a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or someone who can move in with you guys for a few weeks to get through this crisis?

      *Change things at work. Is there any way you can move some stuff off your plate?

      *Spend ten minutes every night before bed doing one of the play-games that I linked to above. It’s an opportunity for big hugs.

      *Be kind to yourself. This is really hard and there’s just no good way around it.

    • mascot says:

      Hang in there. Just do the best you can and know that it will get better at some point. Our kid gives us the same push back and we are both home most nights. Mostly its just a stall tactic.
      I grew up with a dad that traveled extensively. His solution was to take us to breakfast and then school once every couple of weeks. It still stands out as my special time with dad. Could you do something like that?

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for the suggestions. Unfortunately, the only family that could help just told me that instead of coming for the next two weeks as had been planned for the past 3 months, they decided they “don’t feel like traveling over the holidays.” I could cry. And now I need to arrange 2 weeks of childcare during school break.

      I’m planning to take the kiddo to his favorite museum this weekend. Will probably have to work all night as a result, but at least I won’t feel guilty for a little bit.

      • Wow, I’d be pretty irritated at that last minute bail. Good luck.

        • Lorelai Gilmore says:

          Oh honey, that’s the worst. I’m so sorry. Where is your husband in all of this? Any chance he’ll be back for some holiday respite? Does the family who just bailed on you know how desperate you are?

      • I have been in your shoes and have nothing but sympathy. My husband is often overseas, I work crazy hours on things only I can get done, and I’ve stayed up all night working more times than I can count. It sucks.

        If we were in the same city (guessing not…any chance you’re in Asia?) I’d tell you to bring your kids over to our place and you go do whatever you need to do. Work, sleep, stare at the wall…

        Whatever cash you can throw at this, spend it! Hire as much help as you can over the holidays. Outsource whatever you can at work. Your mental health is worth it.

        Kids are resilient. And they really live in the moment, for good or bad. Yeah, your kid now feels like you don’t have time for him, but once work settles, your husband comes home and you do have time to play with him, he’s going to feel so happy. Take small moments now for hugs, five minute games, whatever you can do, and let him know happy times are coming.

        Breathe, outsource, hug your kid, and solider on.

  7. quailison says:

    From the kid of an ’80s working corporate lawyer mom (and soon-to-be working mom myself) I’ll chime in with long-term ideas from what my mom did that I still remember: 1) subscription series for kids at the city orchestra that we would attend together, usually on a Sunday afternoon 2) seeing where she worked and playing with the dictaphone (ha!) 3) read us stories every other night (dad would make up stories on the other nights – which was fun because we looked forward to both) including longer books like Wind in the Willows that we’d read a part of each night 4) made a big deal out of holiday traditions (when she’d definitely be off-off of work), including going to see a children’s play 5) used her frequent flier miles for kid-friendly trips with no work (easier before smartphones I’m sure).

    We had a full-time, live-in nanny so she outsourced a lot of the day-to-day but these are the things I remember. And I honestly don’t remember being upset that she wasn’t doing what my friends’ moms were – especially because I had been to her work and at least when I was older, kind of understood that it was a cool job where she was important.

  8. kc esq says:

    Does anyone Facetime kids from work if you know it’ll be a late night? My son is only 17 months old and I haven’t done it yet because I’m afraid he doesn’t understand it and it will be more difficult for him when I have to hang up than if I’d never called at all. Am I overthinking?

    • Lorelai Gilmore says:

      For young children (including a 17-month-old) I absolutely think it makes it harder. They are too young to understand the face on the screen and it takes them out of the evening rhythm. With my 4.5 year old, I think it’s worth doing once in a while.

    • Sarabeth says:

      I’ve tried this while traveling for work, and it was a total fail. Just made my daughter upset, because it reminded her that I wasn’t actually there. Maybe when she’s older…but at 15 months, definitely a bad idea.

    • Shayla says:

      I do this ALL the time. I love it. My daughter gets it, and always has. Maybe it’s because we FaceTime with her entire family frequently, so it’s not a foreign concept? It’s been so special to be able to see her drink out of her soup bowl for the first time, or have her “feed” me through the phone. Yes, I’d rather be with her, but spending a few moments over FaceTime is waaaay better than nothing. Sometimes she takes the phone and hugs and kisses it ::heart melt::

    • I do it whenever I am traveling or working late. My now 2.5 and 4 yo love it. They have been facetiming with relatives since they were little, so even when the baby was 1-2 I never had the issues others mention. Are there relatives you can face time with so they get used to it first? My kids love to talk to my mom on facetime even though she lives in the same city.

    • I do. We have distant relatives (my mom, DH’s parents) and have been using Facetime since our 15 month old was born. She has really engaged with it since around 13 months, and when Dad is working late, he will facetime her. Even if he just calls and his photo pops up on the screen, she says “DADA!” She loves facetiming with my mom and will point to things in her home, like her Christmas tree or her favorite Elmo chair. I’m not sure she quite “gets” it, but she definitely likes watching and engaging with the screen.

    • Facetime has worked really well with my son, starting right around 2 years old. There have been a few times when he wasn’t into it, but the vast majority of the time he LOVES it and it does such good things for me to see his face.

    • HChoi says:

      I FT with my daughter when I am traveling overnight or when I’m working too late to put her to bed. She is 16 months a loves it. Part of why it works for us is because she Face Times with her grandparents very regularly so she understands it. She starts saying “Nana” whenever she hears my iPhone ringing. We have not had any difficulties as a result (except for when she wants to hold the phone herself). It makes me happy to see her and she completely interacts when I sing songs etc. One night she offered me her grilled cheese. I say give it a try and see if it works for you.

  9. In House Lobbyist says:

    I travel regularly for work and have to work late certain times of the year. I usually Facetime the 4 year and just talk on speaker phone for the 16 month old. She is still amazed when her favorite toy (parent’s phone) actually makes noise.

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