How much time?

by Sharon McGonigal

Recently my fourteen-year-old daughter said, “You spend all your time with your boyfriend.”

I’m a bad mother, flashed above me like a neon sign. Usually I heard from the teenagers, ‘don’t hang around me; it’s not cool’. I could cope with that, but her line? It shocked me. I asked the other four children and they agreed – it hurt. Guilt set in and I re-evaluated family time.

Frustrated over balancing jobs, schedules, children and maintaining a love relationship I wondered, just how much time is needed before you feel you’ve done enough for your children? From books, family and friends I was bombarded with the theories of quality time versus quantity time.

With raising five children and working several jobs, it can take a considerable amount of time away from the children, but it was those jobs that kept the family finances hovering above the red line.

I have the ideal job: I work as a substitute teacher mostly in their school. I leave after they catch the bus, get home just before they do, and on the odd occasion I’m their teacher or they catch a ride home. In the summer, for two weeks, I work mornings then the rest of the summer is free. I try to take them hiking, fishing and to the lake, or chauffeur them to their friends – free stuff.

I thought I had improved from the year before of working all day and tutoring until nine-thirty at night, four days a week. When I did tutor, I took four of the five children with me to sit in on the lesson. A perfect set-up, I thought. For my daughter, apparently not.

Next, I got a full-time teaching position and stopped tutoring. The irony? I was my daughter’s teacher. Then I lost my second main income job. I was home more, able to do more household chores, and my daughter still had the nerve to say, “You never spend any time with us.”

The guilt was still there, I cried. It seemed that all I did with the children was the homework routine, regular chores and I didn’t have the financial luxury of devoting an entire weekend to fun. (Not fun, the way she would want it.) I fumed. I thought this is not reality. I put the brakes on and evaluated my own family time as a child, to my daughter’s version of family time.

We were a large family, twelve children, with a single income. Dad worked shift work, had most weekends off. In my teen years my parents didn’t spend enormous amounts of time talking to us. When I got home I did chores and then disappeared into my shared bedroom. My social life revolved around when my parents would visit someone, or if company came over. Parents told me when to go to bed, I watched whatever they put on television. Movie rentals? Non-existent. I never received phone calls nor made any because it might tie up the line for important calls. I never had one sleepover, or a computer for talking to friends; those were the days of handwritten letters.

Parents couldn’t help me with homework, because my dad achieved grade eight and my mom, grade eleven and the subjects were different; one of my mom’s subjects was ‘Thriftiness’. In all the years with my father, I didn’t play a single card game with him.
In contrast, I played games with my children, helped them with homework and created fun weekends, (just not the expensive ones) and I even got to be their teacher.

As I spouted off about, “how it was when…” my eighteen-year-old son mentioned that his sister had just returned from having a three-day sleepover at her friend’s during school break. Full stop on my guilt trip.

I assessed her availability. She slept until noon every opportunity. Drama and jazz band practice after school three times a week, piano and youth group once a week. She was free one evening a week. On the weekend, when she was not with her dad, she had sleepovers, considerable access to the TV and MSN.

My plan? To over-emphasize ‘togetherness’. I resorted to emailing her what was on the family agenda or I’d MSN her to come upstairs and see me. When she had free time, I told her that we needed to have some family time together. During phone calls with friends, after two minutes of talk, she had to get off for ‘family’ time. When she was in the bathroom longer than ten minutes (which she enjoyed) I urgently called her. Upon her exit, I told her I just wanted more time with her. She wanted a friend over, I said, “No, it would interfere in family time.”

After two weeks, our ‘togetherness’ annoyed her. She complained we were spending too much time together and that she needed time to herself. I reminded her about what she had said, not that long ago to me. I said, “You can have life the way I had it (as described above) or be happy with what you have in our family.” She quickly agreed to the present time!

Since then, I’ve freed myself from guilt trips, and I measure family time not by quality or quantity; I’ve done both. Now I measure it by how I feel inside at the end of a day. I know from my past and what I have experienced that I am spending enough time. It’s not always fun and games and it’s not always what we want it to be, but it’s reality.


© Sharon McGonigal

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem