Best of Both Worlds podcast: Parenting math — how much time should you spend with your kids?

There’s a narrative that if you work full time, you’ll “never” see your kids. When people track their time, they tend to find this isn’t true. Those morning, evening, weekend, holiday, sick day, etc. hours add up.

But how much time “should” parents spend with their kids? There’s no good answer, but this week’s episode of Best of Both Worlds was inspired by a letter Sarah and I received from a listener who had tracked her children’s time. She found that her two little ones spent slightly more waking hours per week at day care than with her (though, I should note, this was during a week with no sick days, and kids in daycare get sick a lot). Her partner helpfully asked if the daycare teachers were their children’s “real” family. She had been thinking of adding a little outside of work childcare (the hypothetical we used is that she wanted to play in a Tuesday night pickleball league) but now she was teetering into Mom Guilt about this topic.

We had a lot to say about this…and we said it twice, because we first recorded this episode together in Boston, and then found the track was blank. Sigh. So we re-recorded. Anyway, please give the episode a listen, and let us know what you think! As always, we welcome ratings and reviews.

In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss childcare with Sarah and me in a Zoom format, please consider joining the Best of Both Worlds Patreon community! We host monthly online discussions, and our discussion board features three or so topics a week that community members weigh in on. Our next Zoom gathering is this Thursday (10/12) at noon, eastern, where we’ll be talking about different childcare options and what works for different situations. Membership is $9/month.

13 thoughts on “Best of Both Worlds podcast: Parenting math — how much time should you spend with your kids?

  1. Loved the righteous fury in this episode!

    Anecdata but I spent 2 years on a 30% travel schedule, and still went to yoga, saw friends, with very little mom guilt attached. And now my kid is super bonded with his dad AND me, smart and well-adjusted. A dad wouldn’t worry about these things so moms shouldn’t either.

    I think the more trusted, warm, loving adults in children’s lives, the better. We are social creatures, we live in community, I’m not sure it’s good for anyone to be so centred on the nuclear family to the exclusion of all else. I tend to acquire an extra kid for an afternoon, when my son’s friends parents are in a pinch, and asking for help/giving help helps cement social ties.

    1. @Coree – glad you enjoyed it! And yes, I don’t think a lot of dads worry too much about this – many grow up with a perception that any time they spend with their kids is going to be great, whereas women are up against the idea that it should be 24 x 7, and anything taken away from that is a sign of failure. Very, very unfair. And also unhelpful.

  2. I logically agree with all of this. But I am in an interesting and somewhat hard situation right now where my 19 month old truly prefers our nanny to everyone else, including me. She does love me and mostly prefers me to others when nanny is not around, but it got so intense at one point that when I would come home from work she would cry because nanny was leaving ;(. This has pretty much resolved but was hard to stomach. My older daughter always preferred me to the same nanny (and the one prior), so I know some of it is the little one’s personality and the fact that she only gets to be home alone with the nanny while sis is at school, and she likes all of the attention/getting to do whatever she wants. I am obviously grateful that our nanny is so fantastic with my kids, so I try to focus on that. I wonder if anyone else has had this experience?

    1. @Amanda – I think many kids go through a phase where they become very attached to one adult. Sometimes it is mom but not always. When my eldest was 19 months he went through a Daddy attachment phase to the point where he would scream if my husband tried to hand him to me when we were both there. It made no sense because trust me, this was not about time (or even fun time) spent with the kid — my husband was gone for multiple days at a time almost every week. I was definitely resentful but tried to view it as hey, if we are both there he can deal with the toddler and make up for some of the other time he isn’t there!
      I think in your case — yes, the kid grows out of it, and you know your older kid didn’t behave the same way, so it’s about the child not the situation. And how awesome that your nanny is so wonderful! I agree with you that this is the best way to view it. You will always be Mom.

    2. My younger daughter went through a phase like that. It lasted for about 6 months. Thank god that was with my second kid and not my first or else I would have felt so heartbroken and questioning my choices to work full time. My older one was in daycare longer and never went through that phase. The fact that I spent more time with her than my older one and she wanted me less (for a brief period), made the situation slightly amusing.

      For what it’s worth, after that stint, she always preferred me,

  3. Interestingly, when I track my time for one week each year, I am surprised by how much time I spend with my kids despite being a full time working mom with a demanding career. I have never thought about the number of waking hours they spend at daycare, though. I know we need childcare and I love my job and know I am happiest as a working mom. So I focus on quality over quantity. If the mom truly feels like she wants more time with her kids, she could strategically use PTO, like taking every other Friday off to spend with them for a period of time. That’s what I did when I struggled with my return to work after having our first child. It might also be helpful to read Emily Oster’s book, Crib Sheet. I feel like a broken record mentioning this but I think her content on child care is really helpful. The data doesn’t show that there is a difference in outcomes for kids at home with a parent v kids at daycare/with a nanny. She also talks about the law of diminishing returns meaning your 7th hour with your kids is likely not as enjoyable as your first 1-3 hours. So more isn’t always better. Admittedly, in our family, we say TGIM because my husband and I are happy to go back to our jobs on Monday after long days with our young kids on the weekends and I know the kids have a ton of fun at school/daycare. They also have learned far more than I would have or could have taught them. So it feels like an everyone wins kind of situation. Lastly, I feel like I spend more time playing games/reading books/going to places like the zoo than my parents did. So I feel the way we spend time with our kids is more intense/different than the previous generations. In my case, my parents had 5 kids and ran a business so they didn’t have a lot of time to sit and play uno with me. All this is to say, even with my kids in daycare 45-50 hours (which is necessary with time in the office + commute) they will look back and feel like they had a wonderful childhood.

  4. I found it so interesting that she was worried about the few hours at night with a babysitter, when the whole reason she needs it is because her husband is not home with the kids either at that point and he, I’m guessing, doesn’t worry or write into podcasts about it. If he thinks the kids need to be with family more, he should be the parent at home to allow her one night out a week. Great episode as always!

    1. @Amanda- thanks! Yep, I think people often let dads off the hook in terms of involved childcare. But they can absolutely take responsibility for the kids to allow mom some leisure time. And if they can’t or won’t do that, then bringing in someone else to share the load is absolutely justified.

  5. I traveled a lot for work when my kids were in upper elementary/secondary school (gone at least a few nights more weeks than not). My kids are grown now, and recently I said to one of them, “Are you sad that I missed so many of your band concerts and other events because of my travel schedule?” His response: “You missed band concerts? I don’t remember that.”

    1. @Seppie – funny! And not surprising. I remember an Oprah episode about the daughters of first generation of working moms, and one woman was going on about this and later talked with her mom and realized that she’d stayed home with her for the first 7 years of her life. She just had no memory of it! We all live in our own worlds – particularly children.

  6. Another consideration: what counts as hours with a kid? Is it okay to miss hours with one kid because you are doing something with the other? Is it okay to miss hours with a 10yo because he/she is at a dropoff playdate? I try not to worry about this math. It becomes too complicated once you have more than 1 kid.

    However- I do find certain hours of the day to be more enjoyable with kids than others. Would advocate for a split shift if the issue is spending cranky evening hours, or by shifting the workday with her husband. I.e. he can do the morning shift so she can go in early and finish early.

    Once I asked my husband what his requirement would be to feel like he had quality time with his kids. Basically as long as he is there for the 20-30min each weekday that it takes us to consume dinner, he thinks he is a great Dad. He could be away from the kids for the other 23.5hrs of the day. Thankfully he is around much more than this. I try to remind myself that moms and dads often have different minimums.

    1. @VSH – I think it would be interesting to ask a bunch of fathers what amount of time they feel constitutes adequate quality time. I think there would be a lot of people who assume if they’re there for dinner or for bedtime, they are “involved.”
      As for more than one kid – absolutely – I’m often not with one kid because I’m with another!

  7. In previous centuries, wealthy European women spent “tea time” with their children (and they weren’t pursuing careers, obviously). Now wealthy Americans make their own calculations about time with children based upon their preferences and resources. It’s nothing new.

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