Twenty some years ago, when our eldest was born, there was a big debate going on about what was better for your children – quality time or quantity time. Really just another stupid attempt to pit stay-at-home moms versus work-outside-the-home moms. I’ve been fortunate to have been both and thus feel quite qualified to offer some opinions on the topic. (Like not being qualified ever stopped me from offering an opinion on anything in the past – HA!) The truth of the matter is we are all working mothers – some of us just get paid in money – and our kids need both kinds of time with us. Quality time is important, whatever form it takes. When we travel to a new city, our kids know what to expect. Dad will be in a seminar all day and I will have them on a scheduled itinerary that hits all the highlights and keeps them going from morning til night. Museums, battlefields, historic sites – you name it, we’re gonna hit it, saving the ones we think Dad will like the best (aquariums!!) for when he can go with us. And we are prepared – before we went to Arizona and visited Tombstone, we watched My Darling Clementine (John Ford’s classic movie of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) and Ford’s Stagecoach and Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp. We would have watched Tombstone, too, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer (the best Doc Holliday ever) but it was rated R. John was really obsessed with all things Egyptian for a while in elementary school, and we studied up before we went to the King Tut exhibit in Fort Lauderdale and we were having such a detailed discussion in the museum that someone mistook me for a docent and started asking me questions about the exhibit. John later developed an interest in all things Titanic and we now own our own copies of A Night to Remember and James Cameron’s Titanic, dozens of Titanic books, Titanic, The Board Game, a plastic replica of the ship that floats in the tub and breaks apart and sinks, tons of other memorabilia and we have seen Titanic exhibits in Baltimore, Las Vegas and Harrisburg PA. We try very hard to have dinner together every night, even if it’s just a pizza or something out of a bag from a drive-through. No music, no TV, no distractions – just all of us gathered around the dinner table. Some great conversations about politics, religion, school, you name it. And complete silliness sometimes, too. Someone will inadvertently say something stupid – and of course everyone else jumps right on the teasing bandwagon. They will remember these things.
Quality doesn’t have to involve expensive trips – mommy and me time at the public library is great and its free. Where we live, in Pennsylvania, there are scores of parks, museums and historic sites within easy driving distance that are free or very inexpensive. State parks offer all kinds of exhibits and demonstrations that cost little or nothing. In the summertime, a number of local government recreation departments offer free movies and other free events in the community parks. Check online, check the local newspaper.
So yeah, the scheduled, focused-only-on-them time is important. But quantity is just as important. We had friends, years ago, who both worked full time, and when the weekend would come around, they’d leave the kids with the nanny for the weekend and go off together “antiquing.” It used to irritate me to no end. Why would you have children if you were only going to spend an hour with them awake a day, and then only on weekdays? Getting read a bedtime story and tucked in for the night by 8 pm is not enough parental attention.
This is where the stay-at-home moms have the potential advantage. You are THERE. Whatever crosses their little brains comes out and gets talked about immediately. Very few missed opportunities when you are with them all the time. My parents weren’t big on setting aside special time for each of their six children (like there was time for that!!) My dad was a mechanic, and this was back in the day when cars were actually all mechanical – no computerized anything and you could work on a car in the backyard without any fancy, special diagnostic equipment. People were constantly pulling up in front of our house in the evening with a “Hey Chet, my car is making this noise – could you take a look?” Some of my best memories of my dad was just hanging out, watching him work on cars, and handing him the right tool when he asked for it. I learned fractions, if nothing else (“hand me a 3/16th wrench, Yvonne”), but what mattered was that I was hanging with my dad.
My mom was a stay-at-home mom basically until my youngest brother started school, and then she took a job as a cafeteria lady so that she would be home from work when we were home from school. There were not a lot of opportunities to have long, soulful private chats with her, either. But, we always had a garden, and sitting on the porch shelling peas or husking corn was always a chance to talk about life, the universe and everything, and when we were with my grandmother or aunts, there were always stories told about our great- and great-great grandparents, and that oral family history is priceless. And of course, we learned how to be domestic goddesses. My mom, a farm girl, loved being outdoors and walking. I can’t tell you how many walks we took through the woods around our town, where she would point out and name the birds and flowers and plants and share her love of nature with us.
I work fulltime now, and the hanging out and chatting opportunities are becoming more limited. We have a few rules that “force” everyone to hang out together. No electronics in the bedrooms. No DSs, Ipods, headsets, DVD players etc in the car. When we are driving locally, they’ve got me and the radio. We have had so many really intense, good talks in the car, and they would not happen if all that portable electronic crap was along for the ride. Long car rides get books on CD. Last monster trip we listened to old time radio detective shows- most of which took place during WWII and the Cold War, and we ended up talking about both of those events. Most of my mom friends think I spend my life racing around like an idiot, and in part that’s true. I’m at every school and sports event possible. I cheer the loudest and my kids always know I’m there. If there is a problem, they know I’ll got to bat for them, whether its with a teacher or a coach or a friend or a rude store clerk. The twins are actually to the point now where they will say, Mom, I just want to tell you about this and I want to know what you think I should do, but I don’t want you to do anything – you’ll embarass me!! But the bottom line is, they know if they need me to go into battle-mode, all they have to do is say so.
Even watching TV together can be a special time with your kids. One of the best memories I have of my dad is watching the premiere of Three’s Company, and him laughing hysterically at John Ritter’s pseudo-gay antics and his delight in the fact that I got the jokes. The other evening, we were watching The Big Bang Theory (a favorite of the whole crew) and I looked over at the couch and there was Lydia, curled up on her side, resting her head against her dad’s shoulder, laughing together at something inane that Sheldon had said. Those kind of memories will stick with her forever – and they can’t be scheduled or planned – you just had to be there at the right moment. Quality time has its value and its place, but nothing beats just plain old quantity time.