Sometimes, less is more

I never wanted a standard 9 to 5 job. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them – Nick has one, many of my friends have them – but I just knew that they wouldn’t be the right fit for me. Thankfully, I fell in love with teaching (which involves hours that waaaay exceed the traditional 40-hour workweek, but whatevever).

Back when I taught in the classroom, one of the things I most liked about my schedule was that it allowed me to spend the time between school and dinner with Ella and Annie; those were special, golden hours. After we moved to Rochester and I became a stay-at-home mom, I – obviously – had a lot more time with them during the day. Some of this was, in fact, Special, Golden time, but a lot of it was Please Let Us All Get Through The Day Alive, Fed, And Mostly Sane time. Life as a SAHM was good – I wouldn’t have traded it for anything – but I definitely appreciated the afternoons that I spent teaching piano and always knew that I wanted to return to work once the girls were in elementary school.

As I’ve already discussed, subbing turned out to be the perfect solution, allowing me just the right balance between work and home. If the girls had their way, however, I would be home every minute that they are. Sure, sometimes they want nothing to do with me, but they’d prefer that I be right there while they have nothing to do with me, so that when they do want something to do with me, it can happen immediately.

Between subbing and piano lessons and, you know, being a human, it’s not exactly possible – nor, um, desirable – for me to be home every waking moment that the girls are in the house. Still, I do prefer the days when I’m able to see them before they go to school; leaving the house before they awaken just doesn’t feel right. I also prefer the days when I’m able to see them after school, before my piano lessons; even just five minutes for a whirlwind How Was Your Day? recap, a brief scan of their take-home folder, and a quick hug as I head out the door can make all the difference.

There have been occasional days when I’ve left for piano before Annie and Ella come in the door, which means I don’t see them from 8:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., much like how life would be if I worked a 9-5 job. I don’t really like those days, but they’re manageable, especially because we get to have dinner together; somehow, that makes it doable.

Last Thursday, however, was different. Subbing meant I couldn’t be home when they finished school; piano and swim practice meant we couldn’t spend time together before dinner; and the meeting of a really cool new church community I’m joining meant that I couldn’t be home for dinner. If I was lucky, I’d arrive home in time to kiss and hug them before they went to bed… but that was not a guarantee, so there was a decent chance I’d go the entire day without seeing them. (Note: it’s not like I haven’t left the girls before, for days at a time. I’ve also done weekends away with friends and have spent plenty of days and nights apart from the kiddos and I have freakin’ loved it. But somehow, being home, being separated simply by the busyness of life, isn’t the same.)

In theory, this was not even worth my consideration. People do it all the time, right? Steal super-short moments with their kids before school and then not see them again until the following morning? This happens a lot and people are completely fine with it, yes?

I know this; I told myself this repeatedly. But it still felt… wrong. Not wrong as in morally unacceptable but wrong as in Emily unacceptable. One of the biggest reasons I never wanted a 9-5 job was because I never wanted to be away from my girls all day. Okay, sure, there have been plenty of times when I would do practically anything to have some peace and quiet, to get away for a moment, so a day without them while I was running around should have been nothing – but still… it just didn’t sit right.

A closer look at my packed schedule revealed something promising: the girls’ swim practice was to take place during the exact window of time between my piano lessons and my church community gathering. Meaning I didn’t need to be anywhere during that time… meaning, if I attended the practice, I could see the girls. Yes, it meant a fifteen minute drive in the wrong direction, which meant that I’d only be poolside for about 20 minutes. Yes, they’d be, you know, swimming, so it’s not like we could sit and chat. But I figured that, at the very least, I could wave to them. I could be near them. I could hug them when they got out of the pool as I headed out the door. Surely that was better than nothing.

Ella noticed me the moment that I entered the pool deck and could not stop waving at me. Well, that’s not true – she alternated waving at me with flashing me the I Love You hand sign.
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That tan-ish blur over Ella’s swim-capped head? Her hand. Waving.

Normally at practice, this girl is all about barely glancing my way and not really paying me any attention. That night, however, she was just ecstatic to find me on that bench.

Annie, on the other hand, didn’t see me come in and sit down. In fact, she swam for a good ten minutes without so much as looking in my direction. At last, while waiting to get on the block, she turned so she was facing me and when it finally dawned on her that it was her Mama on that bench, she almost levitated off the swim deck.
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She was far away and it was steamy in there, so this photo is pretty low-quality, but trust me… a jubilant grin and fully outstretched, “THAT’S MY MAMA!” hands are there.

Those twenty minutes that I spent watching them in the pool were, by an enormous margin, the shortest amount of time I’d ever spent “with” them on a regular old day. They were also some of the best I’ve ever experienced. The entire time, I was engaged. I was focused. I was watching. I didn’t look at my phone; I didn’t read a magazine (as I usually do if I attend swim practice, which in and of itself is very rare). All I did was be there with my girls, marveling at the thing they love to do so much, really noticing how their strokes have changed, how much leaner and stronger they are. The time wasn’t long on quantity, but on quality? Unbeatable.

When practice ended, I still had a few minutes before I needed to leave, so we used that time to catch up on their days. I heard about recess, snack, specials – all the most important school stuff, natch – plus what they did with the babysitters, how their homework was coming along, and what they hoped to have for dinner that night. Right before I left, they each gave me an enormous hug which, considering that they’d just hopped out of a pool, soaked my jacket to its core – but I figure that’s a small price to pay.

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Regaling me with details from their day…

I’ve always known how tremendously fortunate I am to not have to take a job that keeps me away from the girls until dinnertime each day, but I don’t think I quite appreciated it until last Thursday. I also learned something really important: that it truly isn’t the amount of time you spend with your kids that matters; it’s the kind of time. Those blink-and-you’d-miss-it twenty minutes were among the most intense, heart-filling, relaxing minutes I’ve spent with the girls, maybe… ever?

Yesterday was Thursday again, and this time my day was even longer – out the door before the girls went to school, home ten minutes before bed. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, but I wasn’t dreading it, either. I watched them sled before I hopped in the car to go to work. I sat poolside again, was there to see the butterfly (stroke) “click” with Annie for the first time ever, heard about the science day in Ella’s class next week, and took in two more soaking wet hugs. I listened to Annie read at bedtime, cuddled with Ella in my bed, and kissed them both goodnight.

And you know what? It was a damn fine day.

I still prefer spending more time together than less, but there really is something to be said for quality – in relationships, in time, in attention, in love.
And in chocolate. Always go for the good stuff, people.

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