The Hard, Daily Switch from Work to Home

I'd been living all day in neon office light, with grown-up office people. My head was still buzzing with the rhythms and problems of my fast-paced day. Home was domestic, lamp-lit and adhering to its own time table.
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An Australian website recently sent me a list of interview questions about my book, Backbone, including one about how "time-poor" working parents can help their children develop character strengths like resilience and persistence.

But by far the biggest problem for working parents is not time, but tuning.

As a parent, you need to stay in tune with your child -- yet, working all day makes that really hard.

When my children were young, I was an editor on an education newspaper in central London, and cycled 20 minutes home at the end of the day to a house in north London and my three under-5-year-olds. I loved them, I longed to see them. But when I got there -- oh dear, I so often didn't!

I'd been living all day in neon office light, with grown-up office people. My head was still buzzing with the rhythms and problems of my fast-paced day. Home was domestic, lamp-lit and adhering to its own time table. The children were tired and wanted to compete for my attention. I was tired and wanted to have a drink and stare into space. I simply wasn't on the wavelength of baby food, runny noses and bathtime. I had to consciously slow myself down and feign an interest in the cartoon they'd watched on television, or the drawings they'd done at nursery that morning.

I remember it as an almost physical problem -- the way my mind and body had to recalibrate before I was in tune with my children again, and it always took time to happen. We are, after all, only simple biological creatures, operating within defined limits, and simply can't chop and change on a whim. No matter how hard I worked at faking it, inside, I knew there was no way I could throw a switch and change instantly from one way of being to another.

Because to work well in a job, you not only have to be good at the tasks you are doing, but also fully tuned in to the culture you're working in -- who's in, who's out, what's the jargon, what's the dress code, what's happening, what's about to happen? You have to understand the jokes, watch the numbers, guard your back, make friends and allies, placate enemies and leap at every opportunity. You are a working person to your core, with working clothes, gestures, language, thoughts and relationships.

At home, to be a good parent, you have to be completely different -- slower, sloppier, less bothered by baby sick on your shoulder or bathroom accidents. You have to be interested in sticks and Lego and long, rambling stories about almost nothing. "And then she said... and I said... and her mommy gave us a snack... and it was animal crackers... no, it was peanut butter... no it was... I forget," and laugh at silly jokes you don't really find funny.

And technology is no help here at all. This is a visceral process, taking place in the very cells of our being. We may have gotten regular updates throughout the day on our children's meals, moods and activities. We may feel we know all we need to know about what's going on in their lives. Even so, we have to literally get back in touch with them, hugging them, sitting them on our laps, stroking their hair, while we slow our minds and soften our edges, until we're fully back in parenting mode again. And even then, whenever our phone buzzes, we are likely to be instantly tugged back into our working self.

I don't think there is any short cut to this, or even anything to be done about it, except simply be aware that it happens. To know that it takes time, and can't be forced or hurried, but that the transformation always happens in the end. Don't beat yourself up trying to be what you can't be, but be very mindful of yourself and your children, turn off your phone and be careful not to add in extra strains and stresses while it's happening.

In the end, I couldn't do it every day. Like so many parents, I stepped back from full-time work and spent the bulk of my time at home with my children.

It didn't solve everything. My career lost steam and it was harder to gear up to the rush and focus of my short working week after four full days of cookie dough and play dates, but the transition from home to work was always easier to fake than the one from the office to home, and the emotional toll on me was far less. I lost some things, and gained others. And best of all, I felt more in tune with my children