WHEN my children were little it was often said that what a mother should give her children was ‘quality time’. It was OK to work as long as you gave them an hour or so of your full attention at some point in the day. I think, on the contrary, that they need ‘quantity time’. They need you to be the ambience in which they live their lives. The steady base. This is still true as they get older and school starts. They come and go but there you reliably are. Even when they are teenagers you are there to listen to their worries, to reassure them, to pick up on the little cues, to overhear snatches of conversation that alert you to some problem or just be there when they want to talk into the night about their worries: school, exams, friends, the future, God. They end up viewing the world as a safe place, somewhere they can have a go and not be afraid to fail because if they do, they can come home for comfort and reassurance and try again. In other words, you’ve given them roots and wings.
Three decades ago, a friend battling with the thought of either going back to work or being with her three children said: ‘You think that if you try hard enough you can work out how to do both – but you can’t.’ Subsequently I found this out for myself. You can’t do both. You have to choose. I battled too for a while, anguished as my child grabbed my legs and took off my shoes as I tried to leave him. For me the right thing was to stay at home. Now my first-born has just turned 27 and I can look back and know the decision (despite what society says) was right.
From a distance all child care looks the same. The cardboard crown I made at home with my son might look like the ones the children coming out of nursery are clutching. The ones they all made according to instruction. I don’t think they are at all alike. I have my son’s crown still – it was made according to his instructions and played an important role in games. When he put it on he was magically transformed into another person and I was suitably amazed. Again and again, we played iterations of this game. So, it might look similar to those produced on the nursery production line but it holds memories of wishes fulfilled and the moments when he and I tuned into a secret world together.
There are many other ‘crown’ moments: making volcanoes, exploding home-made hydrogen, attempting to find the next antibiotic. Dreams you only chase from spending time with them and then doing your best to follow through with the enthusiasm. It takes quantity time to produce quality time.