My guilt kicked in like clockwork at 8 p.m., just as it does most nights.
At dinner two hours earlier, I could not wait to get my two little girls to bed. Despite having an early flight the next morning for a business trip, I utterly failed to enjoy my last moments with them. No matter how hard I tried, my eyes kept wandering back to the clock above the stove in our kitchen.
Evening is the magical time in our house when everyone is tired, patience is in short supply, and my daughters’ “listening ears” have turned off for the day. It’s the time when my youngest thinks it’s a good idea to evenly distribute the contents of the salt shaker into each shoe in my closet.
Some days we successfully go through the motions of our bedtime launch sequence. Other days I give in, lose my temper, and find a reason to get upset about something trivial that probably wouldn’t have fazed me at 9 a.m.
But sure enough, as soon as the lights are out and they’re in bed, the pangs of guilt creep in.
I love my girls. My entire life is oriented around figuring out ways to spend time with them. I don’t need another senior citizen to stop and remind me to “enjoy them while they’re young” to know that I should enjoy my daughters while they’re young. It’s just not always as easy as it sounds.
It’s nice to know that a good bit of neuroscience and behavioral psychology has confirmed what millions of parents already know: The human brain is like a muscle that gets tired. Thousands of little decisions throughout the day use up glucose in our brain and wear us out in a phenomenon known as “decision fatigue.” What shoes should I wear today? How do I get the salt out of said shoes? Should I respond to that email? Should I go for a run? How far? Which route? What should we eat for dinner? By the time that dinner comes, your brain is less like a muscle and more like a pile of gray mush limping through the 25th mile of a marathon.
To make matters worse, kids’ brains go through the exact same process, which sets up your evening as a collision course. It’s one of life’s little cruelties that during those precious evening hours when everyone is free to play, you and your kids’ engines are running on fumes.
I’ve started trying to play with my girls more during breakfast. Everyone’s far more likely to be in a good mood, so long as I can resist the temptation to scroll through my Facebook feed. It’s the same reason I work-out in the morning (I can talk myself out of anything hard in the evening). At work, I save mornings for projects that require the most thought, focus and creativity. If making memories with my kids while they’re still young is important to me, I should probably do that in the morning too.
Past presidents of the United States have been known to wear the same style suit every day to save his brain’s energy for decisions that are actually important, so it seems obvious that the rest of us could benefit from streamlining some of the more trivial choices in life. Habits are hard to break and big change is easier said than done, but having a routine that my girls can count on helps keep all of our brains fresher longer by eliminating decisions.
Evenings haven’t gone away, nor have tired children. And sometimes I stare at the clock above the stove and still feel guilty. But if playing at breakfast gets me an extra 10 minutes a day of quality time with my kids, I consider that a parenting win.