When Cee was an infant, I remember lamenting to a friend about how difficult the evening hours could be. Cee was often fussy. Husband was usually returning home from work hoping for some quality time with her, but instead she would cling to me. Meanwhile, I had some crazy idea about getting a balanced meal on the table. Sometimes, I wanted nothing more than to be alone in the kitchen with both hands free. With a demanding baby, dinner usually ended up only being accomplished when Husband stepped in to finish what I had started and to clean up the mess left in my wake.
My friend empathized. She told me that she had deemed this time of day between about 5 and 7 PM, “Unhappy Hour.”
It is a fitting name, I think. Pre-kids, we would have been meeting friends for drinks and appetizers after work. Or maybe Husband and I would be cooking dinner together, glasses of wine in hand, telling each other about our days. It was often my time to go for a run or to a yoga class or to take my dog for a long walk. Regardless, happy hour used to be that time of day when we could reconnect with our friends and family, unwind from the day’s work, and recenter ourselves.
Reconnect. Unwind. Recenter. Is that even remotely possible with a toddler awake in the house?
These days, Unhappy Hour is daycare pick-up, sometimes errands, and dinner preparation, all within about an hour in order to stay on track for an on-time bedtime. Cee seems to fall apart at the least discomfort or injustice, and my efforts to console her can completely throw off my dinner preps. If both Husband and I are home, we can tag-team this – one of us hanging out with Cee and the other taking the lead on dinner. Sometimes Cee seems to need one or the other of us more, just as she did as an infant, and we make adjustments as needed. Things are tougher though if one of us is working late, and given Husband’s weird work hours, this happens a lot.
I’ve been reading Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Happy Family. It is required reading for one of the courses I’m teaching this fall, and I highly recommend it. It is really a comprehensive guide to feeding – from attitudes about feeding and eating, to meal planning, to cooking itself. Satter even addresses Unhappy Hour, which she calls “Bewitching Hour.” That she included this is brilliant. You can preach all you want about the value of the family meal and balanced nutrition, but if you can’t get past Unhappy Hour, you’ll get discouraged fast. That’s when the fast food drive-through suddenly seems like a great idea.
Satter says (and I wholeheartedly agree) that the difficulty with Unhappy Hour is that there are several priorities trying to squeeze into a short amount of time. Obviously, we’re trying to get dinner on the table. But we also need to reconnect with our kids. If we’ve been apart for most of the day, they need us, and in a quality kind of way. And finally, we need a small time and space for ourselves – to unwind and recenter.
Reconnect. Unwind. Recenter. And cook dinner. Sounds familiar, right? But this is SO much harder when a tired toddler is involved.
Since going back to work, I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle these multiple priorities in the short span of Unhappy Hour. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: they don’t have to be competing priorities. They’re intertwined, and they’re all important. When I recenter myself, it’s easier to reconnect with Cee. When I reconnect with Cee, dinner prep is suddenly less daunting.
I have been making a real effort to give Cee 10-15 minutes of my time when we get home from daycare. That’s hard to do when I look at the clock and just want to get dinner started. But I’ve learned that not only does it feel good to reconnect, it also makes dinner prep go more smoothly. After a little time with me, Cee is often happy to play independently or maybe cheerfully “help” with dinner prep. If I try to skip reconnect time, she’s hanging on my leg, grabbing at the knives, or insisting on being held.
Satter has great advice about the reconnecting piece:
“Here is a secret about playing with your child: With playing, as with eating, children like to take the lead and want you to be a supportive presence. You don’t have to pile up blocks for him to knock down or make elaborate houses or teach about the laws of shapes and sizes and proportions. All you have to do it be there, pay attention, ask about what your child is doing, and make little comments like, “That’s a big wall.” You can even do all of this in a prone position, as long as you truly pay attention and take an interest.”
(Prone position: I like that idea.)
Making a little time to unwind and recenter myself is harder. I’ve learned to relish the 8 minutes alone in the car as I drive to pick Cee up from daycare. If I can, I fix myself a cup of tea for the road, and I grab an apple or handful of almonds or a cookie on the way out the door. In the car, I turn off the news and listen to classical music. Sometimes I record a little audio diary on my phone just to dump out some thoughts. I’m making an effort to arrive at daycare in at least a near-centered state. Maybe in a year or two, Cee and I can talk about giving Mama time to put her feet up when we get home. Right now, that doesn’t seem realistic. Not during Unhappy Hour.
I’m trying to reclaim Happy Hour, in some small way, toddler and all. Reconnect. Unwind. Recenter.
How do you survive Unhappy Hour?