I work long hours and am worried about the effect this is having on my children. I have a long commute and work 9.30-6.30 so I don’t get home till 7.30 most nights. They are up and keen to see me so that pushes back bedtime. We are all exhausted in the morning. I don’t know what to do as there are no local jobs which pay enough money. How much sleep do children need and should I be worried about the long term effects of this way of life on the children?
If you are confident that your children are being well cared for, are securely attached to the person who looks after them whilst you’re at work, and feel confident that this is the best situation for you and your family’s health and happiness, then I would say that the long term effects are unlikely to be damaging. However, if you are stressed and feeling guilty, and your children are not thriving then the long term effects can be quite significant. In the worst case scenario, this situation could predispose the children to mental health issues in later life. So whilst you’re right to be concerned, the very fact that you’re thinking about the implications of your situation on your children means that you are likely to be doing your best and will minimise any negative effects that the children might experience.
It’s worth saying at this point that there is no ‘right’ way of bringing up your children and every family situation has its pitfalls. Take the stay-at-home mother who dotes on her child. She has to be careful that she doesn’t over-indulge him and that he is able to socialise with other children. Single parents have to try not to over-compensate for the absence of their other parent and working parents often feel guilty about taking time for themselves. So instead of measuring yourself against a ‘standard’ of parenting, you should just try to do the best with what you’ve got. If you want or need to work, go with it and make it work for you and your family.
Even if you are confident that you’re doing the best for your family, there may be things you can do to improve the sleep situation. Sleep is a really important factor in development – not just physical, but cognitive, social and emotional development too. The amount of sleep children need depends on their age and can differ for individual children. However, I would suggest that children up to the age of 6 are given the opportunity for at least 11 hours sleep most nights. Pre-school children can make up for slightly later bedtimes with afternoon naps, but a long night-time sleep is still important for development and becomes even more so when they are at nursery or school. Without knowing a bit more about your situation, it is difficult to make specific recommendations as a lot depends on the age of your children and the childcare in place when you’re not there. If you have a partner at home who picks the children up and is there every evening for them, then they have a stable primary carer and it’s just a case of accepting the role that many fathers have to accept of not seeing the children much during the week. If this is the case, I would ask you to question who the later bed time is for – you or the children?
On the other hand, if they have been out and about all day and seeing you in the evening grounds them and gives them a sense of security, then I would suggest that it’s worth doing and that you make alterations to other aspects of your week to relieve the tiredness. I think you’re right to worry if everyone is permanently exhausted as this will lead to stress and short tempers which will ruin what time you do have together as a family. The following are some options you can try to relieve the exhaustion. As I said, it will depend on the age of your children and the support you have around you.
First, you could try making Sunday nights a special family time with an early bedtime and lots of stories, so the children are well rested at the beginning of the week. If they’re old enough, you could explain to them that whilst you would love to see them every night, you will always come and give them a kiss when you get in but they can only stay up to see you on one or two nights, and only if they are able to get up ok that morning. Then make the end of the week special – they could stay up watching a film until you get home on a Friday and then spend Saturday mornings in PJs. It’s important not to over schedule your free time if it’s limited. There will be plenty of time for music/sport/drama clubs when everyone is less tired.
Alternatively, you could discuss flexible working arrangements with your boss. You have a legal right to be given fair consideration for flexible working, and employers are much more receptive to the idea nowadays, especially if you present them with a plan of how it would work and how the company would benefit. You might want to consider doing 3 or 4 longer days, so you can get everything done without trying to get back for bedtime, but then on the other day or two look at working compressed hours, or even from home. If you are alone or have a partner who works equally long hours perhaps there is a relative or friend that would come and stay over one night a week. This could be a fun night with Granny or Aunty Sue, which the children could look forward to. Whilst it should be fun for the children, they will have the security of being at home, and they can do homework etc and get an early night. This would also give you some time to yourself as it sounds like you’re not getting much of that at the moment.
You say that there are no local jobs that pay enough money, but it might be worth sitting down and examining your expenses and income to see if there are any sacrifices you’d be willing to make for a few years in order to enable you to work either part time at your current job, or in a job a little closer to home. If the children are not yet settled into school, it might also be worth looking at moving closer to your job. The factor that is most likely to have long-term negative implications for your family is stress, which can be increased by tiredness. If you are able to go to work happily and come back relaxed and able to enjoy being with your children at weekends, they will see this and are much more likely to thrive in their childcare situations than if they see you being stressed and anxious.
The best bit of advice I can give you is to do an honest assessment of your situation; talk with close family/friends and include the children if they’re old enough to understand. Talk about your concerns and ask for help where you need it. Then make the decisions that you believe will be the best for your family. Then relax and allow yourself to enjoy your life.