Smoothing the Evening Transition: Practical Ways to Reconnect on the Home Front

dana>No matter how smoothly you’ve got the working-parent routine running, the daily transition between the end of the workday and the beginning of an evening at home presents a real challenge. It’s the one hour ready-made to strain the whole family.


8 Quick Tips
for the
Transition Time

I went back to work when my first son was 10 weeks old. I’d get home and the babysitter would hand me my baby and disappear. I’d lie down on the carpet next to the baby and bide my time until my husband got home. Then he would lie down on the couch, and I’d plop the baby on top of him so I could prepare dinner. Like most working moms, I always felt like I was running an exhausting relay race. Then I had a second child and the race became a marathon.

dana> It takes time for a family to develop a workable system. Nanci and Stan Jacobs have both always worked outside the home. Nanci says that when their kids, now 10, 15 and 18, were much younger, it was extremely hard for her to make the transition to "home time."

dana>"During my days at the medical office, I was always dealing with people’s problems," she recalls. "It was always ‘Nanci, I need this’ or ‘Nanci, can you do this?’ or ‘Call this person,’ and so on. Then as soon as I would get home, it would be ‘Mom, can I have this?’ or ‘Can you do this?’ or, of course, ‘What’s for dinner?’ I would have six little hands pulling on me and demanding something from me."

dana>It was a rare evening that Nanci got a little "veg-out time" courtesy of her husband before having to deal with the kids.

dana>Reconnecting with Little Ones

dana>Why are many kids such a whiney pain during the first hour home? If you’re so drained and depleted, how come they’re not? Part of it is that your child has to make a big transition in order to reconnect with you, notes Linda Mason, author of The Working Mother’s Guide to Life: Strategies, Secrets and Solutions. Your child has been holding herself in – being her well-behaved and public self – among non-parents all day. Now that she’s with you, the person she’s most comfortable with, she’s finally free to let loose all those annoying bits of herself.

dana>Here are some tips for easing the reunion and sidestepping a clash:

Avoid coming into your child’s daycare center in a big hurry. You’re changing the demeanor of calm that’s been established all day, so your child may dawdle as a way of asserting control. See life through her eyes: You’ve been gone all day, and now all of a sudden you’re rushing her?

On the ride home from school or childcare, yield to your child’s preferred style. Some like to chat or chatter, but don’t push. You might bring a light snack in the car, let your child pick the music, or talk about what’s up for the evening.

Once through the front door, take it slow and easy. Sudden dramatic shifts can discombobulate young children. Everyone’s energy may be low at this point, so consider saving the major family interacting for dinnertime. Give at least a tiny amount of full attention to your child right away – if he wants it! But then take care of yourself for a few minutes. Not being able to go to the bathroom or check your mail or phone messages might make you cranky, and your mood affects everyone’s. School-aged kids can wait 10 minutes, though younger ones might have a hard time waiting more than three. It may depend on whether they can count on real attention after their waiting is over.

Still nursing? Continuing to breastfeed after you’ve returned to work helps you transition from your working day to your family time, according to Gale Pryor, author of Nursing Mother, Working Mother: The Essential Guide for Breastfeeding and Staying Close to Your Baby After You Return to Work (Harvard Common Press, 1997).

"If your breastfed baby is your only child," Pryor says, "sitting down to nurse first helps you to remember that what your baby needs most is you. As you relax with your baby, starting dinner and loading the laundry will help make whatever vexed you at the office fade in importance. Nursing also instantly reunites you and your baby after being separate for much of the day. There is no getting-to-know-you-again period with nursing mothers and babies."

If you have other children, Pryor adds, "they need a snack and a cuddle with mom just as much as the baby does." She suggests letting your older children nibble on their snacks while they sit with you as you nurse.

Bigger Kids, More Options

With one teen left at home, Sandra Arnau long ago discovered that structure is the secret to survival.

"I call the first hour when we get home Mom’s Happy Hour," says Arnau, who is now a graduate student. "If my children could manage to play peacefully from 5 to 6 p.m., I was happy – and more generous with rewards – all evening."

Once your kids are in the middle elementary years, you can explain to them that you need a little recuperation time after a hard day’s work. Nanci Jacobs says she now heads straight to her bedroom for an hour of peace: "Usually I will just watch something brainless on TV for the hour. My kids tell anyone who calls that I’m taking a nap and will call them back."

The Jacobs family tends to eat dinner late, usually around 8 p.m., which gives Nanci a little time to unwind. On Friday, her husband usually makes dinner. He also cooks when Nanci works weekends. And their kids have learned that if they’re hungry, they can find something themselves.

"It’s amazing how they can do that when they have to!" Jacobs says.

As soon as your kids seem old enough, involve them in solving the evening transition problem, advises Barry G. Ginsberg, Ph.D., author of 50 Wonderful Ways to Be a Single-Parent Family. And while consistency is good, older kids often benefit from loving flexibility. A bath can be skipped, homework can be postponed until after a special TV program, and dessert can be eaten first. And everyone can use time-outs, Ginsberg says, so devise a method of asking for one that anyone in the family can use.

Choose Your Attitude

"Routine caregiving is the main stuff of parenting," Mason likes to remind parents. She also advises parents to realize that the tasks they’re so busy "getting through" – eating, bathing, homework, bedtime – are what memories are made of. Become more mindful of the passing moment, instead of trying to push your kids through their days. Mason points out that precisely when you’re most busy is often when your child will say or do something new or personal or important.

While interviewing more than 100 working mothers for her book, Mason found that families focus on different values as the defining thread of their evenings. From "learning and family togetherness" and "security, serenity and routine" to "fun, active, controlled chaos," each family sets its own tone. Is relaxation your primary goal when you get home from a hard-driving career? Do you like to help your kids with their homework, play board games, and make sure they’re learning a lot? Whatever works for you will make for happy kids.

The Jacobs have learned what counts, and it’s not having a spotless house at all times. "We are a family that laughs all the time and enjoy each other’s company," she says. "Our house is the one the kids’ friends flock to, and we love that."

Read more: 8 Quick Tips for the Work-to-Home Transition Time