It’s one of those lines we throw out casually: “I want to spend more ‘quality time’… ” whether it’s with friends, with family, with your kids, or with yourself. We spend an inordinate amount of money and effort at creating opportunities to get this time too. We plan for it. We pay for it. We’re anxious at the slightest delay or weather that might disrupt it.
While it all comes from a good place, there’s a disconnect: The perfectionist side of our brain, fueled by movies and Instagram, wants everything to be special, to be “right.” But that’s an ideal the busy, ordinary, doing-the-best-we-can versions of ourselves can’t always live up to.
The result? An inevitable sense of disappointment. A sense that other people are doing better than us. We feel guilt. We feel pressure. We think “Oh, if only I had more money, or a better job, or lived in France where the child care benefits were different, if I had more custody, then things would be good...”
That’s not fair. And it’s also damaging.
The reason, as I ended up writing about extensively in the new book, The Daily Dad: 366 Meditations on Love, Parenting and Raising Great Kids, is that there is no such thing as “quality time.” Jerry Seinfeld, father of three, put it well:
I’m a believer in the ordinary and the mundane. These guys that talk about ‘quality time’ — I always find that a little sad when they say, ‘We have quality time.’ I don’t want quality time. I want the garbage time. That’s what I like. You just see them in their room reading a comic book and you get to kind of watch that for a minute, or [having] a bowl of Cheerios at 11 o’clock at night when they’re not even supposed to be up. The garbage, that’s what I love.
To be fair, Seinfeld is the master of the mundane. Banality has made him a near-billionaire. But there is a deeper truth to what he’s getting at. Special days? Nah. Every day is special. Every minute can be “quality time.”
The Buddhists say this too. That happiness can be washing the dishes. Happiness can be doing farm chores. That enlightenment is about who you are while you’re doing it, provided that you’re present while you’re doing it.
I remember when my book The Obstacle Is the Way first started making its way through professional sports, I was invited to see the Seahawks training camp up in Renton, Washington. I had just gotten married and my career was really firing, so I asked Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll how coaches manage to make a personal life work with such insane hours. Pete, who has been married for more than 40 years, looked at me and said, “You have to find the moments between moments.”
Another way to say this might be to just say: Take every moment you can.
It’s something I’ve seen inside the buildings of most of the sports teams I’ve visited. Yeah, the coaches and staff often get there before the sun comes up and leave long after it’s gone down. Yeah, they travel a lot. But their families are always around. They’re doing lunches and dinners at the office. They are taking time between sessions to sit and talk, to hang out, to work out, to do things together.
It’s all about the moments between the moments for ordinary people, too. I’ve never understood parents who complain about “being a chauffeur” to their kids. “What am I, your driver?” they say. Sure, it can be a pain in the ass to drive your kids around. To day care. To school. To a friend’s house. To a doctor’s appointment. To soccer practice. Sometimes it can feel like this is all parenting is — driving a little person around. For free.
But instead of seeing the drive as an obligation or an inconvenience, why not choose to see it as a gift? A moment between moments. In fact, it’s a lot of moments. Even better, it’s captive time. You are stuck together! This is wonderful. This is what you wanted, right? An opportunity to connect? To bond? To have fun? So use it!
As many parents with older children will tell you, something changes when kids are in the car with you. Suddenly, you’re not the parent. You’re just a companion, a fellow human being equalized by traffic. Kids will share things in the car they wouldn’t say anywhere else. Better yet, when their friends are in the car too, you fade into the background and suddenly you can watch how your kid is with other people. It’s like you’re a detective watching through one-way glass. You’ll learn things about your own son or daughter that you’d never know otherwise. You’ll get a glimpse into who they are in a way they could never articulate to you directly.
This isn’t only true for kids. Some of my best memories with my wife, or friends, have happened in the car. Or when we were sitting at the gate, waiting for a delayed plane. Sometimes these awkward, in-between moments allow for conversations that never would have happened otherwise. Even some of my best writing and thinking have come when I was stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be, or doing something I didn’t want to do. When you’re out of excuses for being busy, when you can’t defer or plan for some idealized future, you’re forced to just make do with what’s in front of you. The distinction between “quality” time and “garbage” time falls away and you’re left with what simply is.
Yet I also look at other encounters we had in similar moments and feel regret. Because I let that delay get to me–I spent the 40 minutes nervously pacing, or being irritable or worse. I was so eager to get where we were going that I didn’t appreciate that we were already doing something that could be fun. My inability to accept deprived me of what actually was quality time all along.
Often when we are trying really hard to attain something, we end up missing the fact that we’ve had it in our hands the whole time. Sure, letting your kids blow off school for a fun day together can be wonderfully special — but so can the 20-minute drive in traffic to school. So can mailing a letter or watching a garbage truck meander through the neighborhood.
All time with your kids — all time with anyone you love — is created equal. What you do with it is what makes it special. Not where. Or for how long. Or at what cost.
Think back to your own childhood. Rushing around to get somewhere on time. Packing for that trip to Disneyland. Getting dressed up for those ridiculous matching group photos. “Why are we doing this?” you asked when you were old enough to notice that it seemed really stressful and not fun. The answer was always something like: “Because we’re a family.” As if you couldn’t be a family anywhere, doing anything. As if you couldn’t do it right here and now (and without the matching shirts).
This is worth remembering in all facets of life: You can be a family without getting dressed and leaving the house. You can be in love in the McDonald’s drive-through. You can be romantic near the eggs at the grocery store. You can be a writer as you ride the elevator down to take out the trash. You can be a good person in how you answer the phone or how you send emails.
There’s a Tolstoy quote I love: “There is no past and no future; no one has ever entered those two imaginary kingdoms. There is only the present.”
No vacation, no special experience, not even a family outing, just happens on its own. There is planning. There is time off work. There is the expense. There is the intention–and this is wonderful and it should be celebrated, soaked in when it happens. Just be sure not to give yourself too much credit because you booked a trip to the beach or got them excited for ice cream or the movies.
Because in some ways, this is actually the easiest option. What’s tougher? To just be present right now. Anyone can wow their kids with dessert or Disneyland–but can you make them feel special playing Legos on the floor? Just sitting and talking about life?
All time is quality time…if you choose to make it so. And you can’t let your future plans–to have a great time together, to go do something together, to all be together–let you off the hook right now where you are also together, in the living room, at the doctor’s office, FaceTiming from the business trip.
This moment in front of you is a gift. It’s everything you’ll ever need and ever want.
Should you choose to accept it. Should you choose to embrace it.