life Parenting

Dead Time

March 23, 2021

I feel pretty good about how I spend my time lately.

Except for a certain window that I really want to work on. That window is approximately 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm.

I usually have very little energy by that time and quite honestly tend to use it to text, zone out, look at Instragram, etc. Lately I have been letting the kids watch an hour of TV at 7 pm. But honestly, I am not really happy with this.

For the kids or for myself.

Last Oct/Nov, I embarked on an experiment to really minimize my phone usage/scroll time to under 100 minutes (#operation100). And it freaking WORKED. You guys, I was so happy during that time! I read more books, felt more present with the kids, was just happy.

Then we got COVID, had a truly terrible winter ‘break’ that wasn’t a break, and began 2021 in a truly unsatisfying way. I haven’t been able to get my groove back since.

Yesterday I was scrolling and they were watching and I felt a) guilty b) empty and c) generally disappointed in myself. It’s not that I think an hour of TV is evil. It’s just that I have such limited time with the kids and I feel like I need to do better with that time. I’m also just . . . kind of drained by that point in the day. Annabel wanted to do “art class” and I should have gone with it. But I didn’t.

We are in the process of adding therapist and various learning specialist appointments (all at a financial + time cost!) to our lives and I feel like we are at a pivotal place in our family. I want to make sure our family culture feels loving and attentive and fun. AND YET in the moment sometimes I just find it so, so hard.

I don’t have an answer, but I know that:

1- I want to get back to the minimal phone / scrolling use that I had in November. I truly liked my life more when I had this structure firmly in place.

2- I want to use that hour better. Maybe if I don’t have energy for an inevitably raucous group activity, structuring one-on-one time is a good compromise – I can let 2 have screens and do something with the 3rd kid on a rotating basis. We could walk outside when the weather is nice.

3- I want to get my evenings in general to a place where they do not feel wasted. My mornings are great. My work days are . . . well, it varies. But I’m generally happy with the flow. Then I get home at 6 pm and it’s like – BLAHHHH. I would like to fix these hours. Oh, and building in some time with Josh would be nice too (when he’s here).

milestone: taking them on the tram was fun and not stressful! I gave them an A+ for their behavior on this ride over the weekend.
rice & salmon miso bowls – at least dinner was good (this was Sunday). Recipe sadly not online- from Dinner Illustrated, our #1 standby cookbook.


  • Reply Lori C March 23, 2021 at 7:00 am

    Sarah this window of time is the hardest for me too. We finish dinner and I’m emotionally and physically ready for everyone to go to bed. I’m out of ideas, so I’m excited to see what your readers have to say.

    I will say that last night I took 1 kiddo with me on a quick errand after dinner, and we stopped and grabbed ice cream for everyone on the way home, and it was perfect! By the time we got home it was bed time and the evening felt manageable and even fun. I should add that I never do this. After dinner I tend to lock down for the night, but maybe I should consider an outing once in a while like a walk or playground or something.

  • Reply Ashley March 23, 2021 at 7:06 am

    I hear you. Our kids are older now (teens and college students) but I sure remember those days vividly. I stayed at home with them and remember afternoons that seemed endless once everyone had outgrown naps. I loved to use that time to read aloud because it allowed me to sit and snuggle with them while they were quiet and, for the most part, still. It seemed to require very little bandwidth from me at a time of day when I felt like I had almost none. Just a suggestion that you probably have already considered…
    Hang in there, Mama. You are doing a great job filled with love and intention.

  • Reply Amanda March 23, 2021 at 7:23 am

    Ice cream is such a great backup, even if you can’t/shouldn’t do it all the time. Agree with getting outside after dinner, but I only have one 2.5 year old to contend with right now so I’m sure it’s much easier than with 2 or 3 to wrangle. Sarah I know you’re really intentional with your time so you’ve probably figured this out over the years, but any chance you need more sleep? Or is it more of an emotional exhaustion once you hit 6 pm? I really wish I could function well with less than 8 hours but I just, can’t. I’ve finally had to admit this to myself and while I don’t necessarily get as much done I feel a lot better and have more energy to play Elsa and Anna over, and over, and over again 🙄. Also I’m sure it is really hard when you’re the only parent home. I know sometimes when I’m tempted to turn on a show my husband will help motivate me to go for a walk/play a game and vice versa. Don’t necessarily have advice here but just saying, it’s hard and you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. And I definitely agree (as a pediatric neurologist) that 1 hour of screen time is NOT evil. Regardless of what’s going on with your kids’ neuropsychology stuff it seems like your kids are delightful and thriving.

  • Reply Chelsea March 23, 2021 at 7:29 am

    I second the suggestion of reading to the kids for a little while in there. Something that you enjoy, too, or remember enjoying as a kid. Hopefully that would give you the combination of togetherness and downtime/relaxation that you are craving at that point of the day.

    • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger March 23, 2021 at 10:56 am

      We do read at 8 pm – sometimes all together, sometimes just to C&G while A reads on own. But I could add more reading time earlier, too!

  • Reply Grateful Kae March 23, 2021 at 7:30 am

    What about looking for some shows that you guys can watch together on some of those nights? Snuggling up on the couch together and watching TV or a movie as a family feels very different to me than my kids watching something on their own while I’m off looking at my phone or sorting mail, etc. Then you can still kind of just veg out but you don’t have to actively “do” anything, either. But it still feels like time together, especially if it’s a show that you are laughing at together or talking about together. The rotating 1:1 time idea that you mentioned is nice, too. I love after dinner walks when it is warm here.

    • Reply JKDublin March 24, 2021 at 5:42 am

      I second this! We’ve started watching family shows during the 6.30-7.30 gap (on the nights where we don’t walk the dog), and I make an effort not to have my phone in my hand. My boys are a bit older (nearly 12 & 7.5) so the range of shows they like has started to meet my taste a little more, but we’ve always liked to watch baking competition show together (cake is a universal love!) and we’ve been enjoying things like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Modern Family as well. Sometimes we’ll even look at old Youtube clips (old NBA Slam Dunk contests or 80s music videos) but if we’re doing it as a family it feels less like default screen time.

  • Reply Amanda March 23, 2021 at 7:48 am

    Evenings are very similar in my house. As a mom with a full time career outside the home it is hard not feel like that precious hour and a half is wasted quality time with my kids, but like you I am just done by that time of day. But to be honest, I think my kids are too! They are 7 and 4 and both in full day Montessori school, so by the evening they have had a full day of work as well. There is nothing wrong with building down time into the family schedule! I just try to make sure we come back together and connect with them during our bedtime routine.

  • Reply Irene March 23, 2021 at 7:51 am

    I say, cut yourself some slack for another week or two while you digest the diagnosis and get the additional support you need. The emotional energy you need to do that is SO huge. If someone wants to play art maybe you can do that for 20 minutes? I don’t know. Kids need really intentional time but not necessarily tons of it. I truly can’t imagine doing my evenings alone almost every night so just do your best. Really big cuddles and a few special moments with each kid before bed goes a long way.

  • Reply Sophie March 23, 2021 at 7:51 am

    Is there a show you all enjoy you could watch together? For our family it’s Shaun the Sheep, and we sometimes watch it together in that hour before bedtime and it’s a fun low key way to have some family time. Otherwise one on one time and a walk outside is a good idea. I would just add that it sounds like things have been full on at home and at work lately so it’s natural to feel drained in the evening, be kind to yourself and I’m sure you’ll also have more energy and motivation once this more intense time has passed.

  • Reply gwinne March 23, 2021 at 7:52 am

    I appreciate this post! It made me realize that after dinner time is going pretty well for my family right now (it’s the slightly later 7:45 to 9:00 protracted bedtime for my 9 year old that makes me crazy!)

    My kids are older, so our needs are different, but we don’t do the same thing every night. Some nights my teen has (virtual) rehearsals for various things, and I hang out with the third grader. Last night we watched a movie together (Yes Day, which I highly recommend). Some nights we all work on a puzzle or play a game. Some times the third grader plays outside with a friend or does his own thing and I play chess with the teen. Sometimes, yes, ice cream.

    I agree with much of what’s been said above. Or having A read to you and the littler kids! When mine were younger (say, toddler and late elementary schooler) we’d go to a park and play.

    Also agree with the poster who said you might need more sleep; you wake so early…

  • Reply Lisa of Lisa’s Yarns March 23, 2021 at 8:43 am

    You have received lots of good advice already! I think most parents feel similarly about this time of day. And you are going through a lot with the recent dx so I think you should give yourself extra grace. I am struggling with this time of day, too. The baby is fussy and is going through his 4m sleep regression so I am just tired. We watch wheel of fortune as a family during this time which our toddler loves and has helped with letter recognition. And if he isn’t into the show we read him books which I prefer to playing. We will sometimes play board games. Maybe A and C could play a board game if they are into that and you could focus on G? But don’t put pressure on yourself to do this right now when you are in a period of adjustment.

    You are doing an amazing job! Don’t forget that! But sometimes we need others to point this out!

  • Reply Megan March 23, 2021 at 10:10 am

    Such a needed topic and love reading others’ ideas. 1. This is so common and the same at my house. Sometimes I feel guilty like if I don’t want to spend time with my kids in the week day evenings, when do I want to? 2. Ideas of others: TV show as a family – we have gotten into the Masked Singer. We are not a reality show family but I can see why they are popular with families. My kids (9, 6, 3) are all decently entertained. Reading: We started reading Harry Potter books (bought the big expensive illustrated versions – totally worth it!) and both 6 and 9 year old have gotten very into them. 3. Love your idea of 1:1 rotating time. Another option would be think of 1-2 ideas for the week to do with them and let the other evenings be lax. Parks/outside time saves me in the warm months. I was thinking of making list of elementary school parks to rotate through that are close. We also have been doing some baking to have an activity and a treat which even if it only take 20-30 min, it feels like something.

  • Reply Allison March 23, 2021 at 11:37 am

    It is a tough time for sure. I am often conflicted – I want to just get to “parents happy hour” i.e. post-bedtime, but I also want to intentionally enjoy the window I have with my kids. Reading is pretty low-energy and I thought the idea of A reading aloud might work. What about trying listening to an audiobook with the kids? It would be downtime for all without a screen. The book “The Enchanted Hour” kind of spurred me last year to try to look for ways to build in time. Perhaps Little House in the Big Woods or a Boxcar Children book would appeal somewhat broadly to your age range?

  • Reply L. March 23, 2021 at 11:54 am

    We tend to eat a little later than many families and we’re usually finished between 6:30/7. Then the 11-y.o. gets a final hour of screen time and goes to bed. Having her consistently in bed between 8 and 8:30 has worked wonders for my well-being, and she often falls asleep quickly, so it seems to be the right thing for her (last night she wanted me to rub her back when she went to be and she was asleep in 6 minutes). But when we have late afternoon/post-dinner time, it’s fun to make a quick batch of cookies (a recipe that makes just a dozen is perfect – mix them up and put them in the oven, send everyone to change into pj’s, and they’re out of the oven) or mug cakes which are done in the microwave in about 3 minutes.

  • Reply Sarah March 23, 2021 at 12:00 pm

    Agreed, this is the toughest time of day due to flagging energy. Yesterday I experimented with something new, taking a page from you and Laura after years of reading/listening and built in a weekday adventure (thanks for all the inspiration!). I picked my kiddo up from preschool at 5 and we drove 30 min to a sculpture park. I let her eat a “picnic dinner” while we walked. We talked about the art, watched some college crew practice on the river, and then on the 30 min drive home chatted about our days, which she is more willing to do without the distractions of home. It also gave me something to look forward to all day, and even though the last thing I wanted to do after a long workday was drive an hour round trip, once we were doing it, it was delightful. Certainly not an every day thing, but hoping to find a rotating once a week activity to make weeknights less blah.

  • Reply Elisabeth March 23, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    Yet again, Sarah, you’ve hit upon such a common happiness stumbling block – “unproductive” nebulous time. I think as women we feel this pressure to constantly be checking some box, bonus points if we’re doing something for someone else. I am always amazed to watch my husband feel ZERO guilt about spending hours scrolling online and pursuing his interests in an evening/on a weekend, where I feel guilt the whole time (right now, finishing my lunch, I feel guilty about reading/responding to this blog post because I could be doing a variety of work and personal tasks). I am constantly feeling or battling through guilt, and I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

    As soon as supper is over I want to crash. Funnily enough, both my brother and a doctor friend of mine both took short naps about 5:30/6:00 PM after the work day was over but pre-supper. I remember thinking this was so weird, as I never napped until I had kids, but now I totally get it. Obviously this would be nearly impossible with kids and would majorly impact my sleep patterns at night, but I think it’s very normal to feel tired and burned out at this stage in the day (especially since you have such an early wake time). Having kids also makes this transition tougher because you aren’t necessarily free to pursue the unwinding self-care that would make you happier and feel quasi-productive (it’s not easy to take a 20 minute shower and paint your toenails with a toddler in the house).

    I’ve realized that this evening struggle is a newer challenge for me; when my kids were little, one – or both – of them basically headed to bed right after supper. Now with them both awake so much later in the evening, instead of doing one last energetic push to get a kid in bed (where they promptly fell asleep), I now have to look down the barrel of the bedtime gun long past suppertime. And, often, my oldest (9) is still awake when I head to bed. She’s quiet and reading, but there is still the mental hurdle of being on-call should she need me and it’s not unusual for her to ask me to come in and snuggle.

    I think your general blog readership all highly value productivity and executing on a plan… and these extra hours may be the hardest to validate in our own minds. They don’t really feel like “down” time because the kids are awake and there are any number of tasks or kid-related play activities that could happen.

    1) You do a tremendous amount with your kids on the weekends, are a very involved parent, and you have invested in what sounds like a lovely nanny. Your kids are great. Really. So I’d say if the videos work for them, go for it!

    2) Is there something *you* could do in that time that would recharge you? You could also spend 20 minutes clearing clutter (one of my favourite activities to boost my mood), doing 10 minutes of stretches, or doing your skincare routine early so bedtime is more streamlined?

    3) You’re going to stick with something that doesn’t feel effortful. To me, playing games or doing make believe stuff with my kids drains me completely of energy – at any time of day! When I’m really stuck, getting in the car and driving somewhere – even if it’s a park 20 minutes away, really helps. I like the sensation of getting away from any lingering chores at home and even the car ride helps kill some time and can be a fun time to talk, listen to an audiobook, or just all be quiet.

    4) Have some go-to evening tasks that are mindless and yet help your future-self. Loading the washing machine, hardboiling some eggs or chopping veggies to have on hand, brushing my teeth post supper and filling my water bottle so it’s ready in the fridge for the morning. These tasks are so simple, but really have a big impact later on.

    Please report back! I can’t wait to read all the suggestions that come in.

  • Reply Omdg March 23, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    Lately I’ve been watching my daughter play Zelda at that time of the day while I lift weights, read, or do low key work. Then we go upstairs and she showers while I read my own book. Then we snuggle or sometimes read our own books before lights out. It’s been better than it was previously. I’d probably lose my mind if I tried to do a “real” activity at that time of day.

    Have you thought about signing A up for a virtual art class on Outschool? There are a bunch at that time of day and Dylan has been enjoying hers immensely.

  • Reply Evi March 23, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    Hi Sarah, Don’t be too hard on yourself. Given that you are up from 5am and have such productive days (which I admire), it is not surprising that you don’t have that much energy left in the evening. In my experience as a mum of a child with special needs, I know that getting specialist support does not only cost money and time, but it takes up a lot of your headspace as well (consciously and unconsciously). One thing that I have done is I have created an Evernote list with little things that I can do when I don’t have much mental energy left and when there is the risk to just do scrolling. There are things on there such as organising family pics on my computer, … Sending love.

  • Reply Kara March 23, 2021 at 1:46 pm

    I feel the same way about this time of day. Currently trying to find some type of harmony that minimizes guilt and maximizes mom-child connection. My current thoughts are to aim to 2-3 weeknights where I spend that time generally present with the kids. It could be something like family TV/snuggle time as readers have suggested, or simply enjoying ice cream outside after dinner while and playing something simple like “simon says” (while I relax with a glass of wine!) or perhaps overseeing kids bake cookies (the easy break-n-bake kind) and enjoying them together. This gives me the ability to decide the evening activity based on my level of energy, and also decide which weeknights I am most capable emotionally & physically to really connect with my kids. The other nights I am completely OK with them having TV. My goal is to implement this consistently for a month and see how it’s working. I think the bottom line is that it is unrealistic for me to always be “on” and engaged each weeknight during that time, so trying to find a balance that works.

  • Reply Erica Sparky March 23, 2021 at 2:35 pm

    I didn’t read the other comments but it seems like we are all in this together :-). I relate to this so much. We are finally emerging from a habit of watching an hour of tv together after dinner every night. Now we try to split our time and give each kid some individual attention two nights a week, and then one night where we do something as a family, then the other nights we watch a show. I’m lucky because we’ve got both parents here every night. But, it is hard to turn my attention on to the kids after a demanding day of using my brain and talking and being “on” at work, and the pull to zone out on my phone is strong! All this being said, when I was a kid we watched a ton of TV shows together as a family every night. Dinner in front of TV, then prime time sitcoms. TBQH those are actually fond memories, I have a PhD and a solid career, so I don’t think it did too much damage :).

  • Reply Jen March 23, 2021 at 3:09 pm

    Definitely glad to see in these comments some commiseration. We started a while ago to give a theme to each night of the week (to help break up our continuing lockdown monotony) – Monday is movie night, Tuesday is outside time, Wednesday is wild card (and has been mostly video games since we got a new game recently), Thursday is our bath night and that takes up most of the time, Friday game night, etc. It helps us, the parents, too because we don’t have to pick from all the things.
    To be honest sometimes we skip it – and just watch tv for a bit for some quiet time. But it is also hard to decide to do anything so this helps us. And the kids do like it too.

  • Reply Coco March 23, 2021 at 5:39 pm

    I’ve been there, especially during the pandemic, most of evenings when kids go down to sleep I felt guilty, that I should have spent more quality time with them. Slowly, I’ve changed few things and now I feel better. here’s what we do to make it good:
    – walk after dinner for 20-30 min. We don’t get to do every night but try to do whenever i’m not too tired
    – do homework together for 10-20 min while I read something light
    – lights out and lay in bed me with the girls for 10 min just chat or relax, then they go to bed happy as we’ve had that time, and I read 30-60 min until I get sleepy.
    it’s working as it forces me to attend to them and be with them. i realise i don’t need much time nor do they as long as we have that time.

  • Reply mamaMD March 23, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    Great advice on this thread. This is a really hard time of the day. I am usually totally wiped. It helps me to set low expectations (pretty much my motto for motherhood). Sometimes I have an idea of what I SHOULD do – something productive/creative/immersive with my children. But truly I think they just value being together (they are all 6 and under). So mostly we snuggle on the couch while they watch TV/play games on their iPads and show us what they are doing. Sometimes I read during this time. Sometimes I clean up while my husband holds down the fort on the couch (or vice versa). Other times we’ll split the kids up to have some 1:1 (or usually 2:1 time since we have 4 kids). I think they’re more likely to remember your presence than what you did with them.

  • Reply CBS March 24, 2021 at 6:26 am

    It is a really hard time of day. What’s the weather like? Could you get outside and do bubbles? Or sidewalk chalk or something. Maybe some fresh air would help you perk up?

    But also, give yourself some grace, you’re grappling with something hard/completely new.

  • Reply Lisa S. March 24, 2021 at 7:24 am

    This has been on my mind and heart recently now that my daughter is back to in person school. During virtual school and pandemic life I didn’t have the bandwidth for anything but post dinner tv. Now that we are slowly getting back to some routines (and child care!) I don’t feel great about using so much of the evening for tv. It’s a hard habit to break for all of us though so I’m start slow and with something that motivates me. I love reading and want my daughter to feel the joy of reading to yourself (v only being read to) so every day after dinner we are doing independent reading side by side. She’s only 7 so we are starting with small increments of time, but even doing ten minutes of this feels like a huge win right now. I loved reading everyone’s ideas and it helped me feel less alone in navigating the evening challenges.

  • Reply Louise March 24, 2021 at 8:34 am

    The thing that has really helped us has been to start playing games immediately after dinner but I do recognise that I genuinely enjoy playing cards, Cluedo etc. We have taught our 9 year old some more sophisticated games so maybe this might improve in the future for you. The way our evenings run now is 5.30 – 6.30 Screen time hour while I cook, read, listen to a podcast, clear up. 6.30-7 Dinner 7-7.30 Stay at the table with a cup of tea and play games 7.30 Bath – my husband tends to do this as I do find this 30 mins a drag so I tend to wash up instead (preferable) 8.00 In bed and reading 8.30 Lights out and asleep.

  • Reply Alissa W March 24, 2021 at 8:42 am

    These comments are so helpful! I also struggle with this time period. It depends on the day and how much energy I have. Some nights we’ll play a card game. Some nights my girls amuse themselves and I feel I should be productive. One thing that has helped me is identifying one task I want to get done so if I have the energy and conditions are right I know what to do. I liked the clutter cleaning idea someone else mentioned.

  • Reply Kersti March 24, 2021 at 10:23 am

    I don’t have kids but struggle with the same TV/phone rabbit hole after dinner. Some things I’ve been doing to replace those activities: jigsaw puzzle (if I have a good puzzle going, I will look forward to this all day); card games with my husband (often Sushi Go, which you can easily play in 15 min. while sleepy); doing physical therapy work for my hips, journaling; listening to music and diffusing some essential oils; and playing with or brushing the dog. Also we bought a LIGHTED bocce ball set to play in the backyard all year! You could also try Cornhole or a similar yard game for the little ones. I feel that life is much more enjoyable when I do these activities in the evening but they aren’t time consuming and don’t take much energy.

  • Reply Elizabeth March 24, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    I almost wonder if the real issue is that you don’t want to use that time on your phone, which is really the default path of least resistance. Maybe you would feel fine about letting the kids watch a show if you were reading a book instead of scrolling? Or possibly it would be fun to make it a day of the week thing—like MWF are screen times for kids and reading time for you, and TTh are puzzles and board games all together? Maybe you do pick a show that you and the kids all enjoy and that is Friday’s set activity? Sometimes varying what you do but to a regular schedule is enough to break up a rut and make it easy to stick with. But be sure to make the things easy and low energy. I would not be up for playing pretend, but could see myself working on a puzzle or playing a card game or checkers or chess during that time. Good luck!!

  • Reply Irena March 24, 2021 at 4:26 pm

    OMG, i can totally relate that three hours in the evening (5-8pm) is the most difficult time of my day. I am a scientist working for a large research hospital, and i do a lot of deep thinking, advanced stats, and technical writing during the day, so by the time when i am done – i am honestly exhausted. I have tried to “ease out” and spend afternoon times 4-5pm with relatively easy tasks, like mentoring students, thinking of new ideas, working with mentees, etc., but it still has not prepared me for the second shift at home that starts after i pick up my kids from school (both go to after-school program till 5 pm). Lately we have either being playing board games or i would let them color while i clean up the kitchen. So that i can have a little break before i begin reading books and doing the bedtime routine with my boys. We do have a designated “pool time” as a family on Friday nights, and “a movie night” on Sat or Sunday – which helps this tired mama with the bed time.

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