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Time for a confession.

Before I was a parent, I used to feel very critical–judgmental, even–of the concept of “quality time” as opposed to quantity of time. Mind you, I still think it can be used as an excuse for not spending time with your kids, because we all know that you can’t control when those quality moments happen. It’s like catching a really good sunrise: you can’t predict them. You have to just keep waking up early, and eventually you’ll see an amazing one.

But I’m starting to appreciate the value of quality over quantity.

It’s not as though I’m away from my daughter a lot–I’m still her primary caregiver. I’m still with her for most of every day. But after years of being with her all the time, including all night long every night, I can really, really appreciate the value of a break.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had a few days–some of the first in her life–when I spent most of the day apart from her.

Once it was because I was doing a DiaperFreeBaby exhibit table at an event that ended up lasting longer than I planned (read: all day. Which was awesome). Once it was because my husband took her to the zoo all day. And a couple of times, it’s been because she spent most of the day at preschool.

I was hesitant about starting her in preschool so early. To be honest, I still feel torn about the whole concept of preschool for a kid who isn’t even four years old. But I’m so glad we did it, because she loves it. It’s a wonderful feeling to watch her jump around in delight when I tell her that today is a preschool day. When I drop her off in the morning, she runs ahead of me and hardly glances back to say goodbye. She talks constantly about her preschool friends and the games they play. And she cries when I arrive to pick her up, begging to stay longer.

Part of the reason she always wants to stay longer is because a few of the kids stay for after-school care. It’s only a couple more hours–they leave at 2 instead of at 12:30–but she always felt left out. She wanted to stay and have lunch with her friends. So in the past few months, I’ve started letting her stay sometimes. When I have an appointment, those two extra hours to get work done make a big difference. The first time I let her stay, I was really nervous–I was afraid I hadn’t packed enough lunch, or she would be thrown off by the change in her routine–but she was thrilled. Now she wants to stay every day.

This week, I have an appointment with my midwife and a dentist appointment, so she’ll be staying late all week.

Which is weird for me.

Especially now that she goes to bed at a decent hour (read: 7 pm, instead of 11 pm–big difference, right?), having so little time with her feels really strange. Today, I got up with her, made her breakfast, helped her get dressed, and took her to school. And then I didn’t see her again for five hours. Five! When I picked her up, she still didn’t want to leave. By the time we got home, it was only a few hours till dinnertime. Normal days seem to drag forever–she’s getting better at entertaining herself, but she still wants regular attention, regular intervention, regular activities that I help her with. Today, the afternoon felt so short. Before I knew it, I was making dinner and putting her to bed. I hardly had any time with her at all.

And yet–the time that we had was wonderful. On days when she has preschool–especially when she stays there longer–I have so much more energy for the time we do spend together. Today she was acting grumpy and tired, so I convinced her to lie in bed with me for a while (she hasn’t napped in years). We started playing a game of peek-a-boo with the pillows and the blankets, and soon we both were laughing hysterically. It was so much fun for both of us. Usually by that time of day I’m so exhausted from entertaining her that I can hardly pay attention to her, much less be creative or playful. But today I could have fun with her.

And our little moment of quality time must have been special for her, too, because tonight at bedtime she wanted to do it again. She urged me to get under her covers with her and put the pillow over both of her heads, so we could pretend to be in a cave again. So we could relive our earlier moment of play and connection.

I’m not ready to get a job away from home yet (although it’s tempting), and I’m hoping to be as present for my next child’s first few years as I was for my daughter’s. But I’m coming to see that it’s good to be away. I’ve always known this–I feel strongly that our modern ideal of a mom who takes care of her kids solo all day, every day is abnormal and unhealthy–but it’s still hard to let go of that ideal. It’s hard to believe that I’m not supposed to be supermom, always 100% present with my kids, with all my energy and creativity intact.