Time away from kids is the white space in a work of art

Balancing ignoring time with meaningful interaction between family members contributes to a richer inner-life for everyone involved

It's close to midnight when my neighbours pull up in their car and ease into the parking space next to mine. They get out tipsily, waving goodbye to the valet who drove them home, and stare into my car. In the driver's seat, the light from my phone casts an eerie blue glow on my face. It's a little warm in here, because I killed the engine half an hour ago. I wave sheepishly at them.

"What are you doing?" they ask, when I roll down the window.

"Uh," I say. "Avoiding my kids."

They laugh, chalking it down to another one of my eccentricities - like sitting in the corridors in a beach chair, dumpster-diving and wandering around with uncombed hair - and we part ways.

It's hard for them, I know, with their darling five-year-old daughter in tow, to see that I'm dead serious.

Some days, hiding in the car is my way of giving myself - as well as my children - much-needed space.

The insidiousness of the myth of "quality time" is that it cons you into a narrow definition of what time with your kids should be like.

By the time I finally drag myself from the car and make my way slowly upstairs, I hope the Supportive Spouse would already have put our boys to bed. That, instead of waiting to ambush me by flinging off their blankets and giving me saucer eyes, the 11-year-old and his seven-year-old brother are already cocooned in sleep.

Parenting magazines are rife with articles on how to spend quality time with your family, or columns on putting down that iPhone to concentrate, really concentrate, on your children.

I suspect that this obsession with quality time comes out of a world in which efficiency is paramount: As time-strapped parents, how can we do the most amount of parenting and loving within the shortest amount of time?

Maybe guilt plays a part in this pervasive rhetoric, that parents are expected to engage fully with their offspring. If one spends much of one's time in the office, then family hours deserve a similar kind of devotion and professionalism, too. Home becomes work. Adult homework.

For years, I unthinkingly subscribed to this culture.

When my kids came home from school, I hovered around them and made sure I was available for conversation, games and "educational activities". I insisted on being in the same room as they were, answering questions and showering them with attention. Perhaps, when they were younger, this was the kind of stimulation my boys needed.

But it also placed a kind of low-grade stress on me. Someone always had to entertain the kids, and that self-appointed someone was me. It didn't occur to me that what my family - comprising one work-from-home parent and another who had his own office but flexible hours - needed was the opposite of quality time.

We needed ignoring time.

We were lucky to be able to spend much of our time together, but I fell into the trap of thinking that it was time squandered.

The insidiousness of the myth of "quality time" is that it cons you into a narrow definition of what time with your kids should be like. Watching television with your kids? Used to be that parenting coaches would have villainised such behaviour as passive and unproductive. Answering e-mail messages on your laptop while your kid sat quietly next to you? Oh, here's a list of detrimental effects on the child in the long run.

I couldn't see that, short of toxic quarrels, there were few things that were useless that you could do with your family. Family, precisely, is formed by the accretion of little things you do, out of necessity, in one another's presence: frying pork in the kitchen while the children fiddled with their Lego blocks in the living room; mopping the floor while they do their homework; watering the plants while they kicked around a ball.

Ironically, planning for quality time often made me the un-fun mum. The one standing with my hands on my hips, screaming at everyone to get their acts together and help me pack for the picnic/road trip/party/staycation, because I was so determined that we were going to enjoy every minute of our bonding time.

It has taken me a long time to relax and appreciate the harmony in our mundane existence.

While I'm thankful for and treasure the time I spent with my sons when they were tykes, I have gradually figured out that, for the work-from-home parent, there is much to be said for the subtle art of ignoring your children.

Now that the boys are in primary school, they have started having their own friends, lives and interests. The elder son, especially, is grateful to be ignored, so that he can chat on the phone or work on coding projects. Sometimes, he just wants to space out on the couch or in his room, day-dreaming about goodness-knows-what.

As a writer, I've grown to recognise that look: the same look I have when I'm thinking about story plots or characters. Why shouldn't he have the privilege to do what I do?

The younger son, meanwhile, demands that I leave him alone, free to bury his nose in a book.

Ignoring time, if balanced with meaningful interaction between family members, contributes to a richer inner life for everyone involved. It is the white space in a work of art. The breathing space in any habitat.

As I write this, I am looking at a postcard tacked above my desk: The Gas Giants Of Our Solar System, picked up during one of those "educational trips" to the Science Centre with my kids years ago.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. They are like the four of us in my household - Dad, Mum, Big Brother and Little Brother - orbiting the sun on individual paths, but held together by gravitational attraction.

• Clara Chow is the author of Dream Storeys and co-founder of art and literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'Time away from kids is the white space in a work of art'. Print Edition | Subscribe