Every Friday night, 18 minutes before the sun sets, observant Jews around the world power down our phones, choose a few lights to keep on for the next 25 hours, and say a blessing over candles to bring in Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
I cherished Shabbat through my high school and college years — it gave me time to sleep, read, and relax with no schoolwork or distractions. It was hard to be off my phone, but mostly Shabbat was calm and rejuvenating.
When I first got married, Shabbat was a pleasure, too. I’d have quality time with my husband and we’d host our own guests. I’d sleep in and then meet him at shul. We’d walk home together for lunch and spend the afternoon eating, sleeping, reading, and walking through Central Park.
Then we had kids. Two of them, actually, in under two years. And suddenly, Shabbat started feeling less like a day of rest and more like a day of stress.
No matter what day of the week it is, our kids — now 2 and 4 — wake us up at crack of dawn. They require constant attention, all day long — and, as my family does not use electricity on Shabbat, we don’t have technology to help us out. It’s hard at the best of times, but during a pandemic, with two burnt-out parents, it can feel downright painful.
I’ve always struggled with spending the entire day with my children, with no time or space for quiet and rest. And now that they’re back in school all day during the week, I feel guilty that I’m not cherishing this time with them. But after having them at home all day, every day, for months on end — without breaks and no end in sight — being home with them all day on Shabbat each week brings up unhappy, anxious feelings of being stuck.
Still, Shabbat continues to arrive each week. And as the pandemic slowly begins to recede, I’ve begun to find small things that make Shabbat feel a little less taxing and a little more manageable. I hope these tips will help you, too.
1. Set reasonable expectations
The biggest step for me was figuring out how to accept Shabbat with young children for what it is. These days, it just isn’t possible for me to sleep in late or read all afternoon. For a long time, I tried to “reclaim” Shabbat by trying to stay in bed as long as possible or sneak off with a book, while my husband tended to the kids. But this never worked out as planned and left both of us irritated.
Coming to terms with our current reality really helped, however. Once I let go of how I thought Shabbat should be — i.e., long, lazy afternoons — I was able to think clearly on what my family’s Shabbat could be. For example, even if I can no longer spend the afternoon reading novels, I can use Saturday mornings to share my love for stories with my daughters and read picture books with them.
2. Fridays are for self care
My kids attend a Jewish preschool and have an early dismissal on Fridays. I realized the hard way that if I try to cram too much in during the scant four hours they are in school, I start my weekend off feeling frazzled.
Instead, I’ve started using Fridays to fill my cup as much as I can before they get home. As a part-time freelance writer, I’ve decided to not work on Fridays. Instead, I use the day to plan for the following week, order groceries online, and prepare Shabbat food without rushing. I make sure to put exercise and downtime into my schedule, too.
I know that this schedule isn’t feasible for those who work full-time, but we all need downtime at some point. Scheduling some during the week is especially important if you aren’t able to properly unwind on the weekends.
3. Easy meals
I love preparing big, beautiful Shabbat meals. At this stage in our lives, however, I prioritize conserving my energy. These days, I spend part of my low-stress Fridays preparing simple Shabbat meals. On Friday nights we’ll usually have soup, challah, dips, and maybe a salad or some chicken. On Saturday, we’ll have challah, dips, and egg salad for lunch and leftovers for dinner. My family rarely eats takeout, but if we did, I wouldn’t hesitate to order in for Shabbat to make my life even easier. What matters most is the time we spend together, not whether we’re eating homemade chicken soup or pizza.
4. Stick to the bedtime routine
When we let our girls stay up for Shabbat dinner, they become tired and act out — and it’s no fun for anyone. So, even on Friday nights, we serve them dinner and put them to bed at their usual time. Sometimes that’s before candle lighting, sometimes it’s after, depending on the time of year.
Regardless, my husband and I wait until they’re asleep to make kiddush and hamotzei. I know some families really enjoy getting their kids involved in the Friday night Shabbat rituals, but for now, this is working for us. Our kids do better on a consistent schedule and there’s something special about my husband and I enjoying a peaceful Shabbat meal together, just the two of us.
5. Spend time outside
Our favorite pandemic pastime has become taking family walks and, on Shabbat, we go for as many as we can. When the weather’s nice, we spend most of the day outside, in our backyard or at the park. Even on freezing winter days, we bundle up and take two or three long walks.
The fresh air is so good for all of us — being outside has been shown to elevate your mood and boost your health. Plus, these walks tucker out our kids so they’re more likely to go to sleep at their usual time on Saturday night. Lastly, after some undivided attention during a walk, they’re also more likely to play independently when we arrive home.
6. Encourage independent play
Our girls don’t usually take initiative to play on their own yet, but if we walk them to our basement playroom and set them up with a toy or activity, we can slip away and they’ll play together pretty nicely for a bit. Whether we get two minutes of quiet out of it or 20, this feels like a treat.
We also play a restaurant game, in which my husband and I sit on the couch and we give our food orders to our kids, who “prepare” the dishes in their play kitchen. This keeps them occupied for a while, bringing play food up and down the stairs. Sometimes we luck out and they get distracted and end up playing by themselves for a bit!
The secret to our success here is that we do not attempt to do anything else while they play; we just sit and chat. If we try to eat a snack, I swear they can smell it from the basement and they come running to get a bite. If we take out a deck of cards, they immediately join us and mess up our game. My advice: Do nothing, so that there is nothing fun and exciting for them to interrupt.
7. Play with them
Yes, this tip seems obvious, but playing on the floor with our kids is not something either my husband or I particularly enjoy. Still, I find that trying to get into it helps pass the time and we don’t need to play for hours on end. If our attention is really undivided, 5 or 10 minutes goes a very long way and they often move on to playing with each other, so we can sneak away for some quiet.
We also encourage them to play in ways that we enjoy, like kicking a soccer ball around the basement.
8. Tag-team childcare
The nice thing about weekends is that my husband and I are both around, so we prefer to spend time together as a family. But if one of us is at the end of their rope, the other will take the kids and give the parent who’s losing it a break. Alternatively, we’ll divide and conquer; we each play with a single child for some one-on-one time. It’s not the same as a long, proper rest, but these little breaks throughout the day make a big difference.
9. Get help
I realize that this isn’t an option for everyone, but two to three hours of help midday has been a game changer for us. At first, it felt unnecessary to get help when my husband and I are both around, but now we consider it essential. Sometimes my kids go to my mom’s house and other times we hire a babysitter.
A few hours of quiet in the middle of a long, loud day is glorious. We can nap or read or go for our own quiet walk, or simply eat lunch in peace, just the two of us. It almost feels like the Shabbats of our newlywed days. Almost.
No matter what we do, I don’t think I’ll ever adore Shabbat with young kids. And that’s OK! I keep reminding myself that this is just a season. Soon my girls will be teenagers, sleeping till noon, and I may find myself missing them while they’re still in the house. Or, I just may sleep the day away with them.
Hey, busy parents! Want to learn more about finding meaning in Shabbat with young kids at home? Check out The Kveller Shabbat Guide!
Header image via Malte Mueller/Getty Images