I work a 9-to-5-ish job. The "ish" part is because I rush home from work each day to spend whatever sliver of face-time I can get with my toddler.
I try to leave not a second later than 5:00, and often leave work even earlier, because my 2-year-old starts to lose steam by 6:00. By 6:30 or 7:00 his bedtime routine in in full swing. That means I have a tiny window in which to spend quality—or really any time with him, an hour or two at most. And that time competes with my dinging phone, a host of chores, and both of our end-of-day weariness.
The sorely limited mom-baby time during the workweek is sad. It's not enough. But it's the reality for me and so many other working moms.
If we get a few minutes of cuddle time or can squeeze in a couple of books, I consider the evening a win. Bath time isn't just an item on the checklist; it's the most intimate, dedicated, uninterrupted precious few minutes we get together each night. It would be a travesty to spend it in a conference room facing people in business casual.
I love my job, and I love having a professional life, but I will not compromise that those precious minutes I get with my child in the evening by staying at work late. I will decline meeting invites that people send me for slots after 5:00. Unless there is a literal fire, I will put unfinished work on the back-burner and hightail it out of the office.
In a perfect world, we would be applauded for our commitment to our families and discouraged from logging on after hours. We would be shamed for sliding into our seats early because it means we're missing breakfast with our kids and watching milk drip down our kid's chin is way more important than spreadsheets. We should be home before dark and in time for a full evening stretch to rest our cerebellums and hug our loved ones. Because we won't get that time back. Ever.
But it's far from a perfect world.
While I've had the pleasure of working in a couple of places where the office becomes a dead zone after 6:00—you can see a tumbleweed roll by—the much more common scenario has been that there's an unspoken race to see who can work the longest. Because more time still translates to a more dedicated employee, or so we continue to reinforce.
In order to contend with that I-see-you-so-you-must-be-dedicated culture, I don't feel great about running out when the clock strikes 5:00. Like many other working parents, I feel compelled to make up for any lost time by booting up my laptop after my kid goes to sleep and cramming in some extra hours. It's not an ideal scenario, but it chips away at the guilt I feel about leaving early. And frankly, (for better or worse) I feel like the optics of working late into the night give my reputation the same boost that sitting at my desk until 7 p.m. might.
I get to work by 8:30 each morning. I rarely take a lunch break. I work faster than most of my colleagues, and always have, while still producing work of equal quality. I would argue I often work harder, smarter, and more efficiently as well, in good part because I know I have the double standard of being a female (gender pay gap) and a mom (motherhood penalty) working against me.
Perhaps the tide is shifting. Remote and flexible work arrangements are increasingly common. Startups and newer companies have that mentality baked in from the start, and younger cohorts are demanding a move away from the stodgy desk-culture of yesteryear. All that momentum is pressuring the legacy companies to rethink their dynamics and to flex their expectations. I've been lucky enough to experience some of that. I've also worked really hard to avoid any problems.
Despite the stronghold the old guard still holds, and the general temperament in America that time spent working is a measure of worth, I am hopeful that we will continue to move in a direction that values families first and gives workers the flexibility to carve out their own schedules.
In the meantime, I'll do what it takes—including pulling out my computer and poring over docs long after the last board book has been read—to ensure I can make my most important engagement of each day: bath time.
This story originally appeared on Apparently.