I love my child and consider him a true blessing after years of struggle to bring him into the world. I dove into parenting with eyes wide open, embracing the 24/7 needs of the sweet little human being entrusted to me and my husband. Most days, I couldn’t get enough of his big blue eyes, sly smirks, and happy coos, and would gaze at him for what seemed like — and probably was — hours on end. But, over time, I began to stumble a bit in my new role as parent.
Minor parenting hurdles began to take on more weight than I care to admit. Emotions were growing more intense than they needed to be. My patience, at times, was waning. I wasn’t proud of how I was feeling and figured that the stress of parenting was simply intensifying as our little boy became more active, engaged and strong-willed.
Some much-needed self-reflection helped me understand what was happening: I had committed myself so completely to round-the-clock childcare that I had forgotten to nourish the parts of me that weren’t just Mom. I had spent the prior years largely focused on me — my career, search for a life partner, travel with friends, exercise, and fun hobbies that kept a skip in my step — and truly relished a life of spontaneity. I was embarrassed to admit that I was secretly longing for a return to that spontaneity, if only for a moment here or there. Life was obviously out of balance.
Some Moms and Dads are masters of the parenting domain and aren’t significantly impacted by the major life changes that accompany the arrival of a bundle (or bundles) of joy. I applaud those people. Even for those who aren’t fazed by the monumental life shift, the sleepless nights, thousands of diaper changes and bottle washes, and intermittent crying jags and tantrums do take their toll. As children grow, the daily challenges shift to school and friend issues, schedule and carpool juggling, and battles over the amount of technology a child can enjoy, but remain equally weighty.
Experts agree that successfully weathering the highs and lows of life as a parent requires intermittently stepping away from the role and enjoying critical alone time to recharge.
“In order to care for someone, you have to be taking care of yourself,” says Dr. Adele Kauffman, clinical psychologist and mother of two daughters in their 20s. “You don’t have as much to give to your child if you’re depleted, and your child may ultimately suffer. This doesn’t happen all the time, but it can happen. It’s easier to be a happy parent if you’re getting some of your own needs met.”
Dr. Kate Roberts, licensed child and family psychologist, parenting coach, and mother of two boys, believes that alone time has to be scheduled for parents in our hectic, technology-driven society.
“There are so many distractions today,” she notes. “If people don’t set aside a time and place for alone time and self-reflection, they risk getting burned out, losing focus, feeling overwhelmed, and getting more anxious, which creates a negative spiral. The single-biggest impact [of not finding alone time] is that your stress level is increased. And there is research that suggests stress impacts children much more than the amount of time a parent does or does not spend with his or her children.”
A particularly concerning study on childhood stress exposure — published in the January/February 2013 issue of Child Development — reports that significant parental stress during a child’s first few years can go so far as to affect the child’s genes associated with insulin production and brain development — more than a decade later. Meanwhile, a 2010 “Stress in America Survey” by the American Psychological Association suggests that most parents underestimate the impact of their stress on their children. Nearly 70% of surveyed parents of teens and tweens believed that their stress had little or no impact on their children, while only 14% of surveyed children claimed that their parent’s stress didn’t trouble them. The study further noted that children as young as 8 reported experiencing physical and emotional health consequences often associated with stress.
Benefits of alone time extend beyond minimizing stress on parents and children. For parents, a marriage or other adult relationship can thrive with more time, attention, and nurturing. And for children, interacting with people other than their parents — another family member, babysitter, teacher, coach — exposes them to different personalities, points-of-view, and experiences that provide them with the space to figure out what is important to them and to learn how to become their own people.
Many parents still experience a nagging guilt about making themselves a priority and detaching from their children for self-care.
“I feel guilty at the thought of leaving my boys to take advantage of alone time,” says Amy Cunningham, of Wakefield, a mother of 3-year-old twin boys. “I worry that something will happen to them when I’m gone. Plus, I feel I know best how to take care of their needs.”
“I feel guilty for the first 30 minutes I’m away, but then I’m able to detach,” adds Victoria Cooper, of Melrose, mother of a 10-month-old son. “I often think about life before I was a mom. Now we sacrifice most, if not all, of our free time. In order to be better mothers, I feel we need alone time more than ever.”
Kauffman suggests several ways to overcome parental guilt in the quest for this critical alone time: “Talk to other parents who feel that it’s helpful or find a peer group where others are taking the time. Doing it and seeing that your child is OK without you also works. Seeing that the result is worth it will help you overcome the conflicted feelings. Long-term, it’s good for kids to see that their parents are participants in the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean a paying job — it could be volunteering or participating in various activities in the community. These are good lessons and a good model for kids.”
The verdict is in. Our sanity, our children and our relationships will benefit from occasional alone time. And alone time doesn’t have to be extraordinary. It can be as simple as enjoying a cup of coffee in a quiet house, going for a jog or hike, or doing some leisurely shopping without simultaneously juggling a fussy toddler or eye-rolling tween.
Consider the popular saying, “Happy Wife, Happy Life.” Can’t we turn that on its head to become “Happy Parent, Happy Child”? And isn’t that what we’re all striving for at the end of the day? So let’s start penciling in that time to re-energize, re-focus, and recommit to being the loving and engaged parents our children so richly deserve.