Why Spending Time Alone Is The Key To Keeping Your Family Together

Get out there and be somebody.

by Jonathan Stern
Originally Published: 
A man standing on a hill overlooking a small town surrounded by greenery and mountains

Everyone catches themselves at some point reminiscing about when they had friends, free time, and interesting hobbies. It lasts until your toddler smacks you upside the head and babbles something like “Knock it off, I own you.”

If only there were a way to carve out some alone time for yourself; a time to maintain your individuality and be a better husband and father and not a codependent sad sack. (Hey, nobody told you to stop folding socks!)

Famed couples therapist and TED rockstar Esther Perel has a way, and it involves drawing boundaries around your time, doing activities that are in your best interest (and not necessarily your kid’s), and not feeling guilty about wanting to just run out the door screaming. Because while you may feel like being a good parent means setting aside your life because the kids need you, the truth is that it’s better for everyone when, occasionally, you do you.

Are You The Front Row Parent?

Good parenting is like bad dancing — if you’re doing it right, you and your partner are constantly switching leads. Perel says that most couples go through times when one person is the prima ballerina of diaper-changing (you look great in a tutu, by the way), while the other parent is the career-driven backup dancer.

“In every couple there’s going to be a front row parent,” says Perel. “It’s the parent who, from the beginning, has an easier time letting go of their sense of time to fill the time of the child. One parent becomes the one who preserves the family.”

If you’re not that person, you need to be the other one: The one with the stiff drink, the back rub, the compliments, and the pushing them out of their responsible comfort-zone. What you don’t need to be is right there with them, micromanaging the micro-management.

“If you’re able to appreciate being complementary, you get a system that can really survive those first 5 years,” says Perel. “Those are the years with the highest rate of divorce, and if you get through them, you have a likelihood to actually stick it out.”

Push Yourself Out

Sometimes you need to get your partner out of the house for their own benefit. “There is a certain energy that my family would see that I would get into. It said, ‘I’m about to explode,’ and they would just say, ‘You need to go to yoga — go run, go swim.’

Perel said that when she came back from her version of a swimming yoga marathon, she felt like a different person and ready to reengage her family. “I have been thankful to them so much about that. At the time I would fight it, but then they learned to fight me more.”

Don’t Waste Your Time

Babies ruin everything, including how you prioritize your life. In the beginning, they’re helpless humans that need you to do every goddamn thing every goddamn hour, every goddamn day. But as they get older, they’ll be fine if you skip a soccer practice or their best friend’s Chuck E. Cheese extravaganza.

“Everything is defined by the needs of the child,” says Perel, who recognized quickly that she wasn’t the type to do the weekend circuit of soccer games and pizza parties. “There’s judgement on people who are not marching in the ranks. I am not spending my Saturdays at these boring games, cheering for the first time [my kids] touch a ball in 47 minutes. I am not going to a birthday party for a ine-year-old in one of those screaming gyms with people that I have no connection to. The pressure was big then, and I think the pressure is 10 times bigger now.” You kid’s best friend will get over your absence.

Hey, Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone

So you want to go off and do you own thing (or something with your spouse), but your children haven’t mastered the art self-reliance? Instead of peeling off cash for date night babysitters, why not just enlist some likeminded parent friends? “For most people in this country, having a child means a renewed isolation,” says Perel. “It’s the opposite of what it should be. Have a family of choice — a bunch of people so you don’t feel like it’s all on you.”

For Perel that “family of choice” was a bunch of her friends who would take turns inviting the kids for a sleepover. If you don’t have parents who live close by (or just wish they didn’t live close by) and you hate being gouged by the local Babysitting Mafia, see if your parent friends will go for this sort of arrangement.

“It calmed me to know that other people can take care of them and that they’re fine. At 2, 7, or 10 … The minute I saw my kid in somebody else’s arms I thought, ‘Okay, if ever something happens to me, they could live.’ That’s just a personal thing,” she says.

Trust Everything Will Be Fine

If you feel like you can’t leave the house because your spouse is going to start feeding the baby dishwasher packs and using the microwave oven as a hand dryer, maybe you should stay home. But that’s not going to happen.

“Can you accept that you’re important but not indispensable?” asks Perel. “That it doesn’t all revolve around you and your identity will not be diluted because you actually were not so essential, and that they managed perfectly fine even if they did it differently than you.” If the answer is yes, then what are you doing still hanging around? Get out there and be yourself for a minute.

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