My kids just keep talking. The four-year-old preschooler and seven-year-old second grader ask why the sky is blue, if we can have popsicles for breakfast, and how come Daddy has a penis and Mommy doesn’t — all within the first five minutes of them waking up. That happens to be 5 a.m., when the Vegas desert sun begins its 100 degree ascent into the summer sky.
Like many around the world, my kids are basically stuck in the house 24/7 during COVID-19. My wife, a pediatrician, is supporting the front line at her office. As the boys’ primary caretaker since their births, I am manning the other front line. While there is slow, steady progress in my partner’s battle, I seem to be losing a Sisyphean fight. I’m an introvert parent and need time alone to recharge, to be my best self. But now? That time is rare.
It took me some time to realize that I needed quiet, alone time to recharge. I would have a wonderful time connecting with new people, chatting with various folks at a social event, or having deep conversations. But, suddenly I’d feel exhausted. It wasn’t sleepiness. It was more like a grogginess, as if I couldn’t hear as well or express myself as clearly as was.. As I got older, I noticed I had my own particular cycle: A lot of social activity, followed by necessary periods of relative quiet and solitude. Throughout the years, I’ve carved out a routine that allows me to do this, consciously creating a path where I can work from home and make my own schedule based on my own needs. Is the phone ringing? Unless I’m expecting a call, I don’t have to answer it.
It was all by design. And I tried to maintain the routine when I became a father. People think being a balanced, even-keeled dad is a personality trait. It isn’t. I am my best when I can have moments of solitude and recharge time. while my boys are at school. Without it, I am more likely to be extremely sensitive to my own feelings and less sensitive to others’ — not exactly the best combination for the father of very young boys.
During the pandemic, many say that introverts should be thriving. But that isn’t the case for me. I am certainly not my best self.
“It can be a strain on introverted parents to not be getting any time to themselves – that can lead to conflict,” says Susan Cain, author of the best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “Introverted parents have to be really vigilant about claiming that alone time.”
“The fact is that introverts and extroverts really do have different nervous systems,” Cain once said in an interview. “We are wired differently. Introverts have a nervous system that reacts more to all forms of stimulation — whether that’s light, noise, or social life. They are more productive and comfortable in environments that are less stimulating.”
In other words, it’s difficult being an introvert parent because my children aren’t interacting with me based on my social energy level, of course, but on their own. Before the pandemic, I would certainly have my rough days, where I barely had the energy to be social, but I knew that I just had to get through the late afternoon to the early morning when my preschooler and first grader would be back out of the house again. I could push my non-essential meetings, squeeze in a quick nap, or just be in silence for several hours. As soon as the quiet kicked in, I could feel my energy coming back.
Now there is no school day break and my energy wanes. I find myself taking longer in the bathroom, walking twice as slow to check the mail, or sitting reflectively for a moment or two during the rare quiet moments when both of my boys are completely focused on devouring their lunch.
It worried me. But then I realized something: as a primary caretaker, I have already dealt with this. I needed to remember what it was like being a brand new dad, home alone with my 4-month-old for the first time as my wife’s maternity leave ended. I was a first-time entrepreneur, bootstrapping my app So Quotable, and a first-time father, trying to make sure my son lived through the day.
Time passed like thick molasses. Little oddities expanded into major events. Routines provide both boredom and solace.
Now, with my day a patchwork of whatever happens to work in the moment, I’ve found myself drawing on the tiny routines that helped me keep my sanity when my boys were babies. I stay up a little later at night to sit alone quietly. While sacrificing a few minutes of sleep, this actually helps me feel more recharged the next day. I also squeeze in a five-minute meditation while the boys play, their distant shouts not only a reminder that their intention is only to have fun, but a nice exercise in staying focused within the chaos.
These snippets of self-care are a start. They help. As I work towards our unique balance, I still have to find ways to create peace within normal parenting chaos. I have to look for them. But sometimes they appear on their own. One day, I had laryngitis and, alone with the kids, I realized how much I could communicate and how much more I actually listened when I had to talk less. Now, I put the verbal ball in their court more often. It helps me spend less energy. It helps me hear them more.
It also reminds me, even for those of us who are primary caretakers, how little time many of us spend with our sons. My kids spent up to 30 hours a week at school, leaving breakfast time, dinner time, and bedtime as our primetimes. The pandemic shows just having them a few more hours a day is enough to overwhelm the senses. Even particularly active parents like myself only spend a fraction of the day with our kids.
Eventually, we’ll earn our alone time back. I’ll have my time to recharge. Society and the economy will rebalance in some form. Kids and adults alike will be able to safely connect in person. Unlike money, we will never get this time with our kids again.
Where did the last four months go? Or, better yet, where will the next four months go? We only can control one with our decisions now.
As I finish this, my four-year-old, 40-pound son is sitting on my head. He is asking random questions about vitamins. My seven-year old is asking about snacks. He is always asking about snacks.
One day, they won’t use me as a human jungle gym or view me as a walking encyclopedia, if not assume I’m an idiot. Sooner than we think, the human hamster wheel will spin up again. In a blink, I’ll have some of my solitude again.
I will relish it. But I will also miss this. Maybe I’ll give them some extra snacks today. I’ll give myself some, too.