Being a parent can sometimes feel like playing the same level of a video game over and over again. You face wave after randomized wave of snack requests, poopy diapers, and fights about toys, a seemingly endless montage of sameness. It’s stressful. It’s boring. It feels like this for a reason. “Children’s needs are pretty constant,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, licensed psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of Kid Confidence. Even with the most solid routines, each day can easily turn into an improv act, where you’re just trying to survive and constantly performing a mental juggling act that offers no sense of calm or completion. “We’re thinking about the next thing we have to be doing or the thing that we’re not doing,” she says.
This is true for a lot of parents. What’s needed, then, is a break, a chance to pull back and clear your head. Groundbreaking, right? Yes, the suggestion of time for yourself is not new; the big question is always how do you pull it off?
Money, work, and available babysitting are real constraints when it comes to finding time for one’s self. But a large part of it comes from drawing some boundaries with your children to get time apart. Another part of it is an attitude shift, the biggest one being that you don’t want to feel guilty wanting time apart. The desire isn’t selfish or destructive; it’s necessary.
“If you’re not rested and at your best, you lose the long game,” says Keith Miller, licensed clinical social worker in Washington, D.C., and creator of Mindfulness & Emotional Fitness. He poses the options like this: “Do you want to be good over time, or great for 10 minutes and be a complete jerk for the rest of the day?”
When put that way, it’s not a hard choice. The first thing to do might sound like the anti-remedy, but it’s to spend more time with your kids, but with more intent. As Kennedy-Moore says it’s about adopting a “Be here now,” attitude. This can blunt both the franticness and boredom that comes with playing whatever for the 18th time. It’s not 100 percent effective, but when you commit all-in to whatever is in front of you, being present is more possible. “It makes it more satisfying for you and the kids,” she says.
The bigger play is to get some time for yourself and each other. Lesli Doares, a licensed marriage and family therapist and creator of the Hero Husband Project, says some of the fires that parents feel they’re constantly putting out are actually self-inflicted; meals and bedtime being two main culprits. With food, it’s feeling like a short-order cook, trying to satisfy everyone’s palate. With sleeping, it’s falling into the web of “just one more book.”
The answer with both is establishing reasonable, consistent routines, and, and, and, sticking with them. For dinner, plan out the week so each night isn’t a scramble, and have the kids suggest a night’s meal, giving them buy-in; if they can be part of the cooking, building self-esteem and kitchen chops, even better, Doares says. For bed, it could be three books, a hug and a kiss. Whatever it is, it’s just known. There will be pushback, with pleading, and big, sad eyes, but that should not shake your resolve. “Our job is to have limits,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Their job is to test them.”
The ultimate intent is to turn the boundaries into time away. The what-to-do could be anything — exercise, poker night, a neighborhood walk just as long as it’s enjoyable. The guilt that you’re not fulfilling your duty of complete self-sacrifice is what gets in the way. Martyrdom, however, benefits no one. “You end up resenting your children and that’s poison in any relationship,” Kennedy-Moore says.
Here’s what happens when you get some separation: You get to miss your kids. They get to miss you. You get to recharge and they get that freshened-up version. They also get to be around other voices and are nudged into their own decision-making since you can’t swoop in to fix every situation. Far from breaking, they’ll build resiliency, Kennedy-Moore says.
The next step is for parents to reconnect as a couple. One thing that takes no planning is having “How Was Your Day?” conversations. The question is basic, direct, and disappears over time in a relationship, but it’s how you find out what’s going on, and it’s a sign of caring. “People like to be asked,” Kennedy-Moore says. “We just know the person better. Intimacy is about knowing the person better.”
During couple time, Doares says, just don’t talk about the kids or your relationship. Kennedy-Moore makes it even simpler: Just have fun. You could hire a sitter in order to do Saturday morning errands, if the two of you come home laughing, it works.
You don’t even have to leave the house. You could hole up in the bedroom for 30 minutes, with the kids occupied with a show, the door locked, and the warning that unless there’s blood or fire involved, you are not to be disturbed. It’s another boundary, and another one they’ll eventually accept, Doares says. Kennedy-Moore adds that small and consistent plans, rather than the occasional big event, are likely the better option. They’re more doable and provide something to look forward to. Plus, their regularity tamps down expectations.
All of this is difficult. The push to make these plans happen is moderate at best. Time alone doesn’t generate income or, say, build foreign language skills in a first grader. It’s easy, then, to push it aside and never revisit, because it feels too selfish and non-essential.
“It isn’t,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Giving your kids happy parents is one of the most generous things you can do.”