The first secret of happier parenting: Give yourself breaks

photo-317Long time readers of this blog know that my husband travels a lot for work. I am not thrilled about this, but that is not the subject of this post. What is: how one can handle long stretches of time on solo parent duty while staying sane.

This past weekend, we had one of my least favorite situations, which is that my husband had an early Monday morning meeting in Switzerland. This required him to leave on Sunday afternoon. He had to take a 5:45 p.m. flight from Newark, which required leaving our house at a bit after 3. Given that this was just after everyone left from our post-baptism brunch, I knew I’d want to be in decompression mode just in time to take on 5.5 hours of dealing with all four kids (while simultaneously trying to do the work I needed to for Monday).

In other words, I would not be in a great mood. And I wasn’t. But in eight years of dealing with situations like this, I have learned my secret of happier parenting #1: I need breaks. So I need to figure out how to engineer them so I can be a more pleasant parent when I am with my kids.

This shouldn’t exactly be a “secret,” though people don’t talk about it in the straightforward way they should. In the popular narrative, time with kids is supposed to be wonderful and fulfilling. It can be. I am grateful for snuggles and baby giggles. It can also be soul-crushing when you’ve got multiple kids screaming and scratching at each other at once. One reason I suspect many people on primary parenting duty become religious about nap time and early bed times is that these are built in breaks, but ones that are socially acceptable. My child needs his sleep! That may or may not be true, but mom needs her time.

I realized early on that my 7-year-old doesn’t need much sleep. The other night he was up until close to midnight but popped up on his own at 7:30 a.m. When he was a baby, he wasn’t going to sleep at 7:30 p.m. like other babies. We did manage to enforce that he’d be in his crib, or in his room once he was too big for the crib, but he’d just be playing. Clearly, he didn’t need the shut-eye.

So if I was doing multiple solo evenings in a row, I started building in other breaks. I sang in a choir, and the Tuesday night rehearsals would be one break. If it wasn’t choir season, or my husband was gone all week, I’d give myself another night to work in the library, or exercise in the evening, or just take myself out for dinner. One of my favorite things to do now is go work for an hour, then head to a local sushi spot and enjoy a solo glass of pinot grigio and salmon sashimi. As for this past Sunday night? I needed to do an in-person meeting of one of the potential new additions to my sitter portfolio that I’d interviewed by phone. So looking at this situation from a few days before, I asked if she could come over to meet the kids, and then I’d go for a run in the neighborhood while she played with them (as a low-key way to try the situation out). I timed this right in the middle of my solo stint. That way, I got something restorative in my evening, and only had to manage my energy through the first part of the afternoon.

Is babysitting expensive? Of course. That’s one reason to keep working. People say “I’m working just to pay for childcare” as if this is a horrible thing, but if viewed from the perspective that human beings need breaks from intense work, then phrasing it as “I’m working to afford some self care” isn’t so bad. Also, if one has a partner, the default assumption is 50-50. If one party chooses to arrange his/her life differently, then I tend to think this party should be willing to pay to give the other party breaks. My husband was likely drinking a scotch on that plane to Switzerland. I deserve my time too.

Even if the finances don’t quite work for extra babysitting, there are other ways to engineer breaks. People swap playdates for precisely this reason. When I went to the YMCA during traditional work hours recently, I was shocked at how busy the parking lot was, and how busy the playroom was. That’s people figuring out breaks. Screen time works too, though this is less great than the other options. Not because there’s anything wrong with screen time, but because you’re still “on” if the kids decide they need snacks, or there’s something wrong with the movie set-up, or they want a different show. A true break means a break from being on call.

Anecdotally, I find single parents are better about thinking through breaks, simply because they have to be. If you’re on your own, and you have small kids, unless you arrange for care you will never get your hair cut. That’s just life, and there’s no point in feeling guilty about it.

Do you arrange regular breaks in your life? How do you do that?

Photo: 3 months old! Cute, but exhausting.

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