Solitude Is Going Extinct: The Stress of Modern Parenting

My experience growing up highlights the value of benign neglect. I had ample time alone to roam the woods around my neighborhood, ride my bike, and just goof off. As an introvert, I kept my social group small, and I often spent large chunks of time in solitude. My parents weren’t negligent, but neither were they overly involved in every single aspect of my life. They had their own interests to pursue and didn’t feel guilty about doing so.

You won’t hear about it on the evening news, and you may not even realize how it may be affecting you, but we are in the midst of a solitude crisis. Simply put, the lack of time, ability, or permission to be alone is a silent source of stress, undiscussed yet pervasive. It is caused, in large measure, by the busyness of daily life. Contemporary demands, especially for parents of young children, are unsustainable.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to assume that mothers who work more hours today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home moms in the 1960s, this is indeed the case, especially when the time spent “teaching and playing” is considered. According to a study by Liana Sayer and her colleagues, in 1965, mothers spent 36 minutes per day actively engaged in teaching and playing with their kids. In 1998, that number had swelled to 129 minutes.

And 1998 fathers were spending more time caring for and having fun with their kids than 1965 fathers, reflecting a cultural shift towards “involved fathering.” Contemporary fathers are also doing more primary child care than their early compatriots. However, while fathers are having more time with their kids than they did in the past, they are still not doing as much as mothers (for example, 1998 married moms spent 99 minutes per day in child care versus 51 minutes for dads).

I see these study results in my own psychotherapy practice. Many of the parents I work with have no time to themselves and no energy for self-care. Almost all of their spare moments, it seems, are spent driving their kids to soccer or hockey practices and tournaments and other activities. These parents don’t have the room to pursue their hobbies or to practice adequate self-care through exercise, rest, and meditation.

The trap of this parenting style is so much part of the fabric of the culture that it has become the norm. Writers like Polly Young-Eisendrath in her book The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance have started to question these norms. She says that contemporary parents subscribe to “I’m Okay—You’re Okay” parenting styles, such as helicopter parenting, which have “in common the belief that parents and children are on nearly equal footing when it comes to rights and needs, that parents should be friends with their children, and that children’s self-esteem must be promoted and protected at all costs.” Often that cost is parents’ solitude. Of course, you want your kids to be successful—but many parents believe that they have to do as much for their kids as possible even if it means sacrificing their own self-care. Ultimately, this is self-defeating.

Recent research by Melissa Milkie, Kei Nomaguchi, and Kathleen Denny indicates that our increased parental involvement—what they call an “ideology of intensive mothering”—isn’t helping our kids. The study found that for kids between the ages of 3 and 11, there was no correlation between parental engagement and the measured outcomes of behavioral or emotional problems, or math and reading scores. For older teens, more engagement was helpful in averting delinquency. But for mothers of younger children, the study results suggest “that mothers ease up on practicing more intensive mothering during childhood, especially given that it may end up exhausting them.”

Given that the cultural norm of intensive involvement is draining parents and not even helpful to the kids, perhaps there is another way to proceed. The pursuit of solitude doesn’t have to be absolute. You don’t have to sequester yourself within a mountaintop cave to get the rest you require. Brief periods of quiet, when you don’t have to answer to anyone else’s needs, can replenish your energy.

Solitude is like punctuation. A paragraph without periods and commas would be exhausting to read. In the same way, conducting relationships without the respite of solitude can lessen the benefits of those relationships. Downtime is important for you and your kids. They benefit from solitude too. Taking care of your own solitude will not only help you restore yourself but also show your kids this positive model of self-nurturance.

One powerful way to foster parental self-care is through mindfulness meditation practice. Sitting on the cushion provides a period of solitude each time it is practiced and also helps develop the skills you need to thrive in the world such as self-monitoring energy; disengaging thoughts from stressful stories; and helping you to engage more fully with your body, senses, and the world around you.

Parents could spend some of the time they would otherwise devote to their children meditating, and the kids could spend that time developing their own solitude skills through imaginative self-play, reading, gaming, or whatever else they enjoy doing alone. They could even practice mindfulness themselves!

In my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, I included a scene that you might be familiar with from traveling via airplane. Moments before the plane takes off, the flight crew tells you to “put your oxygen mask on first in case of emergency” because you’ll be no help to your little ones if you yourself are suffocating. Likewise, taking care of your solitude needs is your oxygen mask. It’s not selfish; it’s in the interest of everyone. First self-care, then others’ care. Your kids will appreciate your fresh energy. It’s a win-win scenario, and the data suggest your kids will be no worse off.

That’s a big fat permission slip—now, go meditate!

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  • Nikki Northway DeCrette

    This is going to sound funny, but what if the parent is the introvert in this equation and desperately needs to recharge, but has children that have little understanding or sense of boundaries for this (extroverts – highly social)? I struggle daily with this and almost feel I need to do the opposite – which IS put them in activities so they can let me have some down time. Sounds nice to say, just go meditate. That’s a little over-simplified solution to me, but I do appreciate the statistics about modern parenting versus past. I’ve always thought it was somehow different than my own upbringing, but I just couldn’t articulate quite why.

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  • itzj

    I agree with the importance of getting solitude and not over parenting. The only thing I don’t agree with is the suggestion that children’s needs and rights are less than adults. If anything I feel that they are greater and should be more protected than adults. But this does not mean that they have to overtake those of other family members or make it impossible for parents to get the solitude they need.

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  • Cyndi C

    Thank you for giving me permission to enjoy my solitude. The thought of solitude and self-care has been suggested by many of my son’s physicians but I have yet to really engage on a consistent basis. I will take the oxygen mask for myself first so that I can be helpful to others, specifically, to my son!

  • Ninasimone

    I am a parent of 2 young kids and I find that if I don’t spend time alone with myself daily I get very irritable and snappy. As a strongly introverted person time alone is absolutely essential for me. One of my 2016 goals is to mediate consistently 20 mins every morning and night. I think it will help me be more relaxed. Great read.

  • Tricia

    Great read, Arnie. There were several years where I found myself caught up in the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ sort of thing, and really had to decide to work with my sons on choosing outside interests that did not rob all of us of time and attention needed to live life in more meaningful ways, and not be a slave to whatever interest they chose to pursue. I knew the importance of solitude and re-charging the self-battery because it was something that really pulled at me for most of my life, and before becoming a parent, but didn’t know how to structure it or say no to what all the other families were doing. Now I know, through trial and error, that there are lots of things parents can do to honor introversion in self and in children (if they indeed are introverts). It takes a conscious effort to step back, put on the ‘blinders’ and be confident with what works best for your family.

    In my work with high school aged youngsters, one of the common themes that young men talk with me about is the pressure they feel to do what their fathers want them to do regarding sports. They are fearful of disappointing their fathers if they express their desires not to be involved in the sports world of year-long practices, tournament teams and traveling. They speak of missing the days of their early childhoods where they played, were home, went fishing or hiking or anything leisure related. One of the greatest challenges I face with these young men is helping them to find a voice so they have a say in their young lives.

  • Ted Delorme

    My wife and I made the choice to be non-parents, but what you’re saying applies to us too. We both work full-time, and have several different hobbies which eat up time almost daily. They’re fun, creative things we absolutely love doing, but we also need to just step back and relax with some quiet time. As I like to say, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything…”

  • Beautifully said Arnie. We get so caught up in the “parenting” and being involved with every little aspect with out stepping back to take care of ourselves. This is exactly the message of the Unless You Care project – to take care of yourself first to give your best self to others. Setting aside time for yourself to have moments of quiet not only benefit you, but they benefit the people around you. That’s the biggest realization and personal discovery I’ve had in my life. When I meditate, journal, read, etc. it not only releases the heaviness within me, but I become a better father, husband, friend, coworker because of it. Great read!