No Guilt Allowed! Why Parents Need Time for Themselves

A couple of months ago, I spent two weeks at a writers’ colony in Arkansas. Hands down the comment I heard the most—both from people I met there and from friends and neighbors when I returned home—was, “You must have missed your son so much!”

It’s true—I did miss him. But even more than that, I felt great joy at leaving my parenting-self behind. I spent the majority of my days in solitude, and I loved it. I wrote, read, walked, and slept more than I have in years. I could have stayed there for another week!

Telling people this, however, garnered me a few strange looks. We’re supposed to want to be around our kids all the time, right? Going to work is a hardship because it takes us away from our families. Same with exercise. Same with any commitment that might distract us from our children.

That might be true for many people, but for introverts, having time away from their children is essential. If you as an introvert hold yourself up to the standard set by our attachment-focused culture, you might end up feeling that something is wrong with you, that you don’t love your kids as much as you should, or that you’re somehow failing at parenting. You’re not. You need to establish a relationship with your children that is right for you.

Still, knowing that is one thing; feeling it is another. I sometimes worry that I’m not parenting right and that I should be more nurturing and closer to my child. When my parents ask with excitement about what my family has planned for a three-day weekend or a long break from school, I sometimes respond with dread rather than anticipation. I appreciate the quiet routines of the school week that afford me some space I require for myself each day—space that can be hard to come by when my son is at home all day.

I’m not alone in how I feel. A fellow introvert friend I’ll call Margot has experienced the same feelings, compounded by the even more unrealistic expectations that mothers face.

From the start, Margot had a complicated reaction to motherhood. She enjoyed the intimate connection of breast-feeding; at the same time, she didn’t like how, at certain times of the day, her body was suddenly not her own. As her son grew older and more demanding, she looked forward to weaning him and did so as soon as possible. “I took an active role in cutting him off,” she said, something an attachment-oriented friend found shocking. This made her feel guilty as did her decision to return to work when he was barely 3 months old.

“So many of my colleagues asked me if I missed him during the day,” Margot told me. “And friends said things like, ‘that’s such a shame, you have to work.’ But being home with my son all the time sounded terribly depressing to me. I worried that I would feel trapped. Still, I felt guilty for not wanting to be there with him.”

Guilt still creeps in to her parenting life even though her son is 5 years old now. “I feel bad when I come home and, instead of jumping into playing or making dinner, I sit by myself and knit for a little while to recharge after my long day at work.”

I can understand. Since my son Felix started full-time kindergarten, many people have asked if I feel sad because I had been his full-time caregiver for the first four and a half years of his life. The truth is, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been: I finally have the solitary time I need.

It’s not that I hated being a stay-at-home dad, but it deeply drained me. On bad days, I experienced exactly what Margot feared: an emotional claustrophobia and exhaustion. Do you know how many words a four-year-old can lob at you during the course of the day? My son chattered all the time about LEGO and trains, grilled cheeses and chocolate ice cream. I’d want to plug my ears just to have a moment to think.

I’m a better parent, husband, and generally a calmer person now that he spends his days in school. And I’m happy to see him growing into an independent individual, one who requires his own recharge time and enjoys quiet building and art activities. While many parents bond over nostalgia for infants and toddlers, I rarely miss the clingy little creature he used to be.

I do love my son—so much that I want to be my best for him. This means that I require space of my own for thinking, feeling, and finding my center. It’s like the emergency instructions in an airplane, instructing adults to strap the oxygen mask on themselves before assisting their children. You have to take care of yourself in order to best take care of someone else. For us introverts, that means maintaining a bit of space in our schedule for quiet and autonomy.

This coming Saturday, my wife is taking my son to visit her mom for a couple of days. After that, I’ll be on full-time dad duty while he’s on winter break. Will I miss my family this weekend? Of course. When they return, I’m going to throw myself into having full, fun, and adventure-packed days with Felix. There’s no way I could do that without a little peaceful “me time” on the margins.

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