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.

Share your thoughts.

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  • Barbara Goolsby

    Reading this article makes me feel less guilty of wanting to spend time away from my son. He is 16 months old now and I haven’t been away from him for longer than an afternoon. I enjoy my time away, but fear others would think of me as a bad parent, because I enjoy being apart from my child. I do love my son and I like being a stay-at-home mom, though just because I’m in my own 4 walls all day, doesn’t mean I’m always happy. I have the freedom of doing what I want, when the booger is asleep of course. But I am stuck here. I’m always on standby and I don’t get a break from this routine. My husband works hard, sometimes two weeks straight. And though he doesn’t tell me directly, I know he see’s me as “ungrateful”. While he is working his ass off so I can stay at home with the child, I am complaining about being home. He misunderstands, that my complaints are just wishes to be myself sometimes, not just the ‘mom’. If I get to leave the house, I am still with my son. Wherever I go, I’m never alone. I need to be alone. I can’t be with any person for long without needing a break from them. I never realized just how much I need time to be alone until the birth of my son. But the worst part is that others around me don’t understand and make me feel bad about this wish.

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  • Barney Broohaha

    Each to their own. Who cares what anyone else thinks? I personally feel no need to get away from my daughter for any extended period of time. I am an introvert as well but I get much personal satisfaction exploring life and spending time with my child. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy/need those times alone. But a day or so seems to be plenty for me. However, also lost a daughter suddenly a 2 yrs old so I don’t want to miss much time with the love of my life because your chances to be with them can be gone in an instant. I don’t personally feel the need to fulfill some lifelong challenge to retain my identity but if you are the type that needs to go off to be in your own head for a week or 2 for whatever reason and it keeps you sane go for it. Some people lose their sense of identity without doing that sort of thing.

    • Kara Petroske

      I was thinking about this too. Oh how I do not want to endure that type of pain in order to learn to love what doesn’t come natural to me. I’m so sorry for your loss.

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  • Danny Mcdonald

    Im currently being kicked out of my home for this issue. Its very discouraging trying to help others understand this very basic mental health issue.

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  • Christina Cooper

    I hope you don’t mind if I get something off my chest, something I can’t say to anyone I know. I wish so much I’d known myself better before having children, to realize how deeply my introversion and need for daily privacy and alone time affects me. I have gregarious twins (one introverted but very fond of me, and one extroverted) who are now eight and I have been a stay-at-home mom and part-time freelance writer for much of those eight years. Only after reading Susan Cain’s Quiet did it dawn on me why I have struggled so much as a parent. When they were tiny, I suffered from massive postpartum anxiety for over two years (very likely due to never, ever having a moment to myself). It has been a long trip to get to the point of being even halfway back to the self I like being, and I am at my happiest when they are at school. Every single day since their birth, I have longed for time to speed past so they can become independent and move out. If I had only realized how protecting my privacy allowed me to function, I might never have had kids, or at least stood up to my parents and husband who believe putting kids in day care is fundamentally wrong. I think being with my kids 1-2 hours a day is about my maximum, and if I had it to do all over again, I would have put them in full-day daycare at 6 weeks and never felt a moment of guilt about it. The way I’ve bulled my way through pretending enjoyment and engagement with them for eight long, awful years…no introverted mother should lack a safe place of privacy the way I do. No one should have to face a 24-hour-a-day job that destroys her well-being this way. Thanks for giving me a place where I can at least put it out there.

    • Renata C. Franklin

      Thank you for sharing your story. I have a meditative type personality that thrives on alone time to think and contemplate the world around me. I was blessed with three beautiful little girls that have taken me out of my comfort zone. I have had to develop so much strength in order to cope with the daily demands of parenting and fulfill my needs for privacy. I wish I had known myself more before having children. Your story is brave and it’s nice to know that there are woman in this world who feel the same way and are not afraid to talk about it.

      • Kara Petroske

        You’re not alone. It’s only healthy to have daily recharge time. How much needed depends on the individual. I would say I’m officially burned out. Too bad I can’t go out of motherhood on medical. Or take a vacation with my non-paycheck. Wouldn’t it be awesome if constant neediness, bickering and constant invasion of personal space could be enjoyable?

  • LGH

    God forbid you be a mother and express any sort of the above. I’ve been on the receiving end of questioning looks and who knows what sort of personal judgments when I try to express this. I’ve been told by extroverts that I have to “suck it up” and worse.

  • J.Michelsen

    Wow! Thank you for this! I have been having a really hard time of late as a SAHM of two special needs kiddos. They are 3.75 and 4 years old(yup, 4 months apart in age). I have had a really hard time making myself take the breaks that I *need*. I feel guilty all of the way around. But, I have pushed this to a point where no amount of time away feels like enough. My recharge deficit is dangerous at this point. This September they will both start preschool 4 days a week, 3 hours a day. I simply.cannot.wait. I love them dearly, but I have found myself wanting to shout “can you just STOP! Just for ONE MINUTE SO I CAN THINK!” ugh. Not good. Need to get this figured out soon.

  • Megan

    I often feel guilty, like I’m a bad mom, when my children are both off playing, husband is gone, and I can have a space of time with my house all to myself. Finally being able to recognize that it’s not because I’m selfish or a bad parent, but simply and introvert, is a huge relief! Knowing his about myself now, has helped me put context to my actions and is soothing and so helpful. Thanks for this article and sharing all the comments of other parents who feel like this too!

  • Thank you so much for this, Brian. I felt so comforted while reading it- as if you beautifully, perfectly wrote my thoughts and feelings about staying at home to raise our two sons. I adore them and chose to be a SAHM, and yet, some of the best moments of my week are dropping them off at school and tucking them into bed.

  • Chris

    This is a great article. I totally relate to this. I myself am an introvert and need time for myself but it seems most days its hard. I come home from work and jump right into being dad. Most days I’m exhausted from stress at work and home and usually only get time to myself after everyone else is asleep. I’m just glad that I’m not the only person who feels this way. Once again excellent article and I look forward to reading more.

    • Kara Petroske

      Glad to see it’s not only moms.

  • Helen King

    Thanks for writing this! I really relate – I need to continue to work out ways of carving time out for myself, while still being there for my husband and kids (all of whom I want to be with – fully – and can’t really be, unless I’ve had enough opportunity to replenish myself). Ah, the juggle!

  • saikrishnakorivi

    I’ve been accused of being a cold and distant parent when I expressed desire to be be away, to retreat to a quiet place from time to time. But, it is difficult being surrounded with extroverts. A constant dialog to keep correcting their perceptions about us is needed and very much exhausting.