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!