Note: This originally published in Quartz.
This year, my family can skip the flowers, the gifts, and the breakfast in bed. For Mother’s Day, all I want is to be left alone.
I realize this may sound harsh. But peace and quiet are the best gifts I could possibly receive—precisely because they’re so hard to come by when you’re the primary caregiver to a one-year-old and a four-year-old. I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed and exhausted: Parental burnout is real. And for the sake of our sanity, as well as our children, parents need to get comfortable with asking for a break.
As a work-from-home mom, I’m constantly juggling parenting and professional responsibilities. I love my lifestyle and find it extremely rewarding. But it’s also mentally and physically exhausting, with breaks that are few and far between.
My day begins at 5:30 am when one (or both) of my children wake up, already bouncing off the walls and making demands. For the next 15 hours, I’m making meals, wiping butts, cleaning up messes, diffusing temper tantrums, feigning amazement in response to every “mommy, look!” (I saw it the first time kiddo, let’s give it a rest), reading stories and giving baths—all while trying to pitch, write, and edit articles.
By nightfall, I’m drained. I’d love to pick up a book or have a conversation with my husband after the kids are in bed, but nine times out of 10, I’m too exhausted to do anything but mindlessly watch television or browse Twitter. The energy it takes to cater to small children’s needs is astronomical, and I often feel that I’ve got nothing left.
I’m not alone in this feeling. A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that up to 12% of parents suffer from “high-level” burn out, meaning they (we!) experience feelings of exhaustion, inefficacy, and detachment more than once a week. What’s more, the study notes that parental burnout is correlated with depression, addiction, and deteriorating health.
The problem can be particularly acute for mothers, who are often the primary caregivers in their families. “Motherhood today, perhaps more than ever, requires being at the center of many lives, often at the expense of self care,” says Corinne Laird, a psychotherapist and professor at Columbia University.
When moms feel overstretched and overwhelmed, they face both emotional and physical repercussions. “When we don’t make time for ourselves and are pressed into a state of constant ‘doing’ rather than ‘being,’ we can become unaware of what emotions we are carrying and where they are manifesting in the body,” Laird says. “Sometimes our aches and pains and exhaustion are simply unexpressed emotion.”
But it can be hard for mothers to find time for themselves. On average, women in the US spend about six hours more doing household work than their male counterparts, and an additional three hours more in child care each week. For working mothers especially, this leaves little wiggle room for “me time.” In fact, according to Brigid Schulte, author of the book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, American moms get only 36 minutes of so-called free time a day—barely enough time to have a proper shower and enjoy a hot cup of coffee.
But make no mistake: alone time is essential, and not just for parents’ mental and physical health. Recharging our batteries also enables us to provide quality care for others. “Being alone, taking time to care for ourselves not only improves our relationship to ourselves, but allows us to return to our lives as better caretakers,” says Laird.
I can attest to this. On days I’m feeling particularly stressed, even an hour away from the house (read: children) can revitalize me. I return happier, more relaxed, and certainly more patient. Whether it’s going for a jog, going to the grocery store by myself, or taking an extra-long shower (with the bathroom door locked, naturally), I’ve learned the value and power of solitude.
Asking to be alone—to occasionally step outside of the role of mommy—is not selfish. It’s necessary self-care. I can’t be the best version of myself if I’m constantly overextended. I deserve better, and so do my little ones. That’s why I was planning to ask for alone time this Mother’s Day. But I’m lucky: My husband beat me to it, guessing that this was precisely what I wanted, and has already promised to deliver a day of rest.