A frequently neglected area of family life is the time parents spend nurturing themselves; their interests, friendships and most importantly, their relationship with one another.
Let’s review some signs that it may be time to shift a bit more energy onto your needs as a parenting couple:
• You don’t remember the last conversation you had with your spouse that wasn’t interrupted with a request to “Come see!”
• You’re beginning to feel you should join a local spelling bee as you and your spouse have increased your spelling acuity tenfold since you now spell half the words in your conversations.
• You eat most meals standing up.
• You can’t for the life of you remember the last movie you saw in a theater – come to think of it, you have no idea when you last stayed awake through an entire movie at home.
If any of these ring true for you, or you know that you could come up with your own version of this list, then it’s time to focus some attention on your needs as a couple. After all, you and your spouse are the most important people in the world to your children. In order to stay in top form you need to address your own needs.
Parents often devote serious thought and energy toward making sure that their children have well-balanced experiences, while at the same time neglecting to make room for their own needs. This neglect can lead to feelings of resentment, depression and exhaustion.
There is a wealth of research that tells us that parental depression has a negative impact on the social and emotional well-being of children. With that in mind, this column is devoted to the promotion of parental refueling and self care.
While the examples above were fairly light hearted, failing to create time for private dialogue and grownup pursuits can put great strain on a marriage. You may get caught in a thought process that goes like this: “But my child needs me,” or “I spend so much time at work, I want to spend my free time with my child.”
You and your spouse have legitimate needs as well. The key is striking something of a balance within your family. The balance we strive for most assuredly will not always go smoothly. Be prepared to roll with the punches.
With all the variables that come into play with any family, it’s likely that some monkey wrench will be tossed into the best laid plans. Your date night might get canceled due to a child’s cold, so when you call the sitter to cancel, be sure to reschedule for another night.
If creating time for you and your spouse seems like a daunting task, try to identify what kinds of roadblocks are making it difficult. After you’ve identified these barriers you can begin to look into some solutions.
Perhaps you are having trouble finding a baby sitter or you are strapped for cash to pay for a night out? Consider joining or creating a parent’s time trade, in which you exchange child care. Ask family to help; grandparents, aunts, uncles; you won’t know until you ask whether or not they are interested in helping out once in awhile.
Ask friends with children who they use for a sitter or how they found a sitter to explore options and to get a little moral support. Sometimes day care workers who already know your child will baby sit or know people who do.
Another option is using an agency such a nannysitters.com or care.com to assist in finding child care. The fee is minimal and background checks have been done for you, but do check the references yourself.
If you can’t find a sitter as quickly as you wish, get creative and make an “at home date” after your children’s bedtime. Or see if you can find an older child to use as a “parent’s helper” who could come to your home for the afternoon and play with your child, while you and your spouse have a cup of coffee together and talk with a bit of privacy.
While this is not ideal for some families, it could be a starting point. Another important consideration for parenting couples is to encourage each other to take some time alone to get some breathing space. Even a 30-minute walk a day can help parents regroup and energize.
If the barriers are related to anxiety about leaving your children alone with someone, the solution might be more complex. Again, talking with parenting peers about their experiences leaving children with sitters may be helpful, especially if you speak with folks who’ve found a successful way to do it.
Speaking exclusively to other parents who are in your same boat may feel reassuring but probably won’t get you any closer to figuring how to get time out with your spouse. If your anxiety about leaving your child is preventing you from going out with your spouse, or out alone at all, consider speaking to a professional who specializes in anxiety and parenting to get some support.
Single parents also need time separate from children to nurture relationships and self. This is particularly true for single parents who get limited support from their ex-partners. Given the increased demands of single parenting, time for yourself is all the more needed.
Guilt amongst divorced and single parents runs rampant and serves no one. By showing your children that you have your own interests, you will be providing a healthy model of positive self-regard while at the same time refueling so that you can be your best self while parenting.
It’s imperative for all parents to know that they cannot fully meet their own social and emotional needs via their children. As much as children are wanted, loved, admired and adored, to neglect one’s own needs leaves your family in an unbalanced state.
Parents who are well-rounded individuals with diverse interests will raise well-rounded and curious children. So take the time to see that movie, go to that art show or take a walk away from your children. Everyone will be better for it.
Laura Kelloway, LICSW, is program manager of Outpatient Child & Adolescent Services at the Anna Marsh Behavioral Care Clinic in Brattleboro.