I’ve realized I am a shift-working parent. It’s not a “shift” in that I leave the house and go to a job outside my home for a set amount of time. But rather I begin my day well before the kids wake. Then I clock in for the parenting work shift. It’s a long shift that very seldom has any breaks and when there is a break, I’m tensely suspicious that something wrong is afoot. There’s also loads of overtime. And let’s be honest, sometimes the work environment on these shifts is hostile in the form of tantrums, irrational demands, and a complete lack of respect for personal boundaries that borders on harassment. (I can’t even reliably close the door when I use the bathroom.) There are no sick days, no paid leave, and holidays often involve a larger work load. So yes, when I reach the day’s end right after I’ve tucked in kids, I mentally punch my time card and flip that off-duty sign. Shift. Is. Over.
The deal is, after I’ve mentally punched my parenting time card, I’m not as good a mom as I typically try to be. My sensitivity for the kids’ needs is less, and I’m grouchy. (This has nothing to do with less love, just an overall sense of irritation and exhaustion.) Selfishly, I feel like if they need me after I’ve mentally clocked out, the kids are encroaching on my time. That small precious window after they go to bed is the only time when I am no longer responsible for prioritizing everyone else over myself. Does it make me awful to think this way? Maybe. I kind of feel like there are a lot of messages out there telling me exactly that. But I’ve recognized that prioritizing the break after I’ve punched my time card is necessary. I need it to recover and rejuvenate so I get up and parent to my best abilities the next morning. Not to overuse the metaphor, "parenting is a marathon," but I feel like if I don’t take a little time every evening to regroup myself, I’m basically just running past all those water and banana stations saying "I’ll just see how far I can get on fumes!" (Cut to me five miles into the race dry-heaving and sobbing.)
And please please please don’t think I’m so heartless that if one of my kiddos were to wander down having thrown up that I’d be all, “Mommy’s off right now. Here’s a bucket and some Sprite. See you in the morning!” That’s a bit extreme. But if one were to pop in more than once with a phantom band-aid need or God forbid, sheets wrinkled incorrectly on the bed, well…they might just get a less than sympathetic, “Darn! We’ll have to fix that tomorrow” as I un-pause Netflix or reopen my book. I know, not cool. But it’s also not cool if I completely melt down from burnout.
Burnout is different from punching the parenting time card. Burnout is much heavier and harder to climb out from underneath. But sometimes a little break in the day can stave it off. So I reconcile my guilt of clocking out because it can protect against parenting burnout. If a little bit of time not focused on someone else each day can bring me back to baseline, I think that’s a good thing.
Talking with other parents, I’ve found that a lot of us do hit a point each day or week when we feel completely depleted and need to clock out briefly. We all seem to have a different time of day when we start to feel the itch. Some parents need a little break midday and then they’ll punch back in. For others, it’s that first hour of the day to wake up and have a cup of coffee. For me, it’s always been a couple hours after dinner. Around that time I start to feel like a teenager watching the clock tick by in Pre-Calc. When will the bell ring?
Knowing that we all may feel this at times and that we definitely don’t want our kids to ever feel like we aren’t there for them, here are a few ideas to help you make sure your kiddos’ needs (emotional and otherwise) are met while you take a breather to recenter yourself and come back as a loving, sensitive, and patient parent.
- Hand it over to your partner - If you have a partner to share parenting duties with, communicate with them when you need them to lend an extra hand.
- Bring in help - It’s harder to do with the pandemic, but if you can bring in a trusted sitter or a grandparent or friend to take over for you for a little while, it’s a major help in letting you check out for a bit or focus on other things.
- Build a break into the day - Schedule daily quiet time where everyone goes to their own space in the home and does their own thing for an hour. Obviously, this is harder with little kids so try and do this during their naps. Labeling this time as your parenting off-duty time and everyone else’s personal time can help you - and the kids - embrace this as time for individual projects.
- Don’t feel guilty about a little extra screen time - No, it’s not the best fix to letting yourself have a few minutes to regroup, but it’s also not the worst. I’d argue for an extra episode of Daniel Tiger over losing my temper or showing irritation with my kids any day.
Parenting is a full-time job with extra long shifts. And we love most of it! But the love we feel for our kids doesn’t mean that there won’t be times during the day that we need to step away to re-center ourselves. Clocking out from parenting affords you the break to get back to your baseline. Then you can go back to being your best possible parent. And yes, there will always be times when you’re just not going to get that break from being mom or dad. Even if you’ve laid the best of plans, life with kids can be unpredictable - the baby’s got an ear infection, your partner is traveling, or your toddler’s just having an extra vulnerable, snuggly day. And that’s just a part of it. So be kind to yourself and do your best to muster up as much patience as you can. Today might not be the day you get to punch your parenting time card for 30 minutes of self-repair, but there will be a respite somewhere along the way.