Close your eyes for a second, and when you open them, read the words on the next line.
A day for yourself.
Now imagine yourself taking one. For readers unfamiliar with this concept, a day for yourself is defined as a series of uninterrupted hours during which you relax, read, take a yoga class, see a friend, or skip through a wheat field in slow motion, if that's what makes you feel good. What's more, you do this without regard to anyone else's opinion, hunger level, need to be at the speech therapist, feelings of abandonment, or your daughter's desire for you to help get the yellow rubber minidress on one of those teeny-tiny Polly Pocket dolls RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND!!
Okay, so what is the primary feeling you're having at the thought of that day just for yourself? Is it:
b) Trepidation or outright worry
c) Righteous entitlement, because, dagnabit, you deserve some downtime
d) Shock at that pig flying by
e) All of the above
We all know we should take a "me" day (or at least some "me" time) every so often, and we know we'd feel less addled and overwhelmed if we did. Says Emily Bender, a certified holistic nutrition consultant from Fairfax, CA, and mom of a 5-year-old, "Not only was I calmer after I went to a weekend retreat, but being away gave me a lot of clarity about what my needs are and how I parent. It freed up a colossal amount of mental space so I could see things better."
There are myriad reasons, however, that we can't or don't take a day. Some moms believe that the whole machinery of the house would screech to a halt if they were incommunicado for that long, while others don't fully trust their partner to actually engage with the children instead of planting them in front of the TV while noodling around on Facebook. If you work outside the home, you may already feel sad that you don't see your kids enough. And, of course, many single parents have added logistical and financial obstacles that prevent them from getting alone time.
But there are some deeper reasons many of us don't take a hiatus. Melissa Leffel, a teacher and mom of two in Fredonia, NY, has never taken a real day off. She says it makes her feel selfish to leave her own kids, or her students. "It's a sense that I'm not being responsible," she says. "When I want a day off, it's usually about wanting space, or to be able to sleep until nine. It's about wanting back things that I used to have before I had kids and maybe didn't realize what it would feel like not to have anymore." The thought of wishing away your family (a notion that most moms have had, at least fleetingly, at some point) feels ungrateful and somehow reckless.
Nonetheless, Leffel's sentiments are echoed in tot lots and middle school PTAs across the country. "Nobody wants to think of themselves as selfish," says licensed psychologist Ann Dunnewold, Ph.D., author of Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box and a mom of two in Dallas. "They think, Time for me detracts from time with them. How could I not put my kids first all the time? If I don't, I'm a bad mom." By this all-or-nothing thinking, says Dunnewold, a "good" mom should always want to be with her children, and what's more, enjoy every (sometimes tedious or aggravating) second of it, regardless of her own needs. Any other scenario is a sign that you're not worthy of the good fortune the heavens have bestowed upon you in blessing you with such a lovely family.
To that, Parenting says poo. Let's help you shelve those unrealistic expectations of yourself and go get a manicure (or take a walk or go to the mall or just sleep!). Because that old chestnut is spot-on: If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.
Time-off obstacles, overcome!
Below, some of the big reasons moms hesitate to pull a temporary disappearing act -- and permission to do it anyway.
"I'm okay. I don't really need a day off." All moms need days off occasionally, and you might not realize that you're at the end of your rope until you find yourself dangling over a precipice. "Everyone is like a pitcher of water. If you keep pouring it out -- taking care of the children, pets, bills, your mother-in-law -- without filling it up again, you'll be running on empty," says Dunnewold. "Remember: You're doing a good thing for your kids if you do something for you."
"The kids will suffer if I leave them for that long." That would be true if you vanished off the face of the earth, never to return; we're talking one day (or half a day, if that's all you can swing). Your children may be upset when you actually say goodbye, but they'll get over it with ego-crushing speed. "We think that things will fall apart or something bad will happen if we leave," says Dunnewold. "But ask yourself, is getting your nails done or having lunch with your friend really going to wreck your kid?" Says Gina Osher, a mom of 2-year-old twins in Los Angeles, "I tell myself it's really good for my kids to be with other people, so it's not all about Mommy."
"My husband/babysitter won't keep her in her routine." Even if you write it all down for your partner or caregiver, there's always the chance that naps will be late or nonexistent, or that your child will not get the afternoon snack that keeps her from becoming a monster by dinnertime. But is it really such a disaster if it happens once in a while? Kate Miller, a mom in Providence, RI, has learned to let this stuff go on her weekly day off, when her husband has guys' day with their two sons. "So he lets them watch too much TV, and he doesn't wash their hair properly, in my opinion," says Miller. "It's fine. Everybody's alive." Besides, whoever's left in charge will learn firsthand why that snack and nap are critical -- and deal with the consequences. (The key here is to stay out long enough that you miss the meltdown, which may not even happen.) "This is less anxiety about the child than it is anxiety about control," says Dunnewold. Let it go.
"I work all day, so I already spend so much time apart from them." This is a toughie, but working at an outside job still doesn't give you all you need to feel human. Besides, working brings home the bacon, which is another form of caring for your children. "If you're the type to feel guilty about this, maybe you should feel guilty if you don't take the day off," suggests Miller. "You're not letting your kids see their mom in a good state. They don't get to experience you when you're rested."
"I stay home and my husband works hard all week, so I feel bad taking a day to myself." Well, you work hard all week, too, if you're taking care of kids -- some would say harder, given the zillions of details you keep track of and all the needs you must satisfy. "There are labor laws in this country," Dunnewold points out, and you can decide that they apply to you, too. For every eight hours you work, you're entitled to a half-hour lunch and two 20-minute breaks. If you're a stay-at-home mom with no help, you work 16 hours a day. That means you have 14 hours a week coming to you. If you take even half of that you're still not slacking off. Raising children is a valuable contribution to the world; you should be rewarded for that.
"I'd feel better if I used time alone to take care of things that are stressing me out." Okay, but use some of it for fun. If you have three hours off, be constructive during only one of them. And then keep reminding yourself: You will be a better mother, on all levels, if you tend to yourself.
Create free periods
You might find an hour or two while your kid's in a karate class, at a dropoff playdate (return the favor to the mom-on-duty next time), or even during a kid movie you don't want to sit through, if your child's with an old-enough friend -- just set them in their seats with snacks, and sit right outside the theater doors...to read or knit or play Minesweeper.
"If I have to do something, like go to the dentist, I will try to add on one frivolous thing, like getting my nails done." -- Gina Osher
"I get up, get dressed for work, and don't tell anyone that I'm not going to the office. I work out, see a movie, and I'm home by dinnertime. And I don't feel guilty at all." -- Nancy Smith, Parenting staffer
"I take the dog for 'a long walk,' but I actually walk over to my sister's, where I sit and have coffee and chat." -- Lisa Bain, Parenting staffer
Signs you NEED a day away
1. The nail-polish remover is just where you left it: on the refrigerator door with the salad dressing.
2. You look forward to your annual Pap smear because at least you'll be able to lie down in a quiet place with no children nearby.
3. You hear your big kid warning your little kid, "Dude, steer clear. She's got that crazy-lady look."
4. Sometimes when you pull into your driveway, you don't really want to get out of the car.
5. Your unsympathetic, ass-in-chair-style boss gently suggested that you take one.
How to stop "checking in"
1. Get your nails done -- it's hard to use a cell phone with freshly painted nails.
2. "Forget" your phone in the car glove compartment.
3. Consider the fact that your husband might resent it when you check in and be insulted that you don't have confidence in him.
4. Realize that he might have questions ("Where are the razor blades? We're doing an art project") that could stress you out.
5. Give your cell to a friend to hold, and confiscate hers.
Stephanie Dolgoff is Parenting's editor-at-large.