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Searching For Your "Me" Time?

I once interviewed Today Show host Meredith Vieira and asked her how she spent her "me" time. She told me it was when she exercised at 5:00 in the morning, and harrumphed that she hated it because, she said, "there's nothing 'me' time about being awake at five in the morning."

That got me thinking. Like 25 percent of working moms, I have a part-time job; while this makes me the envy of many of my friends, I don't know what or where my "me" time is anymore. You know what I'm talking about: that little bit of time you get to spend any way you want, which serves as your emotional rosary, helping you to remain light and breezy when the baby spits up on the only clean nursing bra you have.

How often do experts say we need that mental recuperation? Moms should have at least 15 to 20 minutes of "me" time a day to decompress, especially between afternoon and evening, says health psychologist Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., author of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. Then about once a week you need a longer block of time to get out and do something for yourself. I decided to send out a search-and-rescue team (okay, me) to find that elusive time zone called "me o'clock." The result: these five rules, which, you just might find, work most of the time.

A glance at my calendar reveals a bikini wax and haircut for me. Before I had my babies, these appointments were feel-good necessities that I took for granted. Now they're a hassle and have been downgraded from pampering to self-preservation. I'll leave the hairdresser on a high, then glance at my watch and feel a wave of shame because my toddler, Dashiell, and kindergartner, Conrad, are being tucked into bed by a babysitter instead of me. If a bikini wax is now my "me" time, then I really don't want to be me.

Kendall-Tackett agrees. "The key to tapping into your 'me' time is to be honest about what things make you feel rejuvenated and what drains your energy reserves," she says. "There are many activities that you think you're supposed to like to do, but they stress you out because they take your time or cost too much."

Kimberly Sam has her idea of "me" time down -- it's whenever she gets to be by herself. "My husband will take the boys out and I'll stay home and choose what I want to do. Sometimes I'll sit back and watch TV, read a book, or sleep. It's 'me' time because I choose what I do, even if it's nothing," says the Silver Spring, Maryland, mom of Andrew, 6, and AJ, 14 months.

Admitting to myself that my hair and waxing appointments didn't meet my real "me"-time happiness quota posed a dilemma. I needed to have that stuff done, but I also felt like I wanted a just-for-me activity. "The biggest challenge most moms face is insisting on 'me' time," says Laura Stack, author of The Exhaustion Cure. "If you wait to give yourself time until all your work is done, you'll never get to play." Stack thinks women should feel more comfortable dividing up responsibilities at home and then following through on their "me"-time plans. "It can be a challenge at first, but think about how fun the payback will be once you get used to it," she says.

Erin Acosta, mom of Samantha, 2 1/2, in Orange, California, regularly schedules in her "me" time: "I try to have time alone about once a month -- okay, sometimes two months, if we're being realistic. My favorite 'me' time is when I go out shopping without anyone in tow. I don't have to talk to anyone, I can wander store aisles for hours, and I can try on fifteen outfits without feeling rushed."

Inspired by Rule #2, I talked to my husband about staying home with the boys on Monday nights so I could join a book club a friend was starting. According to Stack, my instincts were spot-on. "Making time for activities that you can't do when kids are around helps you remember who you are as a person beyond being a mother," she says.

A book club felt like ideal "me"-time material. It required that I stop making my to-do lists and become engrossed in other people's lives. Claudia Olmedo, mom of Delta, 9 months, in Maylene, Alabama, agrees: "Reading is when I can get myself lost in a story, without thinking about what I forgot to get at the store or that I need to load the washer again. Even if it's ten minutes, it's paradise."

I, too, craved escaping into a book, but my favorite part turned out to be the club part -- the evening when a gaggle of six friends circle together, drink wine, nibble on cheese, and talk about the book. It was 100 percent fun. I could tell most moms in the group were especially grateful for being able to finish their thoughts, heck, dare to have an entire adult conversation without hearing "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!"

The concept of a good time with girlfriends is hardly exclusive to book clubs, of course. "I don't exercise regularly, but I value my weekly Zumba [cardio dance] sessions with other moms," says Wendy Fortson of Puyallup, Washington, mom of Alyssa, 4, and Austin, 15 months. "It gives me a chance to exercise and also not to worry about my kids. The time spent with these ladies is rejuvenating!"

I was devoted to my book club but couldn't find the time to actually read. I'd sheepishly admit "I'm almost finished," eat too many hors d'oeuvres because I didn't have anything to say, and try not to look shocked when crucial plotlines were discussed. When I remembered Rule #1, I bowed out of the book club.

While I continued to look for "me" time, Dashiell began looking for more "mom" time and entered a new clingy phase. But rather than put my search on hold,I decided to try getting some "me" time with him.

An excursion to CVS to find a more dewy, radiant moisturizer seemed doable with a baby until Dashiell managed to kick over an entire row of foundation while in his stroller. Undiscouraged, I went home and put on some music. Singing along while Dashie crashed his trucks on the rug made me feel like a younger, well-rested version of me. Then a new tune came on and Dashiell instantly jumped up and started to play air guitar with a block. Watching his plump little hand pretend to strum packed more gain than drain than anything I'd done all week and filled me with one of those teary, this-is-why-I'm-a-mom moments. I scooped him up and tickled him, which turned into a pillow fight that got him so riled up he refused to nap, often an ideal "me" time. Beth Bedrin-Lindgren, mom of 13-month-old twins Owen and Tigerlily in Elk Grove, California, manages to use naptime for herself most days. "I refuse to cook, clean, or fold laundry while they sleep. Instead, I read books or magazines, tweeze my eyebrows, or call friends. Those precious moments are just for me."

I, however, ended up turning on the TV so I could catch my breath and make dinner. Elizabeth Donovan of Centerville, Virginia, mom of Kathleen, 5, Amanda, 3, and Caroline, 1, also feels no guilt about using Elmo to help her start her day. "I turn on Sesame Street and sneak onto the deck to have my coffee and feel the breeze and the fresh air, " she says.

With a month nearly up and my rejuvenation bank account still empty, I was getting panicked. Then I got out of work a little early one day. Realizing I was alone and no one knew about it, I rushed home and put on my yoga DVD. I spent ten minutes breathing out anxiety and breathing in vitality, 15 minutes on the phone, then my babysitter and kids strolled in. I realized why Vieira was waking up at 5:00 and also why she was pissed. Even if you have help, or decide to skip food shopping for a Zen moment, you're not guaranteed to get it.

I started to think that maybe right now just isn't a "me"-time kind of stage in my life. Or maybe I needed to find ways to sneak it into every day like Jessica Seinfeld hiding broccoli in her cupcakes. But that wasn't what I'd set out to do. Then the phone rang. It was a friend inviting me to a girls' night out. Bingo.

At dinner, we laughed and ate and talked about everything: the election, a recent rash of dramatic thunderstorms, sex, which foods are worth buying organic, our husbands, school gossip, new restaurants, new kitchens, and, of course, we talked about our kids. But not all night, and when we did, we were really discussing how we feel as mothers.

That's when I discovered that the very best "me" time for me is any opportunity to check in with other women about this stage in my life that's filled with moments ranging from cuddly tickle fights to mystifying temper tantrums and a lot of self-questioning in between. After an hour or two of getting some much needed perspective, I have a better sense of who I am as a mom -- and as a person.

Francesca Castagnoli writes and blogs from Montclair, New Jersey, where she lives with her family.

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