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Motherhood and Happiness Don't Have to Be Exclusive

So I'm just going to come right out and say it: I'm not one of those moms who sacrifices her own happiness for that of her kid. In fact, it's one of the reasons I only have one child. I need some "me time" to be happy. If I had more kids, I think I would lose my mind. My brain just isn't equipped for it. I need time for myself—quiet time, personal time—and I think it makes me a better mom to the one kid I do have when I indulge myself on a regular basis. It's like the advice flight attendants give you about the oxygen masks in airplanes: Take care of yourself before helping your kids. You can't help them breathe if you're gasping for air, and I believe the same is true for finding happiness.

Taking "me time" isn't a unique concept. Lots of moms do it and scores of experts recommend it, so I'm not a totally selfish anomaly—despite what you may think. I can see your judgey face! According to a recent survey of 1,000 women, ages 20 to 65, conducted by Wakefield Research for T.J. Maxx, 58 percent of women make time for the things that matter most to them every day. While this does include spending time with loved ones and family (56 percent), quiet time alone ranks most important for a solid number of women (20 percent). And this isn't wasted time: 93 percent report feeling happy, balanced and relaxed when they take time for what matters most to them, whatever it is. (Eleven percent make time for fitness—you go, girls!)

Of course, you can only feel positive about taking time for yourself if you can get over the guilt—and 58 percent of women frequently feel like they have to "fit a mold," according to the T.J. Maxx survey. Between the Pinterest stars who pack school lunches that rival priceless works of art to the tiger moms who are raising child prodigies, it can be hard not to come down with a serious case of "keeping up with the Joneses" every once in a while. I certainly have many hours I'll never get back that were spent hand-making Valentines for my daughter's classmates or planning a complicated mommy-and-me craft project I ended up doing by myself when my kid got bored. Mostly, I just did those things because I felt like that's what "awesome" moms do, but they didn't really bring me joy. In fact, they really stressed me out.

What does bring me joy? I wish I could say it's something super important to humanity or incredibly virtuous, but I'm not even a distant cousin of Mother Theresa. My happiness comes from binge-watching teen dramas on TV (Don't judge, "Vampire Diaries" is very entertaining. Team Damon!). I am also incredibly fulfilled by whiling away the hours on a Darby Smart DIY craft project. Do I need an ombre needlepoint sunglass case? Hell, no! But I'm damn well going to spend a good chunk of a Saturday afternoon making one because: It. Brings. Me. Joy. Drinks out with friends? Sign me up for one too many gin and tonics. Feel like taking a nap? Hand me my eye mask. This is my happiness. It's not glamorous. Maybe it's even sad that I don't have a lofty purpose. But guess what? I'm not sad about it, because I'm happy!

"Oh, the horror!" some of you are thinking. She doesn't spend enough time with her poor kid. Well, what's the "right" amount of time to spend with our kids? On work? Sleep? Marriage? Housekeeping? Cooking? Errands? Fitness? Fun? Good lord, I need a nap after just listing all the things we're supposed to do, let alone doing them. I've decided that as long I'm not drifting into "Downton Abbey" territory and having a nanny bring my child to me for five minutes once a day after tea like Lady Mary, I'm probably in the clear. (Though clearly a decent number of kids, from well-off families at least, were raised that way in the not-so-distant past and the world didn't end.) Believe me, my 8-year-old daughter does not feel neglected. We spend plenty of time together doing all sorts of things, and she is very well cared for. She, too, is happy. I can tell because she literally skips everywhere she goes. (It's really hard to skip when you're sad—go try.)

The good news for any of you disbelievers, or those too guilt-ridden to go for it, is that when women drop expectations and do things their own way, 83 percent feel liberated, empowered and calm, according to the survey. Darn straight! It is liberating to realize you don't exist only to take care of other people. It's okay to take care of yourself. I give you permission. Do whatever you want to do—some of the time, at least. Whatever makes you happy. Maybe you're even more virtuous than I am and want to spend your "free" time volunteering or learning a new skill. In parenthood, there is no answer when it comes to maximizing precious alone time. If given an hour to themselves, 48 percent of moms in the survey would catch up on their favorite show ("Vampire Diaries" marathon, anyone?), 30 percent would treat themselves to pampering (I could sooooooo use a mani/pedi right now), and 23 percent would relish the silence with a glass of wine (yes, please).

So go ahead, follow your bliss. Don't feel guilty about it, and don't tarnish your "me time" thinking about how you should be spending it with your kids. You shouldn't. You're recharging your happiness battery so it will be full when you do spend time with them. Plus, you're modeling for them how to achieve it, and that's important. Someday, they will be adults who need to find their own happiness, too.

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer who thinks empty nest syndrome largely could be avoided if parents didn't devote their entire lives to their kids. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.