An Island of My Own
Seven years ago, my husband and I went to Costa Rica with his family and left our then three children (ages 5, 3, and 1), with my parents. This was the first time we'd been on a trip without our kids, and it felt both luxurious and strange to get on a plane without them. Navigating the airport was a breeze, and I actually read a book on the plane! When we arrived at our vacation rental, we were amazed. We could see the ocean from the pool patio. Monkeys were just hanging out in the tropical trees and iguanas sauntered across the lawn. It was paradise. And I was a crazy person.
Instead of relaxing and enjoying the view or heading to explore the beach, I was running around to all the bedrooms, taking it upon myself to help figure out where everyone should sleep, especially the family that had brought their young son. I had this nagging worry that no one had started to cook the dry beans that we had bought for dinner— and you know how long beans take to cook!! I ran to start simmering the beans, and then set about unpacking and settling into my room. I was in full-on-mom mode, even though no one there needed to be mothered—especially not by me. And then I burned the beans.
Appalled and embarrassed that I had burned dinner, I retreated to my bedroom for a little navel gazing. When had I become this person? Was I even capable of enjoying this amazing vacation? Had motherhood turned me into a micro-managing freak?
Happily, a good night's sleep and a little time at the beach transformed me from Mom with a capital M into a real person. In a few more days, I was not only a person, I was Whitney. I laughed out loud at my book ("Good Omens" by Terri Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), quoting annoyingly from it to anyone in the vicinity. I woke up early to read my scriptures and write in my journal by the pool. I hiked, explored, and frolicked in the waves.
And then came the most astonishing moment of the trip. Everyone else walked down to the beach and I stayed behind to grab my beach gear. Soon I looked around me and realized I was alone. Alone! I felt so weird and wonderful, and that feeling made me realize how long it had been since I was completely alone, with no obligation to anyone else. My family at the beach was going to have fun whether I was there or not. So I decided not to go. I grabbed my book and hopped on a pool float. I read until I got hot, jumped into the pool, and even practiced my diving because no one was there to judge. I sang out loud. I read and wrote some more. It was one of the best moments of my life, a moment in which I felt completely myself. It was like I was on my own little island—alone.
That day helped me realize how rare and wonderful solitude can be for moms, especially in those early years of motherhood, before any of your kids are in school and before any of them are old enough to babysit. In her book, “All Joy and No Fun” (perhaps the best title ever written about parenthood) Jennifer Senior referred to this time of parenthood as “The Bunker Years.” You spend a lot of time at home, yes, because of naps and such, but even when you’re out and about, you’re out and about with kids, so the trips are usually short and hectic. Not only that, but for much of the time, you don’t even have your body to yourself, between breastfeeding and pregnancy. This subset of the Bunker Years is what I call the Body-Sharing Years. Someone is always touching you.
The intensity of the Bunker Years may be a bit more acute for moms who don’t have another job elsewhere, but even for moms that do, they’re usually around people all day at work and then around people at home after work. Sometimes entire weeks go by without a minute alone. This is the time of life when going grocery shopping alone or even going to the dentist can feel like a big vacation.
I’m sure I’m not the only mom who identified with Flynn Rider on Tangled when he sang his dream: “On an island that I own, tanned and rested and alone, surrounded by enormous piles of money.” I’m also pretty sure I’m not the only mom who makes Disney-movie references even when talking to other adults.
The other fantasy I think many moms share is that fleeting idea, when you find yourself actually alone in a car: “What if I just kept driving…” Of course with no real intentions of doing so. Jessica Dahlquist admitted on a podcast episode that that she once drove by a hospital and thought, “If only I could have a little something wrong so I could just go in there and rest.” The crazy part is, I bet most of you who are listening can relate.
A word about mom guilt here. It’s OK to feel a little desperate for some time to yourself. And it’s OK to actually schedule in that alone time. It may feel selfish or ungrateful to take time for yourself when there’s so much on your to-do list and so many people on your to-be-with list. But in my experience with moms, especially moms of young kids, it’s rare to find a mom who takes too much time for herself. If the balance starts to tip that direction, you’ll feel it, and you can scale back.
I am two years past the bunker years, and I’ll tell you, it’s pretty great. Once my oldest son was old enough to watch the others I could leave them with him to go shopping, run errands, or even just go on a bike ride. But there are still times—ahem, Summer Break—when it’s hard for Momma to get a little space.
Over the years, I’ve figured out several strategies for sneaking in some islands of precious time and space for myself, even if it’s just a few minutes here and there. I’m going to split them up into two categories—Mom time and Mom space—with six ideas apiece.
1. Plan a weekly Mom date.
One of my favorite strategies comes from one of my favorite podcasters, Jessica Dahlquist, of Extraordinary Moms. In Episode 213, she talks about how she goes on a weekly self-date night. This was actually a solution her husband came up with, when she was talking about how she just needed some time alone. He said, “Why don’t you just go on a date night by yourself every Thursday night.” He puts the kids to bed while she goes out to do whatever she feels like doing that night, whether it’s shopping without kids, going to a movie, getting some good food, or just going on a walk. So simple, yet so smart. And so refreshing.
2. Designate a Mom weekend.
Weekends are supposed to be a break to recharge from the stress of the week. Not so much for moms. Several years ago I found myself feeling resentful about weekends. My husband and kids wanted to use the weekend to recharge and relax from a busy week of school and work. But someone still has to do the work of feeding and cleaning up, etc. And with everyone home, that work multiplies. That meant the weekend was actually my busiest time of the week.
I could have laid down the law and insisted that we all split the work, or that we spend every Saturday doing chores together. But I believe in weekends! I wanted them to enjoy their days off. I especially didn’t want to spend every Saturday cleaning. I wanted to be out spending time and going on adventures together.
Finally I found a solution. I needed a weekend too, and the actual weekend was not my time. I started picking one day a week, usually a Wednesday just to break things up, and I designated that day as my personal weekend. Now I never miss it.
Most of what makes a day a weekend is a mindset. I just kind of take it easy on my weekend, fixing slacker meals or serving leftovers, taking time to read, exercise, hike, or whatever else I feel like doing. Sometimes I get a babysitter, other times I just involve whichever children aren’t in school in my leisurely day. And I usually let them watch a bit more tv than usual.
The best result of this change in routine is that I’m no longer resentful of actual weekends. Now that I have my own, I’m eager to help the rest of my family really enjoy theirs.
If you have another job in addition to being a mom and can’t pick a weekday, you could split the weekend up or just designate a set amount of time over the weekend for yourself. Karlee Rehrer, a mom and dental hygienist, takes a two-hour mom weekend every Sunday afternoon. Her kids and husband know that this is her time and they entertain each other. She usually just spends the time in her room, napping, reading—whatever she wants to do.
3. Go for an occasional night away.
To take alone time a step further, if you can swing it, treat yourself to an occasional night away—even once a year—all by yourself. Often we think of planning a getaway with our spouses, but it can be even easier to figure out a night by yourself, because you don’t have to find a babysitter. And sometimes it’s just what you need. This doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. You could get creative here—maybe you just ask a good friend if you can housesit for a night while they’re on vacation. But just a night or two where you don’t have to put anyone to bed, make food for anyone else, and you can sleep uninterrupted for as long as you want can be priceless.
A great example of a mom who did this is for a while, April Perry, founder of Power of Moms and Learn, Do, Become, got a hotel room for herself one night a month so she could make the time to write a book about her mother, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. She would then read chapters of that book to her mother and father each Thursday when she went to visit them. Because of those weekends away, she was able to finish her beautiful book, Thursdays with Zoe. She talks about this book on Episode 29 of the 3 in 30 Podcast.
4. Get a babysitter.
I don’t know why, but with my first few babies, I thought I could only justify getting a babysitter if I needed one—if I had an important appointment that I couldn’t bring them to or if I was going on a date with my husband. But I’m giving you permission right now to get a babysitter even if you just want to go throw rocks in a lake by yourself for an hour.
This doesn’t have to be expensive. Most of my babysitting, especially on weekdays when teenagers are in school, comes in the form of babysitting swaps. I was part of an official babysitting co-op for a while, but usually I just find a friend or two whose kids are compatible with mine and we set up a swapping system. This past year, my friend and I alternated Thursday afternoons.
I’m also a strong believer in the power of threes—teaming up with two other friends for a babysitting swap, so you get two-out-of three babysitting sessions free.
5. Embrace the morning—or night.
This next idea doesn’t really apply to moms with teensy ones. When you have little babies, you just grab every bit of sleep you can. I definitely wasn’t savoring any sunrises during the Bunker Years. But, incredibly, those baby years do pass, and one day you wake up and realize you just had a good night’s sleep.
This is when you can start claiming part of each day as your own. For me, it’s the morning. I can vividly remember a time in high school when I decided I wanted to be a morning person. I started waking up early on my own and enjoying some time to myself as I got ready for the day. As the oldest of five myself, alone time was rare then too. I still love waking up before everyone else and having that time to myself to relax, be alone, and prepare myself for the day ahead. It’s also when I do my best writing. Last year, I read the book Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod, which gives a great blueprint for starting your day with a rejuvenating morning. He uses the acronym SAVERS to guide his morning routine:
On the other hand, you can gain a lot of freedom by being strict about bedtime and designating a specific time of night as “adult time.” Notice how I say this as if it’s a simple thing. To me it is not. Perhaps it’s because I wake up so darn early, usually around 5 a.m., but am not very good at firm bedtime boundaries. It tends to drag on and on at my house.
But I do know moms who are really good at getting their kids to bed early and consistently. My friend Rachel Beckstead’s kids go to bed by 7:00, and they know not to mess with adult time. Even if they’re still awake, they stay in their rooms. This gives Rachel the whole evening to spend some time with her husband and by herself as well. For lots of moms, this is their best time to carve out some alone time.
6. Capitalize on nap time/quiet time.
Nap time is a naturally occurring break or two in your day when you have young kids. It’s easy to get in the habit of scurrying around during this time, trying to get work done that is difficult to do when kids are awake. I definitely fell into this trap for a long time. I’d work so hard during nap time that I was exhausted when the babies woke up. But then, a few babies in, I realized that I could use this time to recharge too—either to catch up on sleep, just relax and breathe for a minute, or even sit and read a book.
Some moms are really good at enforcing “quiet time” for their kids even after they’re done taking naps—a great way to prolong this time for everyone to recharge.
1. The Shower
The shower is a magical place where a mom can be alone with enough white noise to drown out most of the other noise in the house. I have gotten some of my greatest inspiration in the shower. I once wrote a poem about how this tiny shower cell was actually the most liberating space in my house. I have no idea where that poem went, but it was a masterpiece. I wrote it in the shower.
Granted, there are some times in a mom’s life where you really can’t take a shower without a baby seat in the bathroom with you. Often this means an entire shower with a screaming or whining child. That certainly doesn’t count as alone time.
But once your child is past that baby stage, the shower or <gasp> even a nice soak in the bath can be a great place for a quick dose of solitude. I know it might not be popular with some, but I’ve found that the only way to keep my small children from walking in and out of the bathroom at will while I’m taking a shower is to put on a show for the duration of the shower, and usually while I’m getting ready too. I do not feel guilty about this. I often use the time while I’m getting ready to catch up on some podcasts or audiobooks.
2. The Table
I believe in sharing family meals. But there are three a day. You can afford to have at least one to yourself. Breakfast and lunch may be the best opportunities, because they’re usually less formal than the family dinner. Sometimes I eat before the kids eat, sometimes after, but never while they’re eating, because then I would surely be interrupted.
When the weather’s nice, I love a good breakfast alone on my back deck to just enjoy the quiet, sit still, and enjoy the view. Julie Cornwell uses her private breakfast time to catch up on reading and personal study.
3. Your Room
Whether it’s your bedroom, a home office, or even just a closet, designate a retreat for yourself in your home where you can be alone and find peace, even if it’s for a few minutes at a time. In one of my favorite parenting books of all time, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” Wendy Mogel advises that you set boundaries for your kids about respecting your space, particularly your bedroom. Teach them to knock before they enter, and that your room is not a place to leave their toys, books, or other possessions.
Crystal Evans is a mom and school teacher. She retreats to her room for 15 minutes right after work each day for a quick stretch of downtime before she faces a busy evening with her children. She explained to them that she needs them to respect this time, but then for the rest of the night, she’s theirs.
4. The Car
Another place you can be alone is in the car. I remember when I first got my driver’s license and drove in a car all by myself. It was an exhilerating feeling. I remember driving to and from work singing as loudly and dramatically as I could. Again with the singing.
Obviously, when you have young kids you’re rarely alone in a car, and, also obviously, you can’t just drive off and leave them. But I have used the car as a very brief escape when I had a super colicky baby who wouldn’t stop screaming no matter what I tried. I made sure the baby was safe in his crib and I just went out and sat in the car in the garage just to give my ears a brief respite. A few minutes was enough time to regroup, calm myself, and go back inside to keep trying.
My mom used to linger alone in the car in our driveway with the doors shut after we all scrambled out. I used to think she was so weird. But of course I totally do that now.
When my kids were younger, I would always be the one to volunteer to pick people up from the airport, just to have that drive to myself. And a work commute can be a great time to collect yourself before heading home to the kids.
My teenager and I were arguing one night and it was clear we needed to table the discussion, get some sleep, and resume the conversation when we were both rested and more sane. So I said goodnight and hopped in the car. I drove around in silence for a while, letting myself cool down, and then realized I was hungry. I pulled into the Wendy’s drive-through at 10:00 pm. The window guy took a while to recognize that I was there and take my order, and he apologized profusely. I just said, “Who am I to judge. I’m the one at a Wendy’s drivethrough in my pajamas at 10:00.”
To make myself sound even more pathetic, I’ve also had many a good cry in a car in a deserted parking lot.
5. Your Yard
One of my favorite places to be alone is just outside at my own home. When I lived in a house with a lawn larger than a postage stamp, I used to love to mow it. The noise of the mower blocked everything else out, and I was alone with my thoughts. I wrote some great essays while mowing.
I also love weeding. It’s such a mindless activity. You can just sit and think and pull one satisfying weed after another.
Audra Elkington loves to start her day on her front porch for just 5-10 minutes, soaking in the sun, listening to birds chirp, and meditating.
6. A Path
Even if you’re pushing a stroller, going on a walk or jog can feel like alone time. The kids enjoy it too, and getting out together is so therapeutic. This was a little tricky in the winter for the nine years I lived in Minnesota, but luckily everything in our city was connected by underground tunnels, so we’d just drive downtown and walk through the burrows.
Any kind of path can be a great place to get some space. I remember a particularly rough night with five kids between 1 and 10. As soon as my husband walked in the door I handed him the baby, grabbed my running shoes, and just ran out my pent-up aggression.
My favorite kind of alone time is cycling. I got a road bike two years ago, and I love riding for miles and miles. I never bring headphones—I just think and think. I write essays in my head and make up songs to the rhythm of my pedaling.
Whatever your own unique mom life looks like, find those little islands of time and space to sneak in a bit of alone time to practice being yourself. There's nothing like motherhood to teach you just how beautiful solitude can be.