I have friends who could not wait to get back to work after having kids, friends who never wanted to go back to work, and friends who couldn’t figure out what they wanted. The thing they all had in common is that they were each anxious to find a sense of self.
It’s so easy to lose your personal identity in parenthood. One friend told me the story of holding her two-week-old and thinking, "I will never be myself again."
I had no idea who I was after having my first child, Mae. I felt tethered to motherhood in a way I had never been tied to anything before. I was lost in the routine. Feed, burp, sleep. Feed, burp, sleep. It wasn’t about what I wanted for my life anymore. It was about what my daughter needed.
Yes, being Mae’s mom was incredible, but who was I?
My kids are five and three and my husband and I are still figuring out who we are as individuals, as a couple, and as parents. A lot of our friends are in the same boat, so I asked my circle to share some of the best tips they’ve found to balance work, family, couple-hood and self.
Push yourself to socialize
1. Actively pursue friendships
Adult relationships require more effort when you are a parent, and it’s easy to drop friendships to the bottom of the priority list. Don’t do that. Our friends help remind us who we are outside of parenting. Text a friend right now and set a date to go out for a beer. Invite your officemate to go on a coffee run. Start a bi-monthly book club.
2. Make an effort to connect to your partner
You change after having kids, your priorities change, and that means your romantic relationship changes. It can deepen with a sense of common duty and increased love for the family unit. Or it can dissipate as the partnership becomes the last priority and communication becomes harder.
Spend the money on a babysitter (it’s worth it) and have date nights. Prioritize a few minutes in the morning to listen to one another’s schedules for the day. Get the kids in an early bedtime routine so you and your partner have time together at the end of the day.
3. Talk about things that have nothing to do with work or kids
About six months after having my first child, I managed to have a full fifteen-minute conversation with someone I just met before mentioning I was a new mom. He was surprised when I finally brought up my baby and I was impressed with myself.
Talk about yourself – a movie you liked or didn’t like, an article you found interesting, or (if you’re really feeling bold) politics. Or, just listen. Let yourself get lost in someone else’s story for a little bit. It’s good to remind yourself you can hold a conversation that has nothing to do with diapers or quarterly reports.
Make the most of the time you have
4. Compartmentalize your focus
I find myself sitting with my kids and thinking about all the work I should be doing, or sitting at work doing things for my kids like searching for schools.
An easy way to compartmentalize work time, family time and you time is to set aside a specific number of minutes to focus on just one of those jobs. Set an alarm that lets you know it’s time to stop one task and begin another. I’m working on this article from 10 a.m. to noon. I’m going to enjoy lunch from 12 to 12:50. Then I’m picking up my son and I’m going to enjoy him until his naptime.
5. Make use of your commute
The time you spend alone on your commute may be the only time you spend alone. Make it count. Make a kickass playlist of songs you love to sing, roll down your windows and experience that euphoria of freedom you first felt when you were sixteen and alone in a car. Download some podcasts you’re excited about. Subscribe to Audible (or download an audiobook from your local library) and listen to some books you’ve never had time to read. Call someone you never have time to communicate with.
6. Don’t over-schedule your kids
It’s hard to say, "You can’t take three dance classes and soccer, because I don’t want to spend my life in a car." But it’s true! Over-scheduling your kids usually means over-scheduling yourself. It’s important for kids to recognize that parents are human beings who have needs and wants that go beyond chauffeuring.
It is okay to say no to two birthday parties in a day. It’s okay to tell your kids that have to choose between activities. It’s okay to take one day a week off from driving anyone anywhere.
7. Give yourself a break every single day
Reserve time to do something for yourself every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. The surest way to make that happen is to make it a habit. Meditate for ten minutes between dropping the kids off at daycare and going into work. Take a walk by yourself every evening. Enjoy a cup of hot tea during your child’s naptime or a morning break at work.
8. Do things just because you enjoy doing them
Joy is a good enough reason for action. Why read a book you want to read even though it has nothing to do with parenting or work? Because it brings you joy. Why hire a babysitter just so you can take a workshop about pallet art? Because you freaking love pallet art. Your happiness still matters. Do things that make you feel good.
9. Do something that scares you
I don’t mean you have to go cliff diving to rediscover yourself after becoming a parent (or maybe you do - I can’t speak for you), but there is great personal growth potential in taking a risk. Challenge yourself. Dare to set a personal goal, try something new or return to something you were once passionate about.
For one friend of mine, the risk was taking her first ballet class in many years. For another friend it was getting together a group of friends to play Dungeons and Dragons. For me it was doing an improv show for the first time postpartum.
I’d done improv and sketch comedy my entire adult life right up until I got pregnant. Then three years passed. Here was this thing I used to do for myself that made me feel wildly nervous, and excited, and challenged and alive. Then I had children and taking care of them made me feel wildly nervous, and excited, and challenged and alive in a very different way.
On a whim, I decided to push myself out of my parenting comfort zone. We got a babysitter so my husband could watch me do improv like he used to when we were first dating. All the way to the theater I said, "Why am I doing this to myself?"
I wasn’t sure I was still capable of being funny, or thinking fast, or being confident enough to have an audience believe in me. I mean, I was just a mom who was never sure if I was doing the right thing or not.
Then the lights came up onstage, and there I was again. I was still there.
Whatever you do, be sure to preserve some time and energy for yourself. It’s best to carve out this time as soon as you fall into a parenting routine. Your relationship with your entire family will benefit from taking at least a few minutes a day to further your growth or ground yourself. No matter how often your child begs for your attention, it’s ok to put yourself first sometimes.