What we should not sacrifice, experts emphasize, is spending quality time with our kids. However, don’t “get stuck on planning that perfect interaction,” says Pressman. “Just have the clear intention to pay attention to the experience of being with your child. Take a weekend and remove all the expectations, all the parenting do’s and don’ts, and just see what it’s like to connect with your child about something that makes you both laugh, without having to fake your enthusiasm.”
The absolute best thing you can do, therapists say, is spend ten minutes a day, one-on-one, with each child. No screens. No directives. No criticism. “Of all the compromises I make as a busy mom of four, the one thing I am a total stickler for is finding ways to get individual time with each of my kids throughout the week,” says Oz. “Our mini dates can be 15 minutes. It’s hard to sneak away from the rest of the pack for too long. But that alone time is so soothing and joyful ... These moments are when I get to see my kids becoming themselves.” Smith Brody enthusiastically agrees: “I’ve tried this with my children and it’s like a miracle drug,” she says. “Ten minutes in a busy day sounds like a lot. It probably pulls you away from something you would have done for yourself. However, as you sit there doing this for your child, it becomes something you’re doing for you too. If just for ten small minutes you can focus on your kid, he will give back to you everything you’ve put in times ten. That’s a win. That is a moment of joy. It makes you feel like, ‘Gosh, I was a good mom today.’”
And what about those days when you weren’t? When we get emotionally flooded and lose patience with our kids, it’s how we recover that counts. “It may sound odd, but the mishap is not the problem, so long as there is a positive reconnection, a repair,” writes Klein. “The key at times like these—when their needs collide with ours—is how you reconnect with your child. Coming back together again, without blame, lets them know you are here for them, always, even when bad moments happen.” What she’s describing is a concept psychologists call “rupture and repair.” We will always have highs and lows with the people we love, because relationships are “dynamic,” says Pressman—meaning they are living, breathing works in progress. “They can’t just be one note of perfect.” But by attempting to fix what we’ve damaged, “we show our kids that ruptures don’t mean the end of the world, or that the relationship is doomed. Kids see they are able to go through a whole range of experiences and feelings and still stay loved and connected.”
So much of what we do as parents takes place behind closed doors. Of course, we’re not in it for the fame and money. Proof of our efforts, of our triumphs and shortcomings, will only be fully revealed decades from now, in family photos or on a therapist’s couch. But if we want our kids to be capable of joy, we need to find a way to model it now. That said, “self-care” has to be redefined as a shared laugh on the playground instead of a solo trip to the spa. When you haven’t peed alone in nine years,“meditate every morning” doesn’t sound helpful. It sounds, infuriatingly, like more pressure.
Ada Calhoun, author of Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, captured this sentiment, writing in The Atlantic: “‘Take time for yourself,’ the women’s magazines say. ‘Practice self-care.’ What they mean is that once a week I should take an hour for highlights or a massage or an exercise class. What I hear is that I should treat myself by paying someone to help me look less tired than I am, because no one wants to see that. And I do some of those things. But the only thing I’ve found that actually helps is being in the company of other women... Laughing about school admissions, about [standing outside in the freezing] cold, about how ridiculous it all is, that’s what we really need—not self-care, but solace.”