“Sleep when the baby sleeps.”
“Don’t worry about chores, sleep whenever possible.”
“Schedule regular date nights with your spouse.”
These are all words of wisdom that I was offered upon becoming a new mother. I’ve even repeated these tidbits to other new moms. But here’s the question: how do you really take a break if you’re a new parent?
1.) Ask for Help
NEVER turn down an offer of help and be VERY specific about what kind of help you would like. If a friend or family member asks if you need help, don’t reply with, “Sure, some help would be great.” Instead, say, “Would you mind bringing over dinner one night this week?”
Or, maybe you could call a friend and ask for them to watch your child while you take a nap, see a movie or grab some exercise. It doesn’t matter so much what you are doing on your time off as long as the activity is restorative to you.
2.) Schedule “Me” Time
Experienced moms will tell you to schedule a break for yourself. It can be as short as a few minutes or an afternoon or evening all to yourself (or hopefully, with your spouse.) You must put it on the calendar and really prepare for it. Leave lots of instructions. Whether your babysitter needs the advice or not, you will be more at ease knowing you’ve provided lots of information.
3.) Examine Your Reluctance
Many stay-at-home moms become workaholics. We take our new job very seriously and assume that our role is irreplaceable. Well, it’s true that you are the most important person in your new baby’s life right now. But letting go of the reigns for a few hours to improve yourself is important for the whole family. If you have been reluctant to get help from family or a professional so that you can have a break, are you being honest with yourself about the reason?
Guilt. Finances. Fear. Those are three top reasons moms give for doing all the childcare work themselves. “I quit my job and gave up my salary to do this, so it’s my responsibility.” Even hourly workers are typically allowed sick or personal days on the job. There is no shame in taking personal time as a mom.
Breastfeeding is another excuse. I nursed all three of my children. The first for 15 months; then 14 months (she was a biter); and the baby was still going strong until she was 17 months old. With a little planning, you can still take time off despite being the sole provider of baby’s nutritional needs. I didn’t enjoy pumping, and my babies were allergic to formula, but it was a small amount of effort to get a break.
Why are Breaks so Important?
If you’re starting to understand how to take your break, but still reluctant to try, let’s look at the reasons why you should put in the effort.
1.) Reduces your risk of caregiver burnout and depression.
A recent study tracked nearly 87,000 families in the United Kingdom between 1993 and 2007, and found the highest risk for depression occurred in the first year after a child’s birth.
“After the first year of parenting, a mother’s risk for depression dropped by half, while experienced fathers faced only about a quarter of the depression risk compared with new fathers.” (Source: The New York Times)
What’s important in the results of this study is that both mothers and fathers experience in increased rate of depression during that first year. Most studies focus only on mothers and postpartum depression, but fathers are at risk, too.
Many studies have been conducted on family caregivers. Caregivers are defined as anyone providing assistance to someone else who is, in some degree, incapacitated. Caregiver stress and burnout are well-documented and startling.
40% to 70% of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression with approximately a quarter to half of these caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression. (Source: Zarit, S. (2006). Assessment of Family Caregivers: A Research Perspective)
Family caregivers experiencing extreme stress have been shown to age prematurely. This level of stress can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver’s life. (Source: Elissa S. Epel, Dept of Psychiatry, Univ of Calif, SF, et al, From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dec 7, 2004, Vol 101, No. 49.)
2.) Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, Really.
Research conducted by Julia Vormbrock, Ph.D., and others, shows that children grow more fond of their caregivers when they’re separated from them – at least for a few days. After two weeks of separation, however, most children become “detached,” reports Vormbrock. Many attachment parenting experts believe that the detachment phase begins closer to three days in children less than three years of age. So, while an extended trip away from your children may not result in a positive outcome in your relationships with them, a few hours or an evening away is certainly not harmful.
Getting some time away from your child can indeed give you a fresh perspective, especially if you’re caring for a high-needs or special-needs baby. You can be better able to reattach after a restorative break.
What about during the separation anxiety phase? Usually around 18 months, give or take a few months, your baby will go through separation anxiety when the primary caregiver is not around. If you are right in the thick of separation anxiety, keep your breaks to a minimum, or find a way to take a break during naps or at night when your child is sleeping. Forcing your child to cope with your absence during this phase can often make them more upset and insecure. I promise that with healthy bonds and lots of patience, this period will pass rather quickly.
3.) Encourages Children to Bond with Other Caregivers
Your child will also be able to reattach to you when you return. Even if your first few tries at getting away have resulted in leaving a wailing child in another person’s arms, it’s important to remember that your child really does forget about you shortly after you leave. Not in a permanent or debilitating way, they just focus their attention on someone or something else.
Without you there, they begin to take notice of this new caregiver in front of them and will have the opportunity to form a healthy attachment with them. This is especially important if the back-up caregiver is your spouse or a grandparent who has not previously been given access to one-on-one care.
MOM DARE: If you’re the primary caregiver of one or more children, take a break. Schedule a date night with your spouse or girlfriends. Make sure you are doing this at least once a month. Your connections to your husband, close family members and your friends are vitally important to you. While having children definitely limits the amount of time you have to spend on these relationships, the importance of them does not diminish. Think of it as a mini Mamacation; and make the most of any time you can carve out for yourself.
Grace and Peace (or Peace and Quiet)
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