I had lunch with author Rachel Bertsche Levine last week to talk about her new research-based book, The Kids are in Bed: Finding Time for Yourself in the Chaos of Parenting. After we had a race to see who could devour her popover the fastest (it was a happy tie), I asked her why she felt this book needed to be written. “When I had my daughter, and went into the hospital, I was ‘Rachel.’ I walked out, and they were calling me ‘Mom.’ My identity had changed overnight.”
Along with that identity change, she says, came the hard new approach to time and how it ought to be used when you’re raising kids, which is what she examines in the book. “I talked to so many people who say, ‘I can’t remember what I thought about before I had kids.’ I wanted to look at the research to confirm that it’s OK if we’re not our kids every second of the day.”
After interviewing numerous experts and parents, Bertsche stands by her hypothesis: “It’s better for you to take time to yourself, so you can reconnect with the person you are outside of being a mother or father, and it’s good for your kids when you’re not super stressed all the time.” In fact, she says, “It’s good for their kids to see that they’re not the center of the universe.”
I asked her how her own personal time has changed since writing the book. One thing, she says, is that now she tells her kids where she’s going, what she’s doing, and with whom. “I’m not just going out. I’m going out to see friends or going to book club or going to exercise. I want them to know I have a fuller life.” She hopes this especially makes an impression on her daughter. “If she decides to have kids, I don’t want her to think she has to give up everything to be a mother.”
Of course the concept of “you time” is more complicated than just claiming it—childcare is expensive, and as you’ll see in the discussion below, sometimes getting spousal support or even deciding what truly makes you happy is also tricky. In Bertsche’s book she explores the importance of simple, everyday joys in addition to taking bigger chunks of time. She showed me a list she made on her phone of little things she likes to do for fun, as a reminder for when she has even 20 minutes to herself. “Watch a TV show” was one. “Read a book.” Sounds almost too simple, but be honest with yourself: when was the last time you watched a TV show and did nothing else? No phone or laundry or laptop in your hands? Last night I watched a very weird movie (The Lighthouse) with my husband (who now owes me) and I have to confess the first 15 minutes I was itching to get up and go online to catch up on royal gossip and other important things, but I eventually settled down. I don’t remember the last time we watched something together and I wasn’t asleep by the end.
After working on the book, Bertsche says, “I’m much more intentional about how I approach my time. I try not to spend date nights with my husband just talking about kid stuff. I’m not looking at pictures of my kids after they go to sleep. We all do that: we’re yelling ‘Just go to bed already!’ and then you’re looking at picture of them when you could be watching a show you want to watch.”
The laundry and dishes and picking up always need tending, but maybe it’s best to think of that as a comforting constant rather than a rock you’re always pushing up the hill. “I’m not saying don’t ever do the stuff you need to do,” Bertsche says. “I just believe in not waiting ‘til you finish all that before you get to your own time, because then you’ll never find the time.” So next time you put the kids in bed, instead of getting straight to the dishes or the pickup, take a tiny break to do the type of thing you always mean to get to, that’s just yours. “Really lean into your time, even if it’s just 20 minutes,” Bertsche advises. “The dishes will still be there when you’re done.”
This is all easier said than done. Here are some struggles and victories witches have logged in the fight to get their time back:
“I feel like the trickiest part of ye olde ‘take time for yourself’ advice is the piece that people don’t talk about (or maybe this isn’t true for everyone): that your partner might be grumbly or difficult about it. It’s not all internal.”
“It was so unpleasant for me to have friend time because my husband doesn't have friends who hang out. He would be all passive aggressive and mopey about it. And I would end up coming home after a great day with friends to find I had crabby husband. Funny enough, recently I had my annual Christmas outing with high school friends, I was gone for about 5 hours, and he was not crabby or passive aggressive at all. Apparently it took 16 years for him to realize it's OK for me to go out and for him to deal with the kids for a day.”
“I had lunch with a woman recently and my daughter melted down while I was gone and he couldn't manage it and LO MY HUSBAND WAS SO ANGRY AND BITTER. The texts I was getting! My girlfriend, who was with them earlier in the day at the birthday party, said there is a notable difference between how she is with me and him, meaning she's not nearly as tense and jacked up with me as with him. I wish he could just get it together in those hard moments so I can just feel like I can be away.”
“I am the least exercisey person ever but when I was home with m daughter when she was a toddler I used to go the Y because they offered one hour free childcare. I would lazily stroll on the treadmill and read for an hour and assume it was good for her socialization.”
“The best thing that ever happened to me as an early parent was that one of my best friends (who also had a new-ish baby) was acquainted with some other women who started a regular moms-night/dads-night out thing and invited me. Every Wednesday for nearly 11 years, we have alternated - moms one week, dads the next. It has made such a huge difference in my life.”
“Time for myself has been so intertwined with things I do solo, but for my family. Like in the early days - a trip to Target - grab a coffee, stroll around home section and maybe buy one tiny candle for myself, then $100s of dollars on diapers. Yet it felt like such a treat. Now that mine are a bit older, I’ve joined a rowing team.”
“Reverse sleep training was crucial for me. My daily dose of me time comes from getting up earlier than my kids... so I had to do some pretty ruthless cry-it-out with both my babies so they wouldn’t expect me to go get them the second they opened their eyes if they woke up early. We probably did more work on the early wakeups than we did on bedtime! Now they both reliably sleep till at least 7 and the toddler sings to herself till we go in around 7:30 or 8 on weekends. I figured this out when my first was about a year old — but with the second, I was actively working on it by about 3 months!”
“A few months into new parenthood, on a frigid February night, my husband came home happy, tipsy, and carefree from a concert in the city and I snapped, a la ‘All work and no play makes Jackie a very dull girl’ moment of rage. From then on, it wasn’t a question of if or when I took 'me time,’ it was more of a proclamation. I have probably said ‘It’s only fair...’ a hundred times before I stopped defending my need for a break. We both recognize we’re better parents/spouses/people when we get time to recharge, though I do have to rein in my tendency to keep a tally.”
“I felt very pressured to always ‘be there’ and decided it was my job to be home every night, but it was a pressure I put on myself—not by my husband. It never occurred to my husband that he needed to also be home every night, so he still went out at night for work and for fun, and he thought that I saw things the same way. I remember the first time I said, ‘I'm going to a post-work event, can you pick up the kid?’ and he was like, ‘Yes, of course.’ One thing I learned about my marriage post-kids is that I have to give myself permission and say, ‘I am doing X on X date’ to him. He wasn't ever going to notice that I wasn't taking time for myself and suggest that I do.
“I go to the movies with a friend who has 5 kids ages 2 to 13. We go to a late show and are usually the only people in the theater. We have drinks, chat and watch the movie as if we are home. But when I say I am doing this, I can feel the guilt just creep in.”
“I think it's important to know what *kind* of time for yourself is actually replenishing. For example, I used to try to make myself go to ‘moms night out!’ things when I had really young kids and they would just make me feel more exhausted and talked out. [Introvert alert.] A book and a bar, alone, is more my speed. Or a movie, with all the snacks, ditto ALONE. Do what is right for you, that time is pretty limited (as we all know), so if it feels like more of a chore, it's probably not the right event for you at that time.”
“I just stink at this. My smaller person just turned 4. And, we are coming to the end of 6 years of paid FT childcare so I feel broke and especially reluctant to treat myself to a hobby or movies. Sometimes the recharge time I crave is in the apartment with no one there - which is within budget but hard to negotiate when it means willing everyone out to do something else. I never in a million years would have understood this battle even if someone had tried to give me a heads up. Lately, I’ve been coming back home after dropping the kids at school for like a half hour of breakfast to myself before I go to work. And I’m surprised how much I can savor it. But honestly, I think this is a real part of me that needs rehabilitation now that my kids are getting older. Like, what do I ENJOY?”
“My therapist told me, ‘If you say you want to raise a strong, independent daughter and a son who respects strong, independent women, but your kids never see YOU having your own life or being independent of them, what message are you really sending them?’ This had to do more with me taking multiple vacations per year without my family (which is THE KEY to my marriage/sanity/me not being in prison—and I know how lucky I am to be able to do this), but I think it applies to *any* time away or any type of self-care or break.
Another powerful thing my therapist said was ‘Would you want your kids to have your life?’ That guides a lot of what I do. One of my proudest moments was passing this lesson on to a friend of mine. We were on a trip without my family — 4 college friends at Disneyland (yes, we're those weirdos). We were walking from ride to ride and she said she had NOT told her kids she was at Disneyland. And I was like ‘HOLD UP!!!’ and then I gave her my big rant/speech about how they NEED TO KNOW that she had her own friends and was having her own fun. So I made her FaceTime them right then and there, and while at first they were like ‘Huh? What?,’ after 2 minutes all they cared about was if she would bring them back a present. And the guilt was lifted from her. I feel it is my life's mission to convince all women of this stuff!”
I hope you enjoyed today’s issue of Evil Witches. Please consider becoming a paying subscriber to support the work and get some extra content. Or at least forward to a bunch of friends and encourage them to subscribe!
If you’re interested in writing a guest post, have a suggested topic or have any general questions or you can reply right to this newsletter. You can also follow us on Instagram and have witchy conversations on Twitter. What is your tiny moment of zen these days? Mine is reading a book on the couch while my husband does an activity with the kids that is not my bag (like wrestling, or doing a Lego set or crafts.) Just getting to the point where I didn’t feel bad about it was as fulfilling as actually reading a book.
If you want to give a friend approximately five minutes of time to herself, I know a good option:
One witchy thing