Raising children is a lot like drinking out of a fire hose. Feeding, cleaning, dressing, transporting, teaching, entertaining, protecting, comforting, and managing one child is demanding, but is increased exponentially by multiple children, a spouse, and a job.
In our dataset of more than 74,900 parents of 0- to 3-year-olds completing a routine previsit questionnaire about the “best” and “hardest” parts of parenting their child, the most frequent spontaneous comment for the hardest part was “time-life balance.” The goal of asking these questions is to broaden the agenda for the pediatric visit to address stresses that are highly relevant to the child’s life in the family, and their current well-being and future outcome. The hardest part also rather succinctly captures the stress I hear every day from parents coming to me not only for health supervision, but especially for child behavior problems.
For the families with child behavior problems, “parent burnout” is a frequent contributing factor. It can be a vicious cycle where the child is very active or fussy, requiring a lot of intervention; the parent has no blocks of time to accomplish other necessary tasks nor any down time; the parent gets frustrated and irritable. Children sensing that their primary caregiver is upset ironically tend to respond with clingy, anxious, or oppositional behavior. Then more parent intervention is required. Even if a parent is not complaining about lack of time for herself or himself, making some time may be part of the solution. Sometimes putting the child in day care or preschool several times per week is a key for happier “full time at home” parents. It may be that some of the beneficial effects of day care noted in stressed families is because of the break for parents rather than the education of the child!
Setting limits on work to free up more time is not possible for everyone. Many people are grateful to have a job at all or need multiple jobs to make ends meet. They may not be in a position to negotiate for fewer tasks, hours, or roles. But others more fortunate may have fallen into a habit of taking on extra duties, taking work home, or simply not examining where they might set limits to preserve time for themselves and their family.
Working parents may need to prepare themselves for the onslaught when they get home. If the returning parent retreats into TV, the computer, or the bedroom, it makes the children feel angry and rejected. The parent who has been managing the household for the preceding hour(s) feels resentful, unappreciated, and often exhausted. I sometimes suggest that the returning parent pause 15 minutes to take a walk before picking children up at day care or go to the gym before coming home to be ready to engage, accept, and be present for whatever happens when they open the door.
Eliciting the “hardest part” can insert a pause for some much-needed problem-solving. Pointing out to parents the value to their child of working on their own time-life balance often gives them needed permission to make changes.
Balancing time for some parents may include setting some privacy for “alone time.” Individual desire to be alone varies, but trouble getting it is universal, especially with young children who don’t even respect a closed bathroom door! Given a young child’s need for contact about every 3-5 minutes, parents need to revise their expectations, wait until after bedtime, get some help, learn to do “token” relaxation, or all of these.
Parents often feel guilty for not attending more to their child, but then feel irritable about getting behind on other chores. It can be useful to cite the fact that mothers at home full time typically spend only 20 minutes of exclusive playtime with their child. I regularly prescribe 15 minutes of “special time” daily to break this irritability cycle for both the parent and child. Getting a babysitter does not mean that the parent has to leave the house and the undone laundry. I often suggest to resource-strapped families that they pay an 8-year-old neighbor to play with their kids for an hour several times per week. While not expecting to leave the child alone with such a “sitter,” one could relax in the tub, read a magazine, or make an uninterrupted phone call to a friend with such help.
The same parents feeling the pinch of too little time often are lacking in social support, a major buffer of stress. Sometimes, the solutions overlap. For example, trading play dates with another family by taking all their kids on a regular basis and vice versa requires no money exchange. Several kids playing together are often easier to care for than one’s own with their usual sibling struggles or boredom. And sharing of this kind can build lasting friendships and social support for the adults. Another often forgotten source of adult rest coupled with social support is religious services that offer “Sunday School.” The service has built-in cues to meditation, the kids make new friends protected by accepting teachers, and the social hour builds social support for the parents.
But we can’t really insert more hours in the day, right? Actually, one of the most valuable suggestions may be for parents to keep a diary of their activities for a few days. The average American in 2015 clocked 147 minutes watching TV, 103 minutes in front of a computer, 151 minutes on smart phones, and 43 minutes with a tablet. These time wasters may not only not feel satisfying or even relaxing, but even prompt anxiety or envy, and certainly take away from sleep, exercise, and intimacy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently provided a Media Calculator and Family Media Plan intended to help families consider these choices for their child’s media life within all the other required activities of a day (including sleep), but adults could benefit from the same approach to making decisions about how they budget their time.
By mapping out actual time spent, parents can then reevaluate and choose differently. A useful question we might ask frazzled parents is “What fills your tank?” to help them come up with a list of activities that (used to be) regenerative to put on the new schedule. Most people blurt out “go on a cruise” (not practical) when “token” activities can suffice and be immediately possible. Coach them to be creative! Instead of a cruise, take a walk around the block; instead of going to a spa, request a back rub at bedtime; instead of a movie, watch a YouTube clip. When allowing oneself to be fully present to such “tokens,” they can have immense value. The practice of mindfulness (for which many training apps are available) can heighten awareness of each moment and expand the sense of time. Meditation and yoga training both are proven to provide benefits for relaxation and well-being that can be fit into anyone’s day.
While this column is intended to help with pediatric practice, I’ll bet you thought I was talking about you! With the pace of current health care practice and emphasis on “productivity,” many pediatricians are struggling with balancing time for themselves and their families as well. All the ideas just discussed also apply to you, but maybe, just maybe, you have the resources to insist on limits on work you haven’t seized. Cherishing the years when you have children in your life is for you, too, not just your patients. Remember, “The days are long, but the years are short.”
Dr. Howard is assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS . She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to Frontline Medical News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .