15 Ways to Combat This Common Complaint
"You know," a young mother noted for her sense of humor recently confided, "I'm afraid that the post office is going to stop delivery at my house."
"Really?" I asked, waiting for the punch line. "Why is that?"
Her face reddened in embarrassment. "Lately I've been feeling so isolated at home with the kids. In fact, the only person who shows up on a regular basis is the mail man. So when he gets to my house I practically fling myself out the door to talk to him, and I find myself just rattling on and on about the weather, the neighborhood, anything I can think of. Bless his heart, he's too polite to cut me off, but I know I must be throwing him off schedule. I've never been like this before—I don't know what's the matter with me."
Home alone. A funny concept for a movie, but not nearly so funny when it's you who's feeling isolated, bored, lonely, maybe even a little scared. Whether you're an old hand at full-time mothering or a brand new mom whose universe is bound by the walls of bedroom-nursery-kitchen-laundry, it's virtually certain that the feeling of being "home alone" will distress you from time to time. It's simply an occupational hazard.
Despite the fact that more women are beginning to choose at-home mothering as a career, you may discover that you are, in fact, the only adult on the block who is at home during the day. Perhaps your support system has decreased because you now have less in common with childless friends or former co-workers. Perhaps you've recently moved and haven't yet found a niche in your new community. Perhaps caring for an infant is taking every once of energy and all your time, and the very thought of figuring out ways to decrease your isolation is overwhelming. Or perhaps you've simply been parenting so thoroughly and for so long that you feel at loose ends and long for more stimulation from the outside world. Whatever the reason, being home along isn't feeling so great and something's got to change.
Those home-alone feelings are primarily due to three factors: boredom, loneliness, and loss of a sense of personal worth (separate from your worth to your family). Just knowing this may make you feel a bit better—solving three smaller problems is much more manageable than trying to tackle a general feeling of malaise. Here are some suggestions for each of the three:
Boredom. The truth of the matter is that we all need stimulation in the form of new experiences, new ideas, even new problems to solve. Our brains are wonderfully designed to process information. If you are feeling bored, try giving yours some information to process!
1. Get out of the house, every single day if possible, even if only for an hour. Yes, even if beforehand it seems like more trouble than it's worth. Visit the library or a museum (for some of us the last visit to a museum was on a school field trip). Go to the zoo, or to the city rose garden if your town has one (and if it doesn't, wouldn't you be the ideal person to get the ball rolling?). Go to the park and play in the sandpile. Carry your camera along—who knows what hidden talent may be revealed in your snapshots of "ordinary" things. At the very least, take a walk, even if it's just around your block: fresh air and sunshine have a way of dispelling the cobwebs.
2. Take a class, preferably in something you know absolutely nothing about. These are usually relatively inexpensive and easy to find through a local college, adult education association, or public library. Some even offer on-site child care. The goal is simply to challenge your mind, although meeting people with whom you wouldn't ordinarily have contact is a nice bonus. Or if you prefer, choose a subject you're already familiar with and really go for it—wouldn't it feel great to be a real expert at anthropology or growing azaleas or Chinese cookery?
3. Volunteer. I hear some of you groaning—at-home mothers are already often the volunteer backbone in many organizations, particularly those related to children. But this is different, this one you choose yourself, because it appeals to your own interests or needs. Perhaps you've longed to build sets for the community theater or pet the puppies in the animal shelter. There is always a need for volunteers, you may as well be doing work that interests you while you benefit others. One word of caution here—if you're feeling a little "burned out" in your caregiving, I recommend you find a volunteer opportunity that is not just more of the same. When you're bored, it's better to try something that is different from your usual practice.
4. Write every day. Keep a journal or write poems or essays about your daily experience. This doesn't have to be the great American novel (although you never know!). Rather it is a way for you to think about what you are doing instead of just doing it all day long. Twenty minutes a day is probably manageable, even for the busiest of moms. Write songs or children's stories. Write daily words of wisdom or devotionals. Write your own parenting advice "columns"—even if you never end up syndicated, your children will love having Mom's Words of Wisdom to aid them when they are rearing their own kids.
5. Stay connected with your previous profession. Keep in touch with advancements and changes in your field. Continue to read professional journals or subscribe to newsletters. If applicable, keep your license current. Maintain contact with former colleagues. You may have left your last job vowing, "As long as I live, I'll never again (clean anyone's teeth, attend a stupid staff meeting, design another advertising layout)" but the truth is, you never know when circumstances may require you to do those very things. Better to have the option to re-enter your field than to find that you unexpectedly need an outside job and are no longer qualified. And if you never return to outside employment, it's still good mental exercise, and it may help you with starting a business from your home.
Loneliness. You've already been told by some well-meaning person that "alone" need not automatically mean "lonely," but this is little comfort when you do feel that way. While all humans benefit from some degree of connectedness, for women it seems to be absolutely essential. Chances are when you were employed outside the home there was a constant stream of potential friends in your working world, with lunches and breaks to cultivate that enriching give-and-take. But now that you are at home, you may find that your only human contact during a work day is with people who are three feet tall and with whom your relationship is a one-way street (they need, you give). When you're an at-home mother, there's no one to "stop by your desk"—unless you make it happen. Luckily you can make it happen, and more easily than you might imagine.
1. Call a friend, or even an acquaintance you'd like to know better. Even ten minutes on the phone with someone in a similar situation can immediately decrease feelings of loneliness. Deepen your friendship by admitting your feelings of vulnerability and loneliness. See if the two of you can work out a regular schedule of "how ya doin?" calls. Invite someone over for a visit even if the house isn't in tip-top shape. Especially if the house isn't in tip-top shape—when the mess is beginning to get out of control it's often because you're feeling down and overwhelmed. The visit will either be a nice temporary distraction or, ideally, provide you with some help. If there's another at-home mother nearby, see if she's interested in a "buddy system" in which you trade half-days at each other's homes. Housework and child care are a snap when shared, and you can do a lot of talking and laughing in those few hours.
2. Utilize the Internet. There are many websites on the Internet specifically for mothers/parents. These offer parenting information, support, bulletin boards to contact others, and chat rooms where you can communicate with other mothers right from home. If you don't have access at home, take advantage of Internet access at your local library.
3. Enlist your husband or partner in your battle against loneliness. Ask him to call you during the day if his job allows it (and most do!). Just remember that a good relationship is a two-way street—ask how his day is going, too. At the end of the day, set aside some time for the two of you to talk—maintaining your relationship as a couple helps dispel loneliness and is a lot more important than folding that last load of laundry. And when he takes care of the kids while you get out of the house for that walk or class or shopping trip, let him know these absences help fill you up so you can meet the family's needs. Offer to trade him one no-family-duties-at-all Saturday per month. Each of you can use a whole day off to relax or pursue individual interests, and having these sanctioned breaks will actually strengthen your relationship. Remember, there's a reason why employers give paid vacations!
4. Go where the other mothers are. Toddlers don't get to story hour at the library by themselves. Children don't drive to swimming lessons or the skate rink. It's a sure bet that in these places you'll find other at-home mothers. Don't wait to be approached, strike up a conversation yourself—even if you secretly fear that you haven't anything of interest to say to anyone over the age of six. In every good friendship, someone had to make the first move. And some of the best friends we'll ever have are those with whom we share the child-rearing years.
5. Find (or start) a support group for mothers-at-home. This is one of the absolute best ways to decrease your loneliness and gain support for your lifestyle. You can meet weekly and talk while the children play, if that works for you. One enterprising group hires a sitter to keep track of the kids at one home so they actually have uninterrupted talk time. Just beware of getting involved with a highly-competitive group. A steady diet of "My Suzy walked at eight months" and "That's nothing, my Billy talked in complete sentences by his first birthday" is likely to make you feel even more lonely, especially if your child is still sitting silently like a little Buddha at sixteen months. Who needs the aggravation? Find another group that's more attuned to being sensitive to the needs of each member. A really good group is one in which differing opinions are respected, each member gets her fair share of "air time" and there is a genuine sense of mutual support. You certainly don't need a professional to facilitate such a group, although some have found this to be quite helpful.
Loss of Personal Worth. Candidates for office constantly remind us that children are our most precious national resource, yet they fail to call upon our society to support those who dedicate themselves to the full-time nurturing of this resource. Like Rodney Dangerfield, it often seems at-home mothers "don't get no respect." Add to this the fact that parenting and homemaking requires endless (and often boring) tasks from sunrise to midnight or later, and it becomes easy to see why at-home mothers so often begin to see themselves as nothing more than reliable major appliances. They forget that they are bright and beautiful and funny and creative. It's not that they have lost these qualities—it's just that with so much attention focused on the well-being of others they forget they have them. Their confidence suffers, and they lose track of who they are as unique individuals. Your desire to nurture your children is admirable, but without a measure of self-care to balance it, it leads to feeling "invisible"—and increases the likelihood that home alone will feel quite unpleasant.
1. Remind yourself of your reasons for choosing this lifestyle. This will help you maintain your sense of mission on those days when you feel undervalued by others. Remind yourself of the particular skills and talents (and yes, love) that make you the very best person in the world to undertake the rearing of your children. No one else can possibly sing that lullaby in your unique style. No one else can possibly appreciate little Robbie's smile in quite the same way. No one else can teach your particular values with the same commitment. No one else can comfort your flu-bitten child with the same gentle touch.
2. Write goals, both short- and long-term, some you can accomplish in an hour, some that will require a year or longer. One of the difficulties of at-home mothering is that there is no structure to the job unless you impose one. Consequently, it's hard to recognize your achievements (and you are achieving!). I'm a big believer in making lists, particularly when you're feeling least on-track. Furthermore (and I know some of you will think this is cheating), I strongly recommend starting your list with some task you've already done, even if it's "Wash my face." Crossing it off provides some motivation to keep going. By day's end you'll be flabbergasted to see how much you have accomplished, and recognizing your accomplishments is one way to increase self-esteem.
3. Take time for yourself. In the hectic world of outside employment surrounded by others, there is little time for quiet reflection. When the kids are at school or the baby is napping, spend some time with your own thoughts. Relaxing doesn't come easily to everyone—don't be surprised if it takes a bit of practice. Run a nice, hot bath, or pour yourself a cup of tea (or whatever you enjoy) and just sit quietly. Think about your own childhood, or things you remember about your grandmother, or about the hopes you have for the world. Recall the first time you fell in love or the first time you had a broken heart. Realize how much you've grown as a person. In other words, fill up your own emotional tank with a bit of solitude.
4. Realize that your present home-alone doldrums are just that—a temporary emotional down-turn. Know that you can make changes that will make life more satisfying than it presently feels. Think about how you'd like your life to be, both in the present and several years down the road. Although you currently choose at-home mothering, it doesn't have to be done exactly the same way you've always done it, and certainly not the way others do it. Perhaps you'd like to have your own business, one that really interests you and one which fits into your lifestyle. It may or may not be feasible at the moment, but you can make plans for how you might begin to prepare yourself for when the time comes.
5. Take good care of yourself. Most mothers would climb Mt. Everest to make sure their children have proper nutrition. Unfortunately, a fair number of them would try to make the trip with only a candy bar in their own packs. Others wouldn't think of expecting their children to skip a needed nap, but they routinely deprive themselves of sleep in order to clean the bathroom tile or sew a Halloween costume. Mothers routinely drive the kids to soccer, gymnastics, and swimming but "can't find the time" to exercise themselves. Neglecting your body's needs for nutrition, sleep, and exercise is a recipe for an eventual crash, and may be the underlying cause for your negative mood. You plan healthy meals, be sure you take time to eat them. You need a certain amount of sleep; be sure you get it. You can be busy all day picking up after the kids, be sure you also get a good workout for the cardiovascular system.
You already realize that your children reap many rewards from your full-time nurturing. But there's a bonus in it for you as well. You have chosen one of the few careers that allows you to choose your companions, to structure your job as you see it, to set your own priorities, and to change and grow as much as you wish.
Home alone? Yes. Powerless to change it? Not at all.