Ah, the words “alone time” make me sigh with joy and pleasure. Otherwise sometimes referred to as “me time,” this beautiful concept didn’t even have a name in by vocabulary when I was single. Before having children, I don’t think I ever felt the need to label a moment when I was existing in the world “alone.” I simply thought of this state of being as “my life.”
But when kids entered the picture, I discovered that the notion of “alone time” was a concept in need of definition. One that required the carving out of space and time. And one that often needed advance notice and masterful planning to execute on.
Children seem to hang from us in all the places. (Kitchens, bathrooms, swimming pools, grocery stores.) Partners need things from us. Work’s demands don’t stop. And homes seem to require unending upkeep. Being alone with one’s thoughts becomes something to treasure.
Let’s assume, for a moment, though, that you managed to have acquired that precious gem of finding yourself alone. With some time to yourself. In your own home. Perhaps you arrived here by chance. Or perhaps very much by design. (See, for example, the piece I wrote for The Better Life Lab on trading off alone time with a partner: Experiment 27: Swapping Alone Time. During the pandemic, my husband and I started swapping 3-hour chunks of “alone time” time on weekends. We don’t intend to give up this practice anytime soon.)
Once you’ve found yourself alone, the question then becomes: what do you do with that time?
First Things First: Intentionality in Your Alone Time
If you’ve ever been faced with the “okay, I’m alone, now what?” question, keep reading.
The best-spent “alone time” I’ve had has been the result of putting some advance thought into how I was going to spend that time alone. And then committing to spending it that way. Note: I am not advocating scheduling activities into your alone time. Rather, I’m encouraging you to give some thought about how you want to feel at the end of that time alone.
Try thinking about how you’d like to feel in broad terms. So, if you suddenly stumble upon a 30-minute unexpected window of time by yourself, you’ll already know the types of things you might want to do when the alone time happens.
Before I got intentional about it, I often used any scraps of alone time to check a few things off my work to-do list. Fold a load of laundry. Wash some dishes. Or fall down a social media hole.
But when I started approaching this time alone with the idea that it is precious, sacred, and a gift not to be squandered or wasted on the ordinary, that approach shifted.
I asked myself the question, “How do I want to feel when this time is over?” The answer was things like “restored.” “Energized.” “Rested.” Or “calmer.” Guess what: washing dishes, answering work e-mails, and scrolling social media didn’t usually make me feel any of those things.
Learning (and Re-Learning) Our Own Desires
In addition to time, another thing often that seems to go out the window in parenthood is an ability to distinguish our own needs, joys, and desires from those of our children and our families. Having a child and becoming a working mom started one of the biggest identity crises I’d had. And I know I’m not alone in this phenomenon.
As with many parents, the question “but what do I really want?” rarely crossed my mind during the early years of parenthood. “Whatever will get me to sleep sooner or longer,” was probably the only answer I could have mustered back then. Remember how the Julia Roberts character in Runaway Bride doesn’t know what kind of eggs she actually likes? This losing sight of ourselves and who we really are happens to so many parents.
Knowing ourselves and our own longings is a skill that takes practice, I think. It’s a muscle that can atrophy. But the presence of “alone time” can be a reminder to get back in the groove of asking ourselves that very question on a regular basis.
Now, during my weekly Saturday alone time, I commit to checking in on myself. That morning (but not before), I ask myself, “How am I feeling today?” And, “what can I do during my alone time that will help me feel restored, energized, rested, or calmer?” I make it a point of not asking that question in advance of Saturday. Why? So that I don’t schedule things into that time.
Some Saturdays, the answer to what my life and body needs is some combination of: take a nap and read a novel. Sometimes, it’s: work on that one project that I’m really excited about that will further a work goal and leave me energized, and learn a few measures of one of the Encanto songs on the piano. And sometimes, it’s: connect via phone with a loved one and then listen to a podcast while weeding the vinca outside my house.
What’s Your Unicorn Space?
Still feeling stuck about how you might use this time? If so, do check out Fair Play author Eve Rodsky’s newest book, Find Your Unicorn Space: Reclaim Your Creative Life in a Too-Busy World. Her whole book is about how much we need (not want, but need) the “active and open pursuit of self-expression” and the time and space for this pursuit. And she’s got an entire chapter called, “Identify a Curiosity: How Value-Based Curiosity Can Lead You to Your Unicorn Space.”
I’m going to be talking to Eve about her new book in a few weeks during our May Mindful Return book talk, and hope you’ll join us for this conversation. We’ll be talking about both how we can carve out this time for ourselves. And also, what to with it once we’ve claimed it. I hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an amazing conversation on May 26, 2022, at 12pm EST. Register here!
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave