Sometimes, parents end up not having any free time during the day. Why is relaxation not easy for parents?
I’m looking at an image of a mother. She is holding her child in one hand and stirring a pot with the other. She has a phone to her ear on which she is appearing to have a professionally important conversation. In front of her, there is a mountain of dishes waiting to be done.
I have a contradictory feeling. I don’t see myself in this picture. I don’t want to find myself in that exhausting image, but at the same time, there’s something in me that regrets not being able to fit into that mould.
I come across another image, that of a smiling mother wearing a floral dress, in a meadow, relaxed and happy, all edited in pastel tones. The same contradictory feeling tries me again. I don’t see myself in this picture either. I want to identify with this fulfilled image, but something tells me that the reality, or at least mine, is different, so I have the same feeling of regret again. I wonder where the problem is. And the inevitable question of mothers also pops up in my mind: What am I doing wrong?
I tell myself that I will stay away from social media, because it creates a standard for me and pressures me to adhere to it. However, I soon realise that I am not actually solving anything with this thinking. These ideas are everywhere, as a given, from generation to generation. And, because my mind thinks in legal terms including during parental leave, I feel like someone who inherited a great debt. It is so physically and mentally exhausting that it outweighs any benefits of the inheritance.
But how did we get from babies to inheritance and from relaxation to debt? Something is really wrong here.
The portrait of a generation of parents
With the desire to discover the fallacy, I will start from what seems to be the prophetic tool of our days in the contemporary press—statistical analysis.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, parenting responsibilities put parents under pressure that is perhaps unprecedented in our generation: 52% of parents with children under 12 years old said that it was difficult to handle these responsibilities, compared to the 38% who were saying the same before March 2020. The rate of postpartum depression doubled during the lockdown, and fathers are under pressure to be the central financial support in their families, on top of the fact that they are much more involved in education than they were 50 years ago.
“Sharenting” (parents’ practice of posting content about children on social media) adds pressure and consumes time, which has an impact on mental health. The blogs of counter-current parents, who realistically present this consuming experience through humour and sincerity, often have a paradoxical effect. The image of a tired, multitasking parent laughing at their problems normalises and validates the image they lament, adding to the pressure parents feel.
Given these expectations, it is not surprising that parents’ personal free time can amount to less than an hour a day.
Although the general perception of parenthood as a “full-time job” has had the effect of social validation and recognition of the efforts of parents who choose to stay at home, it brings with it some foreign concepts, which are in contradiction with the quiet space of the home—performance pressure, competition, failure, the fear of making mistakes, or the reward of sacrifice.
It seems that fathers have about three hours more leisure time per week than mothers. (Free time is the time left over after subtracting all hours spent on paid work, housework, childcare, and personal care.) Through leisure time, we understand activities such as watching TV or using other media, social activities, and sports activities. Even during these pursuits, mothers in particular report feeling stressed. How else could it be, if free time spent with children is included as a standard for a complete and quality education, and parental responsibilities do not stop even when the family goes on vacation?
Why is relaxation difficult for parents?
Reading the statistics, I begin to understand the contradictory feeling that I wrote about at the beginning and to identify the fallacy. In essence, our society implicitly conveys to us the idea that happiness is found in continuous performance: at work, at home, and in leisure. It is the well-known perfectionism, which is still regarded as a respectable flaw. However, at least on a practical level, it takes on a completely different dimension in the area of parenting. It comes along with the idea that although it may seem difficult, being a parent is the crowning achievement of all achievements that a person can have on this planet.
As a parent, you have been promoted to the category of people whose fuel is no longer the classic one (food and rest), but you survive on the energy and smiles of your children, along with the meaning that their growth gives you. Free time? They are your free time. Mothers or fathers who choose to stay at home with their children for the first few years are on “leave.” Do you want to go for a walk? The recommendations say that it is beneficial to go out with the children twice a day, preferably in nature. And because the difficulties and thoughts that parents have are still, at least on an interpersonal level, a taboo subject, this new identity is like a decision without recourse—you learn to live and adapt to the new reality without challenging its rules.
However, I cannot help but notice that we are prisoners of a machine full of pressure, ideals and roles, which runs on autopilot towards burnout.
We don’t know how to aoply the brakes on this machine, although we are the generation that has tutorials for everything, guides for every disease, and studies for every phenomenon. Although we know more than ever, we have never been more stressed by these responsibilities, more alienated from each other, and more socially devolved.
In the meantime, perhaps the most problematic and difficult-to-follow advice you can give a parent is: “Go and rest, you need to relax a little too!” It’s hard to disengage from parenting responsibilities. Therefore, even though we know so well that we need it, true leisure time, that makes us well-rested, becomes a Fata Morgana—we want it so much, it seems so close, but we never get to experience it.
On the other hand, we don’t want to stop the machine, because that would require not only pulling the brake, but also removing the engine—which is nothing but a validation or, in medical terms, the dopamine we are so addicted to as a result of this performance-reward system. Most of us wouldn’t even go so far as to admit that what looks like total dedication on the surface may actually just be a selfish self-fulfilment mechanism.
Parents and free time: the pressure for Christian parents
For Christian parents, there is an added stress of a different nature. Parental responsibility, education, and choice of recreational activities, both for children and for adults, have divine laws behind them, which have their own system of expectations and consequences—one with much deeper and eternal implications.
Some Christians live their whole lives under the belief that if they were more religious, if they would go to church more, give more to the poor, follow all the advice of Christian education, sacrifice more, and love more, then they would live in perfect spiritual legality and, as a consequence, they would receive the reward of rest, peace, joy, and ultimately salvation. I can’t help but notice here the same paradigm of the tutorial or guide that delivers the exact result it is supposed to help you eliminate.
Yet I know that the truth liberates, provides a peace that endures in the hardest of times and a state of mind that allows for rest. I also know that although I live in a time when the question: “How does that make you feel?” is used more than: “What do you think and what do you know?” in the end, the appeal to reason is vital in moments of crisis, when your emotions play tricks on you.
Therefore I wonder, in our quest for complete fulfilment, control, and comfort, have we somehow ended up perverting the one thing that could help us—the truth?
A total shift of perspective
Looking for a new approach, I turn to the absolute human model of kindness, mercy, and love, both for Christians and for those who, although they stay away from religion, appreciate, at least on a cultural level, what Jesus Christ said and did. His life shows that He must have had a valid foundation.
I remember the meeting of Jesus with Martha and Mary. Caught up in the preparations for the visit of Jesus, Martha is bothered by the fact that although she knows how much work there is to do, her sister, Mary, does not help her and prefers to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to Him speak.
I know Martha. She’s the type of person who turns nothing into a table for twenty, the friend you want to have because it’s never too late to go to her house. I could see her in the position of mother of four children, a psychological pillar of strength and an essential helper of the family. If she were a man, I imagine her as the type who, after coming home from work, sets about assembling the tables for the garden and fixing the leaking pipe in the bathroom, all quickly, before the guests arrive.
I recognise the dynamics of our day in this story. Martha wants things to happen in a certain way and order, for an outcome that she considers appropriate. Martha has a guide, a template, and a series of actions structured in steps, which, if fulfilled, lead to a reward. I thus realise that this mentality is very old.
In contrast, Mary seems to do nothing. She looks like she’s enjoying an oasis of rest. And Jesus validates Mary. I can only imagine Martha’s shock. Someone has just turned off her over-revving engine. Now she has a choice: restart it or replace it.
Relationship, not action
In a theological commentary on the history of Martha and Mary, what seems to be the essential difference between the two women is emphasised. At the centre of the actions that Martha takes is the action as an end in itself, as a continuous duty to those around and to God, as if it represented the scale for an entrance exam.
Conversely, at the centre of Mary’s actions is the desire to cultivate relationships and, as a priority, the relationship with the One from whom she learns. Of course, Martha also wants to cultivate this relationship, and after arranging everything, she would also come in the evening to participate in the discussion. She wants it on her terms, with her little obsessive-compulsive ritual that does nothing but turn what should be a friendship into a competency exam.
At the end of the biblical account, we are not told what happened to Martha’s list of priorities. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the passage goes on to refer to how God responds to our requests—just as a father cannot give a son a stone instead of bread, neither will God hold back from fulfilling our needs. It’s just that He will only choose to give us what is truly most useful to us.
From this perspective, it is easy to understand why Jesus does not respond to Martha’s request for help. If this dynamic leads directly to burnout, why would He want to help her get there faster? So He gives her the one thing she really needs—the suggestion that in the midst of the chaos around her, she could use a break to take some quality time to invest in a relationship.
The answer to her request is so counterintuitive that your first instinct would be to think that Jesus is joking—especially given that (back to our context) a parent on autopilot is hard to stop. However, it is such a warm invitation that you could hardly say no to it.
Sitting at His feet represents the biblical expression equivalent to the experience of becoming a disciple. In the case of Jesus, the disciples were not just students, they were called friends (John 15:15). This concept is dissociated from any idea of duty, which Jesus associates with the status of a slave.
The concept of Christian meditation, in contrast to the Eastern one, is based on the development of a relationship. It is not about emptying one’s mind or about abstract concepts of gratitude, peace, and joy, but about the formation of a character in a relationship with the God revealed in biblical history. So, more than simply advice to take time off, Jesus offers Martha a new way to order her priorities and a path to a state of mind that will bring her peace.
Children: observers of the time invested in the relationships around them
It is easy to see how children become the centre of a family’s existence, and are no longer simple members of the family. They are its meaning because, more than ever, we have quality information that tells us how to raise them to be healthy, independent, and strong.
We know everything our parents didn’t know about emotions, we offer all the attention we were supposedly deprived of, and we do everything they didn’t do. With time, it seems as though children no longer have anything to observe around them other than a collective effort focused on them because, in parents’ frenzy, the other relationships slowly die out. Allowing time for the healthy development of relationships with all family members is essential both for us and for children’s education.
Observing the relationships around them and how they need constant care and maintenance is a valuable lesson for a child who is born into a world where social skills are starting to be forgotten.
At the opposite pole of the extreme of parents who are forced to learn to adapt to the new limiting rules of life is the category of those who, knowing that this is a sure path to resentment, choose the hedonistic path, or at least hedonistic escapes. After all, if the parents are happy, the children are also happy, right?
Personal leisure time is often perceived by parents as an escape. The problem with this approach is that it splits your world into two places and two states. By associating leisure time with the idea of freedom, a feeling that you don’t easily get tired of is born. In fact, as we are created with a quest for freedom, we will always want it more and more.
Parents and free time: a resource for daily responsibilities, not an escape from them
In his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Gabor Maté, psychiatrist and psychologist, proposes the idea that anything can become a drug as long as it is used as a means of healing a psychological or spiritual wound. In this sense, he offers as an example his own addiction to music CDs. Explaining addiction, he shows that it is characterised by a search for external things to satisfy our fierce desire for freedom and fulfilment.
Giving the example of drug addiction, Maté explains the way it develops in a brain system where the instinct of attachment and love are born. The pain becomes a perpetual one, because the substances, habits, or targets we trust to bring the desired satisfaction are not what we really need.
I realise that this way in which we choose to face the challenges of life is not a new one but thousands of years old. It is the fallacy that urges us to solve our problems by resorting to means, habits, standards, or relationships that give a momentary feeling of comfort, but do not treat the cause. They do not satisfy the true need, which is basically a relational one.
That is precisely why, at first glance, Jesus’ proposal from two thousand years ago seems so foreign to our way of finding a solution. But like a good doctor who does more than just treat the symptoms, Jesus gets to the root cause—He offers love, a relationship, and validation directly from the absolute model.
What does this relationship have to do with free time?
It is only a source and resource proposal. It provides a safe structure on which to build our actions in our free time, spent on our own or with children, as well as for education in general. It leads to a state of mind that allows mental rest, the rest that recharges, not the one that gets lost in the hectic hours of the day.
The experience of the last year has taught me that individual free time, as a parent, no longer comes in the quantities it used to. That’s why its quality is more important than ever. Among the habits I am learning to rethink, a new habit for me is that of a morning walk.
During this time, I want to get to know a Person through what He left me in writing. I try to understand the love He has for me, to accept it as a gift to be grateful for, and to believe in this love until the end. I expect no reward in return. I cannot say that the little ones cry less, nor that I manage to sleep more than other parents. However, something is changing. I’m enjoying my walk, it fulfils me, and even though I don’t have a bulleted list of what I should do, I trust that I won’t fumble in the realm of education.
I have moments when, out of reflex, I feel like jumping into a very popular dynamic, but now I know where it’s coming from and where it’s going, so I continue to choose the perspective I want to expose myself to.
Andreea-Beatrice Popa believes that sincerity and authenticity towards one’s own experience is the first step on the road to rediscovering the joy of rest as a parent, and choosing the perspective to which we expose ourselves is the solution.