Stay-At-Home Moms Don’t Just Need a Break, We Need Boundaries

This past weekend my husband and sons went to visit family in Washington while my daughters and I stayed home. We had originally planned to go, but at the last minute, one of my daughters got sick, and splitting up in order to keep our germs at home seemed the smartest thing to do.

The unexpected change of plans provided me a much-needed break from the intensity of my 5yo son (whom I stay home with every day), and gave me some perspective into the current struggles I’m having with motherhood.

We Don't Just Need a Break We Need Boundaries

For the first 24 hours they were gone, ghosts of my 5yo still haunted my house. I could hear him everywhere, calling for me or asking me questions or fussing over the smallest things. I couldn’t shake the familiar anticipation of being needed or interrupted, or being called upon to resolve a situation at the drop of a hat. It took almost a full day for me to unwind and mentally release myself from the vise-like vigilance of parenting a young child (and parenting this child, who is just so much more…everything…than my other children were).

During the time I had to relax, spend my undivided attention on my daughters (who soaked it up like the sun), and enjoy the balm of discretionary time, I read a post from Amanda King of Last Mom on Earth on the Huffington Post entitled What We Mean When We Say We Need a Break.

It ripped my heart wide open.

The more hours that passed between my last interactions with Eli, the closer I felt to sane. To healed. And even as I identified my feelings with inner peace and a sense of wholeness, I couldn’t totally understand it. Not until I read that post.

King writes:

I need a moment to feel like a human being in the midst of a relentless life where I don’t belong to myself anymore; where I give my love and energy away, every moment of my existence, and can’t figure out how to keep any for myself. …

I don’t need a break so that I can unwind and have a blast being me, all on my own, finally, without the kids. …

I do whatever I need to do, in that moment, to feel like I deserve to exist. I do what I need to do to feel sane and stable and capable of keeping up with the never-ending needs of my beautiful children.

How could she know? How could she possibly know my own desperate need to “feel like I deserve to exist?”

I recently told my husband in a very frank conversation that I feel like I have nothing of my own, no ownership over anything. Everything I do feels like it is done for others, could be taken by others, belongs to others. Even our home does not feel like my domestic territory, since my husband works from home when he’s not traveling, and the space and time spent here are fluid, shared, totally without standard and routine.

King speaks to these feelings as she continues:

We just need a moment to remember who we are, to not feel worried and harried and invisible. We need a second to catch our breath, to make our own choices, to try to love ourselves, for a moment. We need the opportunity to exist, as a human being with a name and thoughts and ideas; as a person who is allowed to complete a thought.

Without my husband and sons here last weekend, I was able to complete many thoughts, and one of those thoughts was this: not only do I need a break, I need boundaries. That is probably one of the most significant mistakes I have made in parenting: I have established a dynamic in my household that allows everyone to take every last ounce of who I am – my attention, my resources, my emotional energy. There have been few, if any, boundaries.

For many years I prided myself on always being available to my husband and children. I remember people criticizing that I would let my children interrupt conversations, but I always felt like my children should come first. I took some awful jobs, grave shift jobs, for years I hardly slept, because it was crucial that I be home with my children during the day. I bring forgotten things to school every time they call (even now, with my teenagers). They all ask me where things are before they even look for them. When I try to steal away to watch tv, read a book, take a nap, I can bet on several interruptions, even for things as simple as showing me something or asking a question that can wait.

In some ways, all of those things have made me a great mom. I am close with my children. They know they can come to me, no matter what.

But in other ways, it has, over time, eroded my own strength and sense of self. The constancy of it all. The closeness of it.

I identify with King when she writes:

From the moment I open my eyes in the morning, there isn’t a single second of my day where I’m not engaged and on call. There isn’t a single moment where I am alone with my thoughts, where I’m not being touched and needed and where demands aren’t being made of me. Not a single moment. Not when I’m brushing my teeth or showering or trying to find something clean to wear. Not even in the bathroom. 

But something I’m beginning to realize is that while much of this is because of the unique and significant nature of stay-at-home motherhood, much of it also has to do with the dynamics we establish in our own homes.

We don’t just need a break, we need to establish boundaries. Healthy equations that say “You can have this much, but this much is mine.” I’m in the beginning stages of building those boundaries in my own home right now, and I see the confusion – and sometimes hurt (which kills me) – in my children’s faces. They are not used to me saying Not now. They are not used to me saying Give me some space. For as long as they’ve known, my love has come packaged with unlimited access to me. Closing any part of myself off from them must feel like a slight. But I know the loss will be greater if I allow myself to slip away altogether.

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  • Jen L.

    YES OH MY GOSH YES. I have 1/5 of the children you do, so I feel almost guilty even agreeing, but YES.

    • Oh, Jen, don’t you EVER feel the slightest bit of guilt, seriously! A wise friend once reasoned: “How much of your time do five kids take? All of it. How much of your time does one kid take? All of it.” One kid or five, it’s 100% of our lives!

  • Oh Stacey. This is a very moving post in so many ways.

    Yes, you need boundaries. Children need to learn how to wait their turn for attention and respect others’ needs. They need to learn how to solve their own problems, that they can solve them. It is the greatest gift you can give them.

    When I am touched out or having my nerve pain, I draw a boundary: no touching mom. We can blow kisses. We can say nice things. They get loved but I get space. Most importantly, they learn to respect other people’s body boundaries.

    When my kids forget homework or lunch, I tell them (and their teachers when they UGH call to ask) that they will do better and remember tomorrow and find a way to not forget next time, and deal with consequences.

    They may wish I made it easier for them but trust me, burnt out mom is not anybody’s idea of easy. Nor is not knowing how — or that you can — work it out if the path isn’t smoothed.

    Your last paragraph says it all. They will be a little confused for a bit but the hurt, if any, will fade off when they realize and grow to understand and respect your needs, and see how it does not affect your unlimited love.

    You’re a great lady and a great mom with lovely kids. 🙂

    • Thank you so much for the encouragement, Julie! It helps so much for me to have an outside perspective on this, and I appreciate you sharing your own thoughts and experiences!

  • Kate

    Glad you enjoyed your time with your daughters! I used to love that special time with my mom. Hope you get some “you” time soon too!

  • Jennifer Sikora

    Oh Stacey– man do I totally understand this — even with my 15 year old daughter. She and I do so much together, but when I tell her I need some “me time”, she doesn’t understand it and feels very dejected which makes me feel sad and hurt because she is sad and hurt. Thanks for reminding me that I need to set healthy boundaries in order for me to breathe and be sane for my family. ((hugs)) from one momma to another

  • Kellyv

    Loved this post….so true! I think it’s very healthy for families to have boundaries. Our oldest son is 12.5 & has ‘stuff’ going on. It’s very hard to remember to knock on the bathroom door while he’s in there or his bedroom door. Especially cuz he really doesn’t care too much if I walk in on him naked in the bathroom. In fact, he will gladly hold full on conversations butt naked! Glad he’s comfy being naked in front of me but odd for me to see this man-child evolving. It seems like just yesterday I was wiping his poopy butt! But back to your point…. I think kids need to be reminded that us parents were people before they came along. People who had jobs & lives & interests. They need to see that we have a life separate from them & they need to have a life separate from us. And before you ask me where the milk is in the fridge, try moving something around first!

  • So agree.