A recent online debate over whether parents should have time to themselves away from their children brings some interesting concepts to the fore.
Mummy blogs are all over social media these days, from those showcasing perfect toddler-made cupcakes to brutally honest accounts of the difficulties of motherhood. One recent blog in particular prompted an online debate about me-time for mums. Describing how taking a short time out to use a smartphone would have meant missing 28 separate opportunities to interact with her children, the blogger concluded that she, as a parent, had a responsibility to be more or less permanently available to her children and if she wasn’t, she would be falling short in her responsibilities. So is this the case? Is taking five minutes to check your Facebook account damaging your child, or do mums need time out too? It appears it’s not a matter of a simple yes or no answer.
Dr Yaseen Aslam, consultant psychiatrist and medical director at Dubai’s Lighthouse Arabia, says mums should first and foremost accept that simply being a mum is a tough job and it’s inevitable that sometimes we’ll become distracted. “We are all guilty of, on occasion, diverting our attention to our touch-screen devices whilst supervising our children,” he says. “Parenting is really hard work.”
Need for Attention
However, he says, we need to be aware of the effects of our actions. “Psychological research demonstrates that children require the attention of parents in order to develop, thrive and grow into balanced, functioning adults with an adaptive range of behaviours.”
This need for attention begins in infancy. “Infants will derive security through making eye contact with their caregiver; it allows them to feel safe, secure and acknowledged,” Dr Yaseen says. “This also helps to develop their social confidence in a range of different situations as they grow.”
And the negative effect of neglecting to provide eye contact and other such interaction can be ongoing. “Parents who are inconsistent in regard to eye contact and interaction – perhaps because they themselves are feeling burdened and stressed – can create long-term attachment difficulties in their children,” he concludes.
Aside from the issue of neglecting to engage with children, Dr Yaseen highlights another concern if a parent is constantly playing with a smartphone. “Some may argue that it results in modelling from an early age, and therefore encourages children to spend excessive time on electronic devices,” he cautions. “The American Association of Paediatrics recommends that children spend no more than an hour a day on such devices and a range of reports have drawn links between excessive use of devices and cognitive difficulties, attention deficit problems and obesity.”
Healthy Life Balance
So should mums simply be on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Definitely not, says Dr Yaseen, and making sure you get your me-time is vital. In fact, this could even have an impact on whether you end up spending time on your smartphone just to try and get five minutes to yourself. “In order to recognise and validate a child’s needs, it’s important to achieve a healthy balance in your life which, in turn, is conducive to healthy attachments between parent and child,” he says. “It’s imperative that all mums take time out away from their children as part of their weekly routine, as being a healthy parent means being a healthy, balanced adult and mums need to have down-time, engage in relaxation and have hobbies and interests beyond parenting. This will allow them to buffer the stresses and strains of daily living and parenting, and be an effective parent.”
And, he says, this in itself is likely to mean a mum is less inclined to become distracted and turn to her smartphone for a break. “If mums make sure they get their me-time – whether that’s rest, exercise, little treats such as spa time and so on – when the children are asleep, at school or with Dad, then chances are they’d be less likely to need to spend time switching off with a smartphone when they’re with their children,” he says.
Mums can often feel overworked, strained, pressured and under-supported, says Dr Yaseen, and this in turn can lead to fatigue and exhaustion, both mental and physical. “This cluster of features is often referred to as ‘burnout’,” he says. “Mums who experience it can feel resentful and angry which, in turn, can lead to social isolation, depression and anxiety.” Making sure she maintains her own health is therefore vital for a mum, Dr Yaseen stresses, and ensuring she maintains a happy, healthy disposition will allow her to be more attentive and balanced as a parent when she’s on duty.
And finally, says Dr Yaseen, mums need to be realistic and understand what they’re reading on mummy blogs and other social media often isn’t an accurate picture of what parenting is really like (or even what it should be like). “In an age when we are bombarded with images of idealised celebrity mums, many mums feel they’re falling short of what society expects and demands of them as mothers, when the truth is that motherhood is far from perfect; it can be challenging, difficult and emotional,” he says. “Surveys by British parenting site www.netmums.com have indicated that many mums try to conceal their perceived inadequacy and underachievement that they’re not the ‘perfect mum’. But who defines perfect and who sets the bar? Children need good mums who are sensitive, caring and attentive, not idealised projections of the so-called ‘perfect mothers’ we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the centre pages of glossy magazines.”
How to take care of yourself so you can take care of others
Dr Yaseen has a number of tips and suggestions for maintaining your health and making sure you get your me-time.
- Exercise regularly and eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Have a consistent routine and plan your time effectively.
- Avoid over-scheduling, whether it’s for yourself or your children.
- Set realistic goals.
- Try to fit a relaxing activity, such as yoga, into your week.
- Use processes such as mindfulness-based meditation and therapy, which can help prevent burnout and help maintain a balanced, centred disposition.
- Build and maintain a strong support system and social network to counteract and buffer the stresses of parenting and everyday life.