Of all of the proposals I make about how to use your time as a mother, this one is going to sound the most insane and pie-in-the-sky: Get some time alone.
We are going to bend the definition of alone to make it a bit more reasonable.
Being Alone Together
Zander and I went to the park the other day. Quiet and breezy, he crawled around the plaza and explored the world. Grabbing onto the side of the fountain, he tries to pull himself up. He is learning to stand.
For my part, I stretch out on the ground and check on him every few minutes. He’s always in my peripheral vision.
But instead of scrolling through my feed, reading a book, or listening to a podcast, I am just there. Laying. Being alone, with my thoughts. No intrusion of other’s ideas.
We are there for a bit over an hour and then I head home. I feel so at peace when I walk in. I pick up my copy of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. I say thank you for finally making clear to me what’s been missing in my life.
The Importance of Solitude
Albert Camus, my favorite philosopher, said: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”
Different figures throughout history have boasted the benefits of solitude, from Aristotle to Audrey Hepburn. They may say the practice boosts their creativity or mediates their sanity. East and West both agree that solitude is necessary for a well-lived life.
Modern science is, unsurprisingly, finding that this is the case.
When you spend time alone—not taking in the thoughts of other’s or meeting the expectations of your social group, you get a jumpstart to the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest part of your nervous system. Lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, and more relaxed muscles are all signs that your parasympathetic nervous system has been activated.
You also have time to reflect and flex your insight muscle. Taking yourself out of the social context allows you to see how you are being affected and how you are affecting in a way that you wouldn’t be able to when you’re in the thick of it. When your brain is in input processing mode, whether the input is books, podcasts, or friends, it can’t do the hard work of figuring out who you are and what you’re here for.
In a study done by the University of Virginia, researchers found that a quarter of women and two-thirds of men who were involved in the experiment would rather be subjected to an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.
We are losing our ability to be alone. We haven’t analyzed its value—or maybe, like the participants in the mentioned study, we’re afraid to spend time with our thoughts.
And if we are, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves scattered, stressed, and burnt out.
Not being with my phone, I’d heard that. I knew you weren’t supposed to have it on you all of the time. But I forgot that books are another new-fangled technology that intrude sometimes on my solitude. And while I love phones, podcasts, and books, they aren’t as essential to the well-being of a human as blocks of quiet reflection sprinkled throughout the day and week.
Set an example for your children. Spend some time alone. Be bored. Teach them how to sit with boredom by not providing constant entertainment and noise.
While the perfect arrangement may not exist when you’ve got one kid strapped to you or four running around, make true solitude a priority. Go to the park without the phone. Ask the partner for a half an hour walk by yourself on Sunday. Find a way to make radical decompression part of your daily, weekly, or monthly ritual.