A few weeks into quarantine, my husband and I, parents to four kids under 8 (and a puppy) realized we were both on the brink of serious burnout.
Like so many families, we were attempting to work under increasingly stressful conditions, while also watching kids, homeschooling them, keeping the house at least somewhat-organized, and attempting to not let our anxiety about the pandemic spiral out of control.
We were both running as hard as we could and, with no end in sight, we decided something had to change.
“What if we had parenting shifts?” I asked. “One parent is completely in charge while the other is off and then we switch?”
My husband—who spent a decade in the military servicing as a Naval Officer—immediately recognized this concept as what is known as a “watch.” Basically, for a 24 hour period, a person stands an intense, but limited, shift as the person in charge. They then get (ideally) the same amount of downtime while another person stands watch.
Genius, I thought.
And so we immediately implemented a family ‘watch’ rotation.
Parenting in shifts works like this in our house: We’re so grateful to have an au pair (our hero!) who watches the kids between 9-5 while we work, and then one parent is designated as ‘in charge’ for that evening, including bedtime routine and then childcare, breakfast and set up the next morning. The “off” parent is responsible for dishes, kitchen cleanup and light organization, but not for any childcare duties for a whole 24 hours. And then, like clockwork, we switch lead-parenting when the next post-work/ bedtime shift comes around.
If a child goes to the ‘off’ parent to negotiate for screentime, or ask for a snack, or inquire with puzzling preschool questions like, “where do marshmallows come from?” that parent can choose to (gently) say, “Oh, I’m not in charge right now. Can you go to daddy/ mommy for that question?”
Of course, the ‘off’ parent is always free to decide that they want to eat family dinner together or snuggle up for story time even if they’re ‘off’ that night. But the general concept remains.
Shift parenting is a quarantine survival mechanism for our family, but it’s also taught me even more about parenting in the long term.
In the past, before we invented this shift parenting approach, I would get to the point of absolute #momlife burnout before I could even consider asking my husband if I could spend a few hours, a day, or a weekend alone. This is what burnout looked like for me, even before COVID-19: A Saturday afternoon after a demanding work week. The house is a disaster even though it was spotless Friday night. The chattering sound of “mom mom mom mom mom” nonstop. And the urge to run to the nearest dark, quiet room and lock the door. (It just can’t be me.)
As for my husband, he would get to the point of total irritability before I would criticize him for not knowing how to advocate for himself—not my proudest marriage moments.
In the past, asking my husband for a break from parenting felt like a cop-out, like I wasn’t mom enough. It felt unfair to ask him for time ‘off’ when that meant that he’d be the one ‘on’—I guess I believed I didn’t actually deserve time to myself, or that a “good mom” is one who is always available to her family’s needs in every single way. And while I wanted my husband to also get time for himself, I often felt too burned out to suggest time for him to rest.
And that’s where the long-term magic of “shift parenting” comes in.
What I’ve discovered in the months since we started “shift parenting” is that each of us deserves to have regular time to ourselves without guilt, without needing to negotiate, and without needing to ask for it. Having regular ‘on’ and ‘off’ times allows us to deeply and intentionally connect with our kids when we are ‘on,’ and enjoy guilt-free time for ourselves when we are ‘off’. It’s a cadence of partnership and separation that we have never had in our family before, and it’s one that has freed our marriage of any sense of resentment, inequality or burnout. We both deserve breaks and having them planned into our ongoing schedule has made parenting seem more sustainable.
I now know just how important self-care in the form of alone time is beyond just giving lip service to the concept—I’m living the resilience that comes with regularly having your needs met, and also knowing that your partner has what they need as well.
The split shift has totally shifted our perspective on parenting. If you have a partner, a village, a mom BFF or a care squad, I hope you can imagine new ways of building routine and ongoing time for yourself into your new normal, too.
[Editor’s note: This is a personal essay from one mother’s point of view. We understand, appreciate and are committed to sharing family’s experiences in all forms, especially during this difficult time. We acknowledge that there are varying levels of privilege that are detailed in these stories—we’re dedicated to highlighting a wide range of these experiences.]