We're constantly told to practice self-care to stave off burnout, but that prescriptive time comes at a cost—even if the cost is just guilt.
As my family's breadwinner, I keep us afloat with a full-time job and several side-hustles. My most important job—and the one I feel I never get enough time to carry out successfully—is parenting our 2-year-old. I have a very short window every morning and every evening, which sometimes gets truncated by early or late work meetings, when I get to see my child.
Despite working nonstop, I feel like I'll never get ahead on our bills and savings or on my endless list of to-dos. Forget about finding time for anything else, like a date with my wife or a sliver of me-time, no matter how beneficial they may be to my marriage or mental health. I have trouble justifying anything that takes away precious time with my son or interferes with the work that helps keep a roof over our heads.
When I do get a chance to disconnect from it all, it doesn't look like a spa day or staycation. It's simply adding time to my commute in order to drive the more scenic route. I trade the traffic-clogged highway for beautiful windy, wooded roads where I put the windows all the way down and breathe in the forest. This minuscule escape costs anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, which may not sound like a lot, but it could mean upwards of 30% of the time I get to spend with my son each day. (Cue the guilt.)
On weekends, though, our time together isn't compressed into a two-hour window. I love nothing more than sitting around in my pajamas and lazily reading a pile of books with my son. We'll play blocks or cars and eat breakfast together before going outside, where we refill the bird feeders, blow bubbles, and run around in our yard. We cap it off with an outing—to the playground overlooking the beautiful water, to get ice cream in town, or to a nature center to visit reptiles—and then we'll return home.
It's the perfect morning. But by the time I get home, as much as I've enjoyed myself, all I really want to do is take 10 minutes to quietly read the paper as I sip coffee. My toddler, however, has other plans. He hangs on me until he's captured my full attention. And who could blame him? It's our first chance for extended, quality time in days. I should want to soak up every last second, right? Except, after another jam-packed week—working nine-to-five, giving parenting 110% once I'm home, and then working some more after bedtime—I could really use 10 minutes to sit and collect myself, to participate in one solitary activity that I enjoy.
But even this comes at a cost. To indulge in those few minutes of me-time, my wife has to cover for me and engage our son fully. And, having been with my son 24/7 while I work, she needs to decompress, too.
I once took a personal day off work to have a date with my wife. That seemed like a happy medium: My wife and I would get some quality time without cutting our evenings. Still, I felt guilty for putting work on the back-burner when I knew how important it is to our family's survival.
It's hard not to feel jealous of others. I see friends posting on social media about their extravagant kid-free excursions. They're sunning on tropical islands or gallivanting around European cities or enjoying shows and dinners. They're toasting with beers at the local bar or head-banging at a big concert. I wonder who is watching their little ones; how many hours a week they get to spend with their kids; and whether they feel guilty. I wonder if I'm overthinking the parenting thing. Does my kid miss me like I miss him? Does he know whether I spend two hours versus 90 minutes with him each day?
At the end of the day, I choose to be overtaxed, to take on this guilt, because I don't want to miss precious moments with my child. I drive a hard line on prioritizing time with my child over me-time in good part because I know this intense time-crunch is fleeting. There will most likely be a day in the not-so-distant future when my kid has better things to do than hang out with Mom. I will be sad, I'm sure, but I will also applaud his independence. And I will certainly look forward to reading my paper with a big cup of Joe.
This story originally appeared on Apparently.