Free time for parents: Author maps plan to grab your life back, in just 20 minutes

Cindy Dampier
Chicago Tribune

The holidays are over (barely), so it’s time for a little self-congratulation: You got the gifts, you did the decorating, you entertained the family, you attended the winter concert, you baked cookies with the kids, you flirted with your spouse … give yourself a high-five!

And please, please give yourself a breather.

Your health depends on it — not to mention your family’s well-being.

As stress and its costs to individuals and society come under increasing scrutiny, experts are lining up to point the finger at a burgeoning problem: the stress brought on by today’s intense parenting styles. “We live in an age of intensive parenting,” says Chicago author Rachel Bertsche, author of “The Kids Are in Bed: Finding Time for Yourself in the Chaos of Parenting.” “And people feel, for many different reasons, all this pressure to be with their kids all the time and do the absolute most for them.”

Multitasking may seem like a standard part of parenting, but an absence of free time can seriously impact a parent's health and well-being.

Bertsche’s book, which arrives on shelves Jan. 7, is a practical, well-thought-out argument for a different approach – one in which parental free time is a priority. “What I’m trying to say is that everyone benefits, parents as well as kids, when you take time to step away, refuel and take care of yourself,” she says. Luckily, she has a few key pieces of advice that will help you make that happen.

– Think in 20-minute chunks

Bertsche says many people conceptualize free time as an hour or more – but breaking that thought pattern can open your eyes to the free time you do have. “You may have trouble finding an hour to do something for yourself,” she says, “but you probably have smaller chunks of time in your day. If you’re willing to accept that, you can actually get a lot of benefit from a smaller amount of time. Twenty minutes is kind of a magic number for a lot of things: think about the 20-minute nap, for instance. You can get a lot out of 20 minutes.”

– Watch out for mental load

In a survey of parents conducted for Bertsche’s book, “71% of parents said their open time didn’t feel free because of mental load,” she says. “Imagine you’re getting a massage, but you spend the time thinking about all the things that you should be doing or need to get done while you’re getting that massage. That’s mental load, and it’s not relaxing.” When you find a 20-minute chunk of free time, Bertsche says, give yourself the permission to set aside those thoughts. “Too often,” says Bertsche, “people don’t let themselves lean into the free time and actually enjoy it.”

– Keep a list handy

In her research for the book, Bertsche discovered that parents who find themselves with some unexpected free time (like that 20 minutes you spent just waiting outside a ballet class, or a pocket of time when your partner takes the kids to the park) suffer from a common problem – they don’t know what to do with it. “As parents, we’re just so wiped from making decisions for little people every second, that having to make one more choice about what to do with free minutes just seems like too much,” Bertsche says. “The pressure to use the time wisely is the thing that makes us end up doing nothing at all.”

That’s why Bertsche recommends that you keep lists of things you like to do that can be done with little to no prep beforehand. “Here are things I like to do for me: Watch a TV show, read a book, go for a walk,” she says. “You can keep it simple, and when you have 20 minutes, check your list. It takes a little bit of the work out of it and that helps. Anything you can do to remove the mental load.” Bertsche also uses this tactic for couple time, keeping a similar list of date night ideas, to erase the chore of planning time together.

– Invest in relationships

Bertsche spends plenty of time on advice for making couple time a priority. But she also points out the relationship many parents think of as “a luxury, rather than a necessity” – friend time. In her research, the 15% of parents who reported a healthy balance of free time versus kid time also reported that they made more time for friends and spent more time away from social media and screens than other parents. “Time spent with friends is a huge benefit to our physical and mental health,” she says. “We should really think of it like exercise, something that we need to prioritize for our health.” And, like exercise, she notes that “you never feel worse afterward” when you commit to spending some friend time.

– Remember it’s for the kids

If you’re determined to sacrifice yourself and every minute of your time on the altar of parenting, in spite of evidence that free time is as good for you as broccoli, maybe this argument will sway you: You’re really doing it for the kids. “When you ask kids what they want,” says Bertsche, “they say they want parents who are less stressed. Not parents who are there all the time but thinking about 1,000 different things.” In other words, you can’t be at your best for your children if you never invest in your own resilience and calm. Finding free time means building up your reserves to meet parenting’s daily challenges.