A stressed parent’s email prompted Janet to offer a phone consultation to address some of the common issues facing many parents who are now working at home. This mom says in her email that she has tried (and failed) to provide structure to the day to include uninterrupted one-on-one time with each child, periods where both she and her husband can concentrate on their work, and attempts at self-care. But it hasn’t worked. She also feels envious of parents who say that they are enjoying or even savoring this time at home with their kids, because “between working, caring for the kids, feeding my family, keeping the house, and managing our anxiety… my husband and I have never felt busier.”
Transcript of “How Self-Care and Boundaries Work Together”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email from a very stressed parent. Like so many parents, both she and her husband have been working at home for the past few months in very tight quarters, while caring for their two children. They have a 20-month-old and a four-year-old. And she’s desperate to establish some comfortable rhythm in her day for focused one-on-one time with her children for work and for self-care. But she’s finding that impossible. And she’s envious of parents who say they have lots of time on their hands these days to be present for their kids.
There was a lot of frustration and emotion in this parent’s email. So I thought we should speak. And the interesting thing is, and this is very common with countless parents I’ve consulted with, by verbalizing her situation and airing out some of her fears and her frustrations, she actually answered a lot of her own questions.
We’re all doing our best. And of course we want to feel confident in the decisions we make for our children so we can feel good about ourselves. We deserve that. So I hope you’ll find our conversation relatable and hopefully useful in your own life.
Janet Lansbury: Hi, how are you?
Parent: Hi, Janet. I’m good. How are you?
Janet Lansbury: I’m doing well. So I received your note, and it sounds like you have some questions. Usually when I do consultations, I can look and I feel that I’ll have an answer to everything that’s asked. But in your case, and in the case with a lot of notes I’ve received recently where they’re asking about how to make work happen, and taking care of children happen, and play happen, and all these elements in this difficult time that we’re in, I don’t have all the answers. So I’m starting off realizing that there will be things I probably won’t be able to help you with, but I’m going to do my best. And I want to find out where I may be able to make things easier for you or make things work better.
Parent: I’m trying to think of where to begin. The stresses and challenges are what a lot of people are doing right now, working at home. Suddenly working at home, if we haven’t been before. If we’re lucky, right? To be able to work at home. And then having small children. Mine are one, I guess she’s 20, almost 21 months. And four, he turned four in February.
I think it’s a ridiculous demand, actually, that’s being made on us in the time of COVID to have to work at home with small children. I’m trying not to have outsized expectations for myself, but it is really challenging. And I guess I’m trying to think of what the main challenge is because it’s a lot.
Janet Lansbury: Good. I was going to ask you to start with what feels the most important right now, or what feels the hardest.
Parent: I think what feels hardest is trying to prioritize time for myself. Being able to figure out when in the day I might be able to exercise, do something for myself. Something that isn’t related to the children or household tasks. I think I get frustrated when I can’t find that time or when I can’t prioritize that. And that leads to me maybe struggling with my kids more than I would otherwise.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. So it’s really, really important — that oxygen mask that we have to put on ourselves first. I know you’ve heard that expression. It’s got to be a priority. Maybe not every single day, but a few times a week. Let’s see if we can figure out a way for you to fit that in.
Parent: That would be great to figure out how to fit that in.
Janet Lansbury: So you had a lot of questions about developing a routine that works for everybody. And it sounds like you have a partner or a husband, right?
Parent: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Janet Lansbury: So that’s good, at least, that you have someone to share these duties with. Is it possible for you to stagger your work commitments during the day? Or how do you do it with caring for the children? Do you have help?
Parent: No, we don’t have help. I don’t know that we will for the foreseeable future because we live in a place with a high infection rate. So I’m reluctant to bring anyone into the home as things are.
So my older child who’s four was in preschool. He was in a lot of full time care. Since he was about seven and a half months, he was always in a program where he was in care from 9:00 to 6:00 even, or 5:00. And my younger child also has been in that kind of daycare from around the same time, around seven months.
So my children are used to leaving the house in the morning, and have done well in those environments. That’s allowed us to work all this time. We both have pretty demanding jobs. With flexibility, even with flexibility, it’s still just feels like tremendous pressure to keep my kids healthy and occupied during the day, and attend meetings.
Also I think really what one of the hardest things I’m finding in my work life, as it relates to my kids, is to find a chunk or chunks of time that I can really write, which is part of my work. So being able to do sustained work beyond phone calls also is really hard.
So I’m finding that I do put my older son in front of the television while my daughter’s napping. By 1:30 or 2:00, that’s what’s going on. So that does feel like something I wouldn’t have done in the past. I didn’t use the television or screens in that way, but I am now because we just need some chunk of time where we can peel off in that way.
Sorry, you asked if my husband and I switched off. And we’re trying to do that now, but it’s quite hard because our schedules aren’t regular and we don’t know what our days are always going to be like. So having a rhythm to the day is hard when every day is different with work.
Janet Lansbury: So both of your schedules are just up in the air like that? You can’t count on certain times that you will need to be on, and when you could take a break?
Parent: We do have certain times of the week when we can do that. So there are certain sort of beats in the week that we can structure the week around. But it’s hard to feel like there’s a rhythm. I want something that feels like nurturing to my kids and nurturing to me in some way. And doesn’t just feel like we’re paddling upstream, I guess.
Janet Lansbury: Well, the main way to know that you’re getting those nurturing moments in is to use caregiving times. I’m sure you’ve maybe heard me talk about this. As connection points, where you are 100% available. What we can get caught up in sometimes is we’re always sort of half there when we’re there with our children. During breakfast, we’re doing something while they’re eating. Or we have our phone there. Always able to be interrupted at any moment. I would absolutely recommend that breakfast time is clear. Your phone is nowhere in sight, nothing can interrupt you for those few minutes. And you’re just there, available to one or both of your children, if they’re both up and eating at the same time.
And then there will be times that maybe you’re just with your son, or you’re just with your toddler — helping her get up from her nap or helping him get ready for bed at night. Maybe there are other things that he does, part of a bedtime routine. So really protecting those times. They don’t have to be long periods. It could be 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there, but that there’s at least one or two of those throughout the day where you know and your child knows that you’re all in. You’re all there. Nothing can interrupt. They are the most important thing right then. Do you do that?
Parent: Yeah, I mean I do think you’ve helped me do that. That’s important to me and my partner. My husband is actually the one that does breakfast more than me, because I’m actually still nursing my little one. Which is the source of some ambivalence at this point. So I ended up kind of nursing her in the morning and getting tired from that. And then he usually gives them breakfast while I kind of am in bed a little bit longer.
And I think that’s some of where he and I are both struggling is our schedule as adults is not great. We’re not going to bed early enough. And I think that’s in part because we so want that alone time or together time, or more work time, or zoning out time that we don’t get at any other point.
So I feel like we’re going to bed too late. And then we’re very tired in the morning. I’m kind of a zombie after I nurse. So I think some of that quality time, or even time that maybe I could take for myself, if I could go for a run in the morning. That’s very ambitious perhaps. But I think our bad scheduling, kind of not being adult about going to bed early, is kind of setting a whole cascade of problems in a way. But it’s hard. I find it really hard to just go to sleep right after my kids go to sleep, and they’re going to bed too late too.
Janet Lansbury: Oh.
Janet Lansbury: Well that you can change. And you can also change… I mean, running in the morning is ambitious, but it’s doable. You have to prioritize that and then have your husband cover and take that time. Maybe not every day, but certain days. But yeah, them getting to bed earlier. Okay, there’s something that maybe I can help with. What’s keeping them up so late?
Parent: I think it’s a routine that we got in when we were working. When we were picking them up at daycare and then getting home at, we wouldn’t get home until, sometimes I would get home after six. And then we want time with them and they want time with us. So I think we got in the habit because of that. And my son tends to try to push bedtime. They will often both go to sleep only at 9:00. They’re asleep at 9:00.
Janet Lansbury: Wow.
Parent: Yeah. And that’s really, really late for me.
Janet Lansbury: That’s really late. Especially for the baby. That’s really, really late.
Parent: Yeah. She kind of wants to go to bed with her brother. They sleep in the same room at home. So I feel like we’re stuck.
Janet Lansbury: Well you can look at studies and see that all sleep experts recommend a much earlier bedtime for the health of your children. And it seems like now that you’re not going to work and picking them up so late and getting home, that this is the perfect time for you to change that. Just having dinner earlier, doing it all earlier, and pushing it all earlier.
Parent: Yeah. Any other directives on that? I mean, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
Janet Lansbury: Well… conviction. That’s what we have to do. Deciding, between the two of you, that this matters. And it’s going to help a lot of other things fall into place that you both want, which is a little bit of time to yourselves at the end of the day. You maybe getting up earlier and getting to go jog. Really important things can happen if you make this change. So whatever it takes for the two of you, what your children need is for you to have conviction. That’s ground zero for them to be able to make any kind of change. If you’re just going to do it if it works for them and if they complain, you’re going to back off, then it’s not going to work for them. And it’s almost not fair to them.
But if you two decide, “We’ve got this opportunity right now, we’re going to do this. We can do this, and it’s important for everybody’s health and wellbeing,” then you’re there. And the next part is deciding the steps and how to do everything a little earlier. Then allowing the complaints and the: “No! I want to do it this way!” And “I want to do it that way.”
I would decide what your tasks are each going to be at bedtime, and be clear about that and let your children know: “This is what we’re doing. And after we do this, we’re going to do that.” And give them that ease-in where you’re letting them know, not in a warning tone. “Okayyy. After we do this, we got to go to bed now.” But, “After we do this, then we’re going to do that — get your PJs on — and then I’m going to be with your sister, and dad’s going to be with you,” or whatever it is.
So you’re laying it out. Just the facts, not like come on or any kind of warning or emotional overtones in this. Just the facts. “This is what we’re doing. And we want you to know.” And I believe in adding into the routine. “And then if you want to yell that you don’t want to go to bed now, that’s okay. You can do that too. We’re still going to be done though.”
Janet Lansbury: “And then daddy and I are going to go do this.” And then closing the door and saying, “Goodnight, I love you. Can’t wait to see you in the morning.”
And then they say, “Now I need this and now I need that.”
“Oh shoot, you need that. I can’t wait to do that with you in the morning. We’ll go get lots of water and lots of hugs, and I’ll lie with you and snuggle. But we’re not doing it now.” Everything has a period at the end of it. And that’s the conviction.
With your 20-month-old, you could still really set the limit. But with your four-year-old, he can pop out or do whatever. But you two have to be still clocked out. So it’s not going to get a rise out of you or anything. You’re just going to be, “All right, go back in. Because we’re doing this.”
Having that conviction that you’re done and you don’t have to make this happen for them. Sleep is something they have to do. You have to decide what you’re going to do and when you’re done.
So really that’s what it takes. These other things are just details, but it takes you deciding that this is the best thing you could do for your children. The most loving thing you could do. So you don’t have to take that advice, but-
Parent: No, it’s exactly what I want. For me as a mom, I think it’s one of the things that I’m struggling with the most is how to set these clear boundaries. How to be this strong leader, how to have that confidence. And I think when you’re in this crazy environment where you’re in each other’s space all the time, there’s no break from this. It really leaves a lot of this stuff bare. So I think the boundary issues are really coming up.
And I notice that with my kids, I’ll be like, “You can’t do that now. Sorry.” I’m apologizing to them all the time. And it’s so undermining. It’s a lack of confidence and a lack of conviction. As you talked about that, I need to explore in a deeper way perhaps. And also just work on, I guess, talking the talk. Like I’m trying not to say sorry as much.
Janet Lansbury: That’s wonderful awareness. And yes, absolutely going into that with yourself. What am I afraid of? Do I really feel I’m doing something wrong? If my children are upset, is that something wrong? Or is that something right that’s a great opportunity for them to get a lot of stress out of their bodies or share what’s inside them. Am I afraid of that? Do I need their permission?
I want to hear what the other boundaries are, because all of these things work together too. I mean, I can talk about sleep. But sleep boundaries don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s all about the whole day and the way that you relate to them and, again, how comfortable you are in your role as their loving leader that is able to look out for them.
You and your husband are able to see that getting to bed earlier is better for their health in the long run. They’re not able to see that. They’re stuck in: but I want to stay up a little longer, a little longer. Which of course we ourselves want to do too, right? We know it’s better for us to go to bed earlier, but we stay up. I do the same thing. I don’t have the same responsibilities you have, but I stay up too late. And every night I say: Tonight I’ll go to bed a little earlier, and I don’t.
But for your children, you can do that for them, you could give that to them. Because they need you to be the one to do it. And it can bring out these strengths in us that maybe we didn’t even know we had — Mother Bear or Father Bear, or whatever you want to call it. That conviction. And what’s best for our children isn’t, again, what makes them smile and say thank you in the moment a lot of the time. But they still know that it comes from love. They do know that. With the long view on it that I have, I’ll tell you. And even with all the children I’ve worked with, when I tend to do the hard thing sometimes that maybe their parents needed help with — doing with boundaries, having them be upset and melt down on me and all that stuff. I see the gratitude in them after. I see the relief.
Janet Lansbury: So when you say that you’re ambivalent about breastfeeding, I’m putting myself in your daughter’s shoes going: okay, this is a mixed experience for me doing this breastfeeding, which is very intimate on one hand. But I’m feeling this vibe of she’s really not all into this.
Janet Lansbury: And that could be when we’re playing with our child and we don’t want to be there, and we feel like we have to. All of those things. But children deserve that clarity. It’s better for them to not get a mixed message. Just like you would rather your partner not give you a mixed message or your friends not give you a mixed message, right?
Parent: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Janet Lansbury: So what are you afraid of about? And I’m not saying the answer is to end that experience. But if you’re ambivalent, why are you doing it?
Parent: Well, I was in the middle of weaning or trying to sort of push to wean, at least make it more minimal, around the time that the COVID crisis started. And I actually went on a work trip one week before things really got bad in New York. So I’d been away from her and she did fine, and I was fine. So we were at a point of really kind of tapering off a bit. But then, because there’s a pandemic, we were in a small apartment in New York where we barely ever went outside, so it’s hard to set physical boundaries. I found it hard to set more physical boundaries with my children in a very small space.
Janet Lansbury: But that’s when you need to. That’s when they need you to most. That’s when you need to for yourself. Suddenly, you’re just a victim in your own home? Everybody could do whatever they want? What does that even mean?
Parent: I think that’s right. I think there are two ways that this has come up for me. So certainly with the breastfeeding, my daughter started to just ramp up asking, sort of all the time, almost like she was an infant, a very small baby. And I did put the brakes on that. I mean, I did. I have. I’m comfortable with mornings and evenings, but I don’t want to be doing it during the day. And it wasn’t interfering with my work and making me really tired. So I have been able to set those boundaries, but it still feels like there’s before her nap, and she’ll ask after her nap. And I kind of don’t really want to do much of that anymore.
So it’s the frequency, I’m not committed to weaning clearly. And I enjoy the connection still. But as you said, I really want to be clear and I want to set the boundaries and be clear on what I want and can tolerate at this point.
Janet Lansbury: It’s so much better for her. She doesn’t have to be stuck asking all the time if you’re really clear. And when she asks before the nap and after the nap, if you say, “You’re asking, we’re going to do it later. That’s when we do it, at nighttime.” Or whatever those times are that you decide that you can be totally great with it. But if there’s even the I feel guilty saying no, and she’s asking me, and your heart sinks a little, children pick that up. She sounds like a very tuned in girl. And you’re not going to get away with trying to pretend. You really have to see it as you’re keeping her stuck in asking if you’re not clear.
Again that conviction, it frees children. They don’t have to get stuck. And that’s going to be the same with TV. I don’t know if your son is fine with the hour that you give him or whatever it is.
Parent: It’s more than an hour now, Janet. I mean the challenge of working at home of creating real chunks of time. I am using it for sure, in a way that I never have before. And I want to give my husband that stretch too. It’s like this chunk. So I don’t know. I’m not really sure. I think I either need to own that, or say it’s just going to be an hour. But then I don’t know what he’s going to do. Because that’s also what I wanted to ask you in terms of the day. We do try to create blocks of time when they can just be really playing in a yes space, in a place that’s safe for them. But if we’re there, then they’re going to try to engage us. So I guess I’m wondering how to create these bigger blocks of time when we can work. It’s really hard without the television.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, I understand. So what matters is clear on it for yourself. Making peace with your decisions, whatever they are, so you’re not ambivalent. Because when you talk about self-care, that’s one of the meanest things we can do to ourselves. To go around our whole day feeling: I feel bad that I’m letting him watch TV, but I need to do this. It’s like, you’re never happy with what’s going on. You’re never able to feel that groove of this is right. This is good. I mean, maybe you are sometimes. But with the nursing or whatever it is, all of it. This is the ultimate self-care that’s so good for your children, it’s crucial for your children to know that you have boundaries and that you feel clear and good about the choices that you make.
So looking at all those things that you’re kind of on the fence about, and really getting on one side or the other and making piece with it for yourself. Even if it disappoints everyone else in your house. Being more decisive and knowing that it’s not your job to please everyone. And with two children, you will rarely have two pleased children in the house. Somebody will be whining. Somebody will be crying.
Parent: Yes. He loves them. He loves stories. That’s what we’ve been thinking about is just shifting a little bit more of it to that. And he adores it. So yeah.
Janet Lansbury: That’s wonderful because it’s so good for children. It’s so good for their brains. It helps them practice listening. It’s much more creative for them.
So there are going to obviously be those chunks of time, it sounds like, where you really do need them to be occupied. And I don’t know how that works for your 20-month-old. Maybe when she’s asleep?
Parent: It’s when she’s asleep. Yeah.
Janet Lansbury: But then there’ll be other times when they’re: Ugh, we’re not happy. Or, we’re in between ideas of what we want to do. Or, we’re just trying to see if my mother has conviction about her work today or whatever this call is that she’s on.
Sometimes, it can be… she comes in and you say, “Oh yeah, I’m talking to this person.” Obviously that’s not going to work with everyone.
Or, “this is what I’m working on, on the computer and you can look.” And I’m totally unintimidated by that.
And then she says, “Play with me,” or something. Or he says, “I need something to do.”
You’re still going to hold onto what you’re doing. And you’re not going to feel uh oh when they whine or complain about something. You’re going to welcome that and say, “Yeah, it is hard sometimes. I know it’s hard. And I’ve got to do this.”
And then after you’ve acknowledged, you’ll focus back on what you’re doing — I know, obviously not brilliantly when there’s children there. But you can practice showing them that you mean what you say. That when you’re not available, you’re going to go back to what you’re doing. No matter what they throw at you. You’re not getting pulled by every request they make.
But again, that takes a convicted parent that’s not ambivalent and not going around with guilt. You’re clear. And you feel like you’re doing a really, really good job.
And that’s why I brought up the thing about caregiving too. Because even if you just had that breakfast. Or maybe, for you, it’s not breakfast, but it’s lunch. Or there’s something that you own with your children as a time where you will not be distracted by anything for those few minutes. And that can be enough. That can be all you need to give them for that day, if it’s a busy day. In your mind and your heart, you can know that you fulfilled your duties as a mom. It really is enough to have a moment here and there on a busier day. There’ll be some days when you want to have a little longer, and weekends when you’re more available. But it’s really okay.
So the way that your rhythm will start to work is most of the day for them is going to be play. You’re going to have this period in the afternoon where I would try audio stuff first. Because it’s going to make you feel so much better about it, and so much better for him. But maybe you’re going to have a screen then. He’s four years old, it’s not the worst thing at all.
So you have that, but the rest of the time should be free play punctuated by these rhythms where you or their dad is fully attentive. You nursing her in the morning, breakfast with dad and your son. If one of you is in between meetings or whatever, somebody sits down with them for snack time, lunch, nap time. Does she have a nap after lunch? Or in the middle of the day probably at her age.
Parent: Yeah. I basically am there with them usually between 11 and 1. I try to be there and do that whole — kind of what you’re talking about — and I find it really grounds the day for me.
It’s a lot though. I’m sort of trying to just do all my meetings around that. And I let people know that I’m available once she’s down for the nap and he’s occupied. So yeah. I freed myself up for that. And that’s my time with them.
Janet Lansbury: You’re saying it’s two hours?
Parent: Yeah. It’s about two hours. Yeah.
Janet Lansbury: Okay. Well, that’s a whole lot if you’re giving them that. It’s okay if they want to whine at you the rest of the day, and they have nothing to do.
Parent: They’re doing pretty well. I think it’s just about… It’s like… This feels impossible, honestly, Janet. It feels so crazy to be trying to do this. Yeah. And it looks like, for me at least, that I might not send my kids to school. He was going to go to pre-K and I probably won’t send him to school at all. And we’ll be trying to do this for about a year maybe even. So that’s a lot. That’s a lot. It feels scary. It feels impossible sometimes. But I do see that we’re getting a little better at it, I guess.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. I think you’re handling it really well. And you’re giving a lot of time it sounds like. If it seems too much, maybe you can do less. And again, getting them to bed early I feel should be a priority. I want to see you getting up and getting your exercise in first thing in the morning. That’s going to just make your whole day feel so much better. That’s a huge priority.
Parent: I think putting the kids to bed early is really not just about that. It’s about my health and my husband’s health. It’s about our mental health and our physical health even. I think just creating that space would do a lot for the whole family. So we’ve got to do that.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. Even if you two end up staying up all night, at least get them to bed and have that time for yourselves. Yeah. You absolutely need that.
Janet Lansbury: That’s self-care right there.
So I think it’ll help if you really reimagine self-care. And first of all, with your children, it’s not about the amount of time. It’s about having 100% time a couple of times a day. Again, it could all add up to an hour if that’s all that you have.
So having that, and then listening to yourself a little more about what you need. And feeling good about saying no to this, no to that. Taking on this role. You have this job — you and your husband being the leaders. You’re not trying out for it. You can do this. And you’ve got to do it with clarity. It’s going to help you and help them. Not doubting your choices or feeling like I need to do this, but I don’t really want to. Listen to that. Listen to that.
And make your boundaries for work. It’s okay to close the door on your kids if you know that they’re in a safe place. It’s really okay to be protective of your needs and yourself, and feel good about what you’re doing.
Janet Lansbury: You’re doing a great job. You’re doing heroic work. Every parent is right now, especially those that have to work full time still.
Janet Lansbury: It’s amazing what you’re doing.
Parent: Thank you.
Janet Lansbury: So don’t expect incredible things of yourself. Have a lot of self-compassion.
And that will project down to your children as well anytime you do that. So do it for them, if not for you.
Parent: Yeah. Thank you.
Janet Lansbury: I hope some of that helps.
Parent: Super helpful.
Janet Lansbury: Oh, good. All right. Well thank you so much and you take care.
Parent: Thanks Janet.
Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio, where they’re particularly popular, at Audible.com.
If you liked the format of these recorded consultations there are 6 more at sessionsaudio.com. There’s a description of each recording and you can download them individually or as a set for under $20. That’s sessionsaudio.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.