My wife and I have three kids: two girls and one boy, all of them under 11. I love all of them. That should go without saying, but there are honestly times when I think about my kids and cannot help but smile. They say some of the wildest, most random things I’ve ever heard. I wouldn’t give them up for anything in the world.
But also, there are days when I am one math homework problem, one tantrum, one random pair of underwear on the floor, one sibling argument, one bedtime, one dinner, one load of laundry away from running into the woods and never coming back. Because parenting burnout is real, and when you’re at the end of your rope, you need a break or you’ll snap at the smallest things.
This is the reality of parenting. Plain and simple.
My wife and I both work — her full time, me full time plus writing part time on the side. We are pretty good at juggling the heaping pile of work that is children, house, and outside jobs. We have been together for almost 14 years, and I’d say we still struggle to make all of it work. But although our house is often a cluttered mess, our children are clean and bright and (mostly) well behaved.
But the reality is, both of us could dedicate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to our family, and still never meet all of their needs. That’s the thing with raising children, caring for a home, and supporting a family: there is always something more to do.
Right now, we just finished moving into a home that we got for a good price in a good neighborhood, but the house needs a lot of work. Both of us assumed that we could do most of the work ourselves, as if our schedules weren’t already busy enough. To say that we’ve been stressed out and at our wit’s end for the past several weeks is an understatement. I love my wife, but if we have one more argument over paint, I’m going to scream.
But here’s the thing. If I’ve learned anything after being married with children for over a decade, it’s this: We all need breaks.
Now, I know there are mothers reading what I just wrote and giving it an epic eye roll. And I get your pain. I know some of you feel like getting a break from your family is about as likely as getting a bill passed into law. I mean, it can happen, but it’s unlikely. But sometimes it’s good to define what a break is, because the fact is, we can’t all cut loose and take a trip to a tropical island every time we get stressed. Nor can we say to hell with it, drop our children off with a relative and hit the day spa. In my case, we don’t even have any family within 10 hours.
But what if you redefine what a break is?
Mel and I were in a pretty rough patch a few years ago. We were both in college. I was working. Mel was taking care of our children. We were both stressed out beyond belief, and one day, after a pretty stressful argument after our youngest crawled out of bed for the millionth time, we both said, in unison: “I need a break.”
We looked at each other. We smiled because it was almost verbatim, and I said, “Jinx.” Then we started laughing. Then Mel said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m expected to do it all. And I just can’t.”
“I feel the same way,” I said. “But you know what? Do we really need to do it all?”
We looked at each other for a while. It was late. Our kids were finally asleep. It was quiet. We started to discuss everything that needed to be done, and then we came up with the idea of tapping out. When one of us is stressed, or frustrated, or struggling with one of our children, or we are feeling like it’s all piling up, we “tap out” if the other is home.
When helping our daughter who has ADHD with her homework becomes too stressful, Mel can tap out and I will take over. If I’m in the same situation, I tap out. If one of us is stressed about really anything and we just need to breath, we tap out. There is no abuse of the tap out system. It is a sacred trust. And depending on the situation, most tap-outs only last for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Of course, this hasn’t relieved us of all stress. It has not completely removed all our children’s needy, grabby, I-must-have-this-right-now requests. But what it has done is given us comfort that if the stress gets too much, if we are about to explode, if we are about to run into the woods and never come back, we can tap out. It means that we have back up. It helps us feel more like we are in this as a team. It has honestly made this house remodel much easier.
Because the reality is, parenting burn out is very real, and very troubling, and although you love your family, sometimes you simply need to get away from them. And do you know what happens? After a tap out, I always come back ready to be a parent again. And Mel does too.