It would be an understatement to say that I’ve needed more diversion in my life lately. This is because I have two small children, one in the complex, emotional land of two-year-olds (“Mommy, I can do it! No, don’t leave me mommy!”), the other with a wicked case of acid reflux. There is crying, lots of crying, at my house.
And there are diapers, and spit up, and ongoing sleepless nights.
There is certainly a cultural mandate that women (and men, to a lesser extent) minimize their struggles with parenthood and extol the virtues of raising children. These sugar-coated messages leave many of us unprepared for just how challenging and exhausting motherhood can be. Our pastel-hued, lullaby-themed fantasies never quite materialize. Some days, no measure of cuddles or milky, wet baby kisses can mitigate the stress we feel.
During maternity leave, or on a longer basis for moms who are primary care-givers, mini mental vacations are often needed. Because many of us are unable to truly take time off—if we aren’t with a child then we are cleaning the house or trying to make a living—we have little time for ourselves. How do we pass our few precious moments alone? Some of us will flip through the pages of glossy magazines, others will seek refuge in compelling or merely entertaining novels. Many will go online to sites like Facebook, which fulfill our voyeuristic desires to find out what other (more interesting) people do in their lives. And many of us will go shopping online—or at least window shopping—in order to gaze at clothes we would never actually have occasion to wear.
Such diversions often provide a healthy dose of fantasy; we imagine another life—or at least another version of our own—that offers what ours does not. We imagine that we look like that woman in the magazine, that we are on the red carpet with that gorgeous man on our arm, that we have the power to single-handedly cure world hunger or malaria, or that we have the time and resources to travel to places that meet our definition of exotic. For me, that’s a beach in the Maldives with a private, thatched hut to sleep in, and a personal chef and massage therapist at my disposal. I can already hear the waves crashing. The drooling often starts when I look at sites like banyantree.com, and let me tell you, that is a pleasure-drenched, pampered world that looks nothing like my own right now. And that’s exactly the point.
Fantasy allows us to transcend our actual lives and envision other possibilities. This process can be healthy and rewarding, but it can also have a dark side. When do these fantasies become problematic, and how do we know when we’ve crossed the line? Here are some things to consider:
Does our time fantasizing prevent us from fulfilling the obligations of motherhood?
We all need to blow off steam and embrace our inner slacker, but only within reason. If we are spending too much time in the clouds and not enough in reality, then perhaps we need to take stock of what is going on in our lives. Are we avoiding something—maybe problems with a spouse or potential developmental delays in a child—that needs to be addressed? Are we fostering an addiction that prevents us from doing what we’ve signed on to do? If so, we need to disengage from our fantasy life and reengage with what’s in front of us. If there are underlying issues, consider talking with a friend or seeking professional help.
Do we have a hard time engaging in our real life due to the distraction of the fantasy?
Are we able to stop obsessing or fantasizing once we are back here on earth? Is Facebook so engrossing that we can’t stop thinking about what we’ve seen, even when the computer is off? If we’re unable to focus on being in the moment with our toddling toddler, then maybe we should limit our exposure to distractions that do more harm than good. To be healthy and productive, fantasy should have a definite ending point to enable us to be present when we are with our kids, our partners, at work, or doing other important daily activities.
Do we feel better—refreshed, excited, relaxed—after our time “away”?
Ideally, a quick break provides respite and enjoyment, and leaves us feeling at least marginally prepared to return to the never-ending tasks at hand. But in some instances, our choice of diversion will actually make us feel worse. For example, if we end up feeling that our homes, cars, or bodies are insufficient, then perhaps we are not engaging in a fantasy world that is healthy for us. If reentry to our actual lives creates feelings of inadequacy, then we might want to retool our mental vacation strategy. Perhaps looking at a fashion magazine is not giving us the break or emotional lift that we seek. Or it might be that things at home are so stressful that the break doesn’t do much good. In this case, we might need to ask for help or allocate additional resources to childcare so that our breaks are longer and more restorative.
Is the fantasy negatively impacting our relationships at home?
I often work with women whose husbands or boyfriends have developed an addiction to pornography. This can be devastating and shameful for these women, and it clearly has a negative effect on their desire to be sexually and emotionally intimate. The types of fantasy I’m addressing in this blog are benign in comparison, but they still could be harmful to others if we engage in them too often, or if we are too distracted or disengaged to function. If our harmless window shopping becomes a compulsive quest for the perfect pair of shoes on Piper Lime (I have no idea how this random example popped into my head), or if we can’t put down the most recent book from the Twilight series, then we need to step back. Some of us have uber high standards, and our kids may actually need less of our attention than we think (imagine helicopter parents here). If you’re unclear whether your use of distraction and fantasy is appropriate and helpful, ask others for feedback. A reality check can be invaluable when we are stressed out and overwhelmed by the requirements of motherhood.
Although distraction has its place, sometimes another approach can serve us well: reengagement with the thing that’s driving us bonkers in the first place. When we are at our wits end and cannot tolerate refereeing another fight or witnessing another meltdown, we can transform the dynamic by finding a fun, playful way to engage with our children. This might mean creating a silly game or leaving the confines of home to get some fresh air in the park. In my house we break out the Vanilla Ice—no tantrum a little Ice, Ice Baby can’t tame.
It’s a good idea to have various strategies in mind when spending long hours at home with our children. Fantasy is a great way to manage the stress associated with mothering. It allows us to meet our own needs and then return to our kiddos feeling (somewhat) rejuvenated. We abscond into a pretend, fairy-tale world, far, far away, on white sandy beaches. And for times when never-never land doesn’t cut it, “All right stop, collaborate and listen…”