I come here for a four-hour stretch, once a month, to be alone with my thoughts. This particular coffee shop has an enclosed conference room just off the main customer area, and a sweet friend of mine has reserved it for our use this morning so both of us can have a reprieve from the commotion and noise of our homes. Both of us have plans to plunk out writing that can’t happen in a more chaotic environment. All productivity aside, I know this one morning alone each month offers me many more benefits than I can express in words on a page.
I choose a chair at the end of the table where I can spread out my notebook, planner, computer, and the hot cinnamon tea I’ve grown to enjoy. I am 15 minutes from home, in a cafe, behind a closed door, and I have noise-canceling headphones cupped over my ears transporting me to a glorious and restorative place of quiet space within my mind.
I’m alone. Finally. For a few blissful hours.
The silence is a stark contrast to my days filled with a boisterous, large family with several very strong personalities who constantly demand the fullest extent of my leadership and conflict resolution skills. My older two sons, in particular, have made it their mission in life to bicker my sanity to bits as they sort out the pecking order between them. This week’s most maddening conflicts have been over a single pencil-top eraser, one brother’s music choice during chore time, and about one thousand other things that would be inconsequential between any other two individuals in the world. Most of the time, I make them figure things out on their own, but the petty issues are incessant and wear my patience down quickly. I’ve not had a moment’s peace in days.
I juggle an impressive number of details in my mind. I have to be excellent at keeping all the balls in the air because if I don’t, the whole family operation comes crashing down. I am endlessly correcting, solving problems, making parenting decisions on the fly, as well as crushing a to-do list that requires all hands on deck. I handle dentist and doctor appointments, transportation arrangements, food systems and meal execution for our small army, along with all of the nuanced subconscious things, like having the right gear for every outing and keeping ahead of the laundry cycle (or at minimum, making sure my husband doesn’t run out of clean underwear on a workday).
It is so much to keep collected in my tired-mama mind. Motherhood involves an unusually heavy mental load, between the daily details and the often-plucked heartstrings that keep me worried about one thing or another. I often imagine what can go wrong, and work out potential solutions or strategic moves so I can avoid a family-wide meltdown. I think this is precisely why many mothers describe some kind of longing to work, to find a creative outlet or some other way to build in any habit that might afford them a minuscule amount of mental space from the constant demands of motherhood.
Unless I regularly plan time away from the house, I am never able to fully rest my mind. In the stretch and strain of mothering a large household, it is easy to grow weary and forget what my priorities are and why I have them. Over the years, I’ve connected the dots between my over-aware and overactive mind and the extreme physical exhaustion I experience. At times, a lack of mental space compromises my perspective, my decision-making ability, and most certainly chips away at my patience as I deal with my kids.
I’m convinced mothers are in desperate need of ongoing ways to get some kind of mental space to counterbalance the outgoing energy poured into their families. I know I am in desperate need of even a small reprieve from constant real-time decision making and crisis management. When I give myself a little pocket of time to entertain thoughts of my own, to pray or rest, to write or clear my mind, I am able to return to mama-duty with vision and perspective.
6 Tips to Create Mental Space as a Mom
Recognize Mental Space is a Real Need
For a lot of years, I honestly didn’t realize the importance of mental space for myself, but as I have learned to acknowledge it as a legitimate basic need and intentionally prioritized space in my day, it has revolutionized my ability to weather the other storms of parenthood.
Simplify Everything You Can
I simplify my life in every way I can to make mental space possible. I get my kids to bed on time so I can savor the quiet hours of the night. I make a meal plan ahead of time so I don’t have to think about meals day by day. I eliminate anything non-essential in our family calendar so I’m not unnecessarily busy and there is a little bit of margin available for me to spend writing and doing other creative things I enjoy.
Creatively Plan for Time to Decompress
I block out specific times and coordinate with my husband for opportunities to get out for a coffee date with a friend or a few hours alone to plan the month ahead. When it’s warm out, I take my kids to a park where they can play without being under my feet, and I sit in the shade with a journal and pen while I keep an eye on them. I love listening to music and podcasts, while I’m doing the dishes, and on the days I’m especially wound up with frustration, I find a well-timed call to a trusted friend can work wonders to dissipate the stress and overwhelm.
Help Kids Build Age-Appropriate Independence
I had a few kids before I recognized how capable my children are at some of the tasks I instinctively did for them during their youngest years. As kids get to be 3, 4, 5+ years old, they can learn to do lots of little things for themselves that will (at least marginally) reduce the mental load on mama. Some of these things are: Remember to wear a coat, keep track of your own water bottle, put your own dishes in the sink when you’re finished eating. Of course, older children can be given additional responsibilities around the house and even though some of these examples are ultra-simple, it is surprising how it adds up when there are lots of kids in the house!
Guard the Rhythms and Routines You’ve Set Aside for Mental Space
In order to make time for mental space, I strive to make sure my time isn’t always hijacked by a long list of errands. Even though it can be more difficult to have kids along, I do most of my errands with kids in tow so my time alone can be spent doing life-giving and restorative activities. I try to only take on commitments I can do with joy. “Space” is the key word in this equation, and if I fill up my time and thoughts with productivity-oriented tasks, I am not always able to find the refreshment I’m looking for.
Don’t Accept Substitutes for Mental Space
I reserve social media for certain times of the day and try not to scroll mindlessly after my kids are in bed. Social media seemingly offers a way to find mental space, and I’m as guilty as the next mom for looking there first, but I’ve found it is not the place to find rest for my mind. It is a distraction. It is perhaps a worthwhile distraction for 10 minutes to catch up with friends and happenings in online spaces…but it is also addictive and can suck all the time I might have truly been resting and recovering from the demands of the day.
The endurance required in motherhood is constantly underestimated, and the stakes are high when you’re responsible for a child’s safety, growth, and development. It is essential to stay sharp and intentional as a parent, and doing so requires making time to carve out mental space for rest. It allows me to reclaim my vision regarding the honor and joy of this role, and I am able to enjoy the goofy and endearing things my kids do instead of focusing on the things that are messy and upside-down all around me. I am able to see how many of the challenges I face on a daily basis are temporary, not always as big as I make them out to be when I’m especially worn out, and likely something I can find a solution for if I’m able to step back and get some perspective.
When I have taken time to create mental space in my day or my week, I can breathe more freely.
**Recipes for Families, a free e-book from Kindred Mom, is full of meal ideas and practical kitchen wisdom from over 20 moms! Subscribe to our mailing list and get your own free copy!
Emily Sue Allen is the founder of Kindred Mom, and she hosts/produces the Kindred Mom podcast. She is a contemplative, creative soul who celebrates the beauty of a humble, handmade life and deeply values the power of encouragement. She lives with her husband and six kids in the Pacific Northwest, and personally blogs at emilysueallen.com. Find Emily on Instagram.