By Emily Yoffe
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A piece of essential wisdom about our lives is broadcast every time a plane takes off. No, it's not about your tray table. It's this: If the oxygen mask drops and you're traveling with small kids, put yours on first -- before you help them.
Too many women, single or married, childless or mothers, are endlessly fulfilling every obligation except the one to themselves. For your mental, physical, and psychological well-being, you sometimes just need to stop. Then you need to do something you want to do. You need to take some Me Time.
Like many things, Me Time is all the more wanted the rarer it gets. In their recent book, What Women Really Want, pollsters Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway discovered that women across all strata of society feel overwhelmed with the insatiable demands on them. When they asked what women wanted more of in their lives, the two most popular answers were "peace" and "time." They were talking about a sense of serenity and control over their lives. The women polled also said they would like more sleep, and that they battle the "guilt that creeps in whenever they take a break."
There aren't that many breaks, though. The Families and Work Institute (FWI) found that working mothers spend both more time at the job and more time with their kids than their counterparts did 25 years ago. Where are they finding that extra time? "It's coming from time for themselves," says Ellen Galinsky, FWI president.
Marianne Legato, a cardiologist, Health Advisory Board member, and author of Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget, can tell you why: "If you never have any time except reactive time -- things you must do for others -- you don't have a sense of control. You are interrupted all the time. Your brain has trouble resting even during sleep. Such chronic exhaustion increases the release of stress hormones, and your blood sugar rises." If this is your normal state, then the physical consequences increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and memory problems. If that's not enough to scare you into taking some time for yourself, consider this: The hormonal effects of always being on edge help deposit fat right around your waist.
There are more than physical benefits to getting off this treadmill. Taking a break will actually make you discharge your responsibilities better. Galinsky's surveys show that people who are happiest at work are those who take time for themselves. "If you shift your focus, you go back to the other areas of life with more energy," she says. "You're less stressed, more satisfied with life in general."
So what is Me Time? First, it can't be something you hate doing but feel you have to do. Take going to the gym, for instance: "Exercise is a really important tool for my sanity," says Alice D. Domar, PhD, a psychologist and author of Self-Nurture and Health's Ask Ali column. "But a lot of women use it as punishment for eating, or see it as an obligation." If that's you, then exercise doesn't count as Me Time.
For some women, it is a serving of quiet. Kim Renteria, a Houston glass artist, is a widow with three grown children. Every 5 weeks or so, she unplugs her phone. It's not that she doesn't enjoy her friends and family, but she knows she needs 48 hours of solitude for renewal. For many women, other women are the key to Me Time. Studies have shown that having a strong network of friends enhances people's satisfaction with life and even their health.
What is nourishing for one person can be a burden to someone else. If a book group doesn't appeal to you, maybe an art class does. Some women find that volunteer work provides a soul-enriching sense of accomplishment. But if you're someone who says yes to the constant requests for help then wonders what you were thinking, maybe what you need at this point in your life is to do less, period.
Maybe sometimes all you need is permission to do what you need to do to keep yourself sane. To breathe, and be happy. Think of this as your permission slip.
Emily Yoffe is a freelance writer in Washington D.C.