Parenthood and the need for recovery: we need time away from even our most meaningful work

Slate has a piece by Elissa Strauss explaining “Why retreats for moms are a terrible idea.” I’ll admit that I’d never heard of retreats for moms, other than the kind that are self-organized and often involve booze, but apparently they’re A Thing.

The light snark of the title aside, the article actually makes a good point:

We live in an age in which motherhood has morphed from a biological fact to an all-consuming lifestyle which demands that women be all in, all the time. If moms need to decompress—and they probably do considering American parents are some of the unhappiest in the world—then it would behoove them do so in an environment in which they could leave their mom selves behind. Instead of talking to other moms about motherhood, they’d be better off trying to forget their kids existed for a short time. Ideally, this would involve hanging out with human beings who are not moms, or other mothers who are equally committed to taking a respite from thinking about their kids. Some temporary exposure to everything that exists outside the realm of motherhood will be more restorative than any lecture or journaling session at an organized retreat.

Indeed, we have a century of research by engineers, psychologists, social scientists, and most recently neuroscientists that measure the negative costs of overwork and burnout, and the positive benefits of time off on our happiness and productivity.

For one thing, chronic overwork is counterproductive. Short bursts of overwork may be sustainable, but long periods of overwork lead to higher rates of mistakes that erase productivity gains, fatigued workers, and even an increased likelihood of cheating. Long-term studies over ten or twenty years show that people who don’t take vacations have increased risk of poor heath, depression, heart attacks, and higher mortality rates. So in the short run and the long run, overwork is unhealthy and actually counter-productive.

Another set of studies have measured the benefits of downtime, of vacations and time off. Scientists have found that activities that provide the most recovery are active and engaging, offer opportunities for exercising control and mastery, and provide psychological detachment from work. For example, many scientists are avid musicians or chess players, and they find those activities restorative because they are mentally absorbing and challenging. Active breaks are especially important for hard-working and ambitious people, because they’re the most likely to burn out. The more you love your job, the more you need to take a break from it.

Long-term studies measuring people’s health, mental states, and careers over decades reveal that people who exercise have healthier brains, better brain structure, and are less affected by age-related cognitive decline than people who do not.

Parenthood is a perfect example of an all-consuming job that can be super-rewarding, but which you really should take a break from. Having an identity that isn’t tied to your kids can make you be a better, more resilient parent. For your kids’ sake, and for your own, having a life outside the school and playdates and singing circle, that that doesn’t involve other parents or comparisons of schools or summer plans, is a really good thing.

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