If I had to name one common idea that I hear expressed by many of my female friends over (and over) again, it’s that they just can’t get the time to have an hour or two a week to themselves. An hour or two, to check out of their daily responsibilities and just… be. Get their nails done. Have a meal. See a movie alone (my fave). And I don’t mean that they can’t find the time—they can’t get it.
Get it from whom, you ask? It’s (almost) always the obvious person: their partners. Maybe they stay at home with kids while their partner works outside the home. Maybe they work from home solo, which means that work never gets left at work because work is always at home. Maybe they work outside of home all day, then get home and there’s a never-ending pile of laundry, of dishes, of children, of pets. And when all or some of this combines, it’s super easy to just… feel… stuck.
I’ve been mulling this over a lot lately, partly because we’re in a new-to-us part of the country and navigating new-to-us social norms. More than anywhere we’ve lived in the U.S. so far (Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon, and now California), we’re finding ourselves regularly hanging with families where one partner works, and the other partner doesn’t, and that’s their long-term life plan. Besides how utterly confounding I find this (How does anyone live in the Bay Area on one income? We’ve been doing it for a few months and it’s hard as hell), I am also sociologically intrigued: How do these relationships function? What are the expectations, and what actually happens?
It’s also partly because I just spend a fair bit of my time thinking about how relationships that include at least one female work. And I’ve tapped into this before (last year’s essay on emotional labor is still one of my favorites), but the idea that women feel they can’t ask for a little bit of alone time each week—that they even consider it a question to be asked, and not an understood demand to be made—is even bigger than emotional labor. And it boggles my mind. When you’re talking about an hour or so a week to take a break and remember who you are, you’re talking about… an hour or two a week to keep your sanity and soul together. Right?
what is alone time, and who is it for?
Of course, the idea of “alone time” comes packed with privilege. I think it’s a privilege that is pretty squarely rooted in class. There are many women for whom the idea of taking an hour a week is laughable because there’s literally no one else to watch the kids, for example—maybe they’re single moms with no family nearby, or women in relationships with partners who don’t get it or try, or the cost of a babysitter is truly, actually too much (sometimes you really do need that $10 to $15 an hour for gas to get to school the next day, or for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread).
There’s also a pervasive idea that if your labor is unpaid (maybe you stay home with your baby while your partner works), or you work part time (while your partner works full time), or you earn an hourly wage, that your labor isn’t as difficult or emotionally and mentally taxing as labor that our society tends to reward with a big paycheck and vacation days. So it can be hard to imagine saying out loud, “I need an hour alone each week,” when you feel like you’re not holding up the end of your respective bargain. For other women, the idea of “alone time” might as well be another fairy tale that someone has made up, because they’re too busy trying to keep their children safe from abusive members of the family, trying to navigate a war zone and keep their family in tact, trying to negotiate a famine, trying to just make it on the day to day, paycheck to paycheck.
So when I, specifically, am talking about “alone time” and its value, I’m mostly speaking to women who are generally something like me. Women who have the potential to take this time because the space exists, and because the hardest thing about taking it is asking for it in the first place. Women who may not have been raised to know that it’s okay to advocate for themselves in their relationships, that it’s okay to put your needs over those of your kids sometimes, that it’s okay to look at your partner on Saturday afternoon and say, “Hey. I’m going to get my nails done and read a book. My phone will be off. I’ll be back in two hours.” Because most likely, nothing is going to blow up or fall apart. No (literal or figurative) fires will be set. Because you have that space already, but maybe you can’t see it yet.
how to raise feminist partners
There’s an idea out there that if a woman is with a partner who supports her emotionally and mentally (and who she also supports), who recognizes that she has needs and goals and desires, who preemptively says, “Hey, I’m taking the kid out for a hike on Saturday for a few hours,” who prioritizes her over themselves, that this woman is lucky. Lucky because she just happened to get one of the handful of good ones out there. Lucky because the world just worked out in her favor. But here’s the deal: in my experience, even in relationships that we see as very feminist, you still have to ask. Sometimes, you still have to demand. You still have to take care of yourself, while simultaneously taking care of your partner. For me, a real partnership means you’re both nourishing each other, you’re feeding each other, you’re tickling one another’s brains, and you’re discussing it all while it’s happening.
And yes, there is an awful lot of luck in it. I can only speak to relationships that either I have been in, or that I’ve seen play out, but if my IRL and social media circles are any indication… an awful lot of men talk a big egalitarian, feminist game before they get married. And then they, you know, get a nine to five or have a kid and all of the sudden the assumption is that oh, of course you’ll stay home with the kids, that’s what women do, that’s what you want, right? Or maybe you both work, but they assume they can’t possibly keep the kids alive without you for the two hours it takes to get your nails done (or you think they can’t!), so it just never happens.
But when I think about myself and talk about this with women who are married to feminist partners (who actually remained feminist well after marriage, the job, and the kids) there was also a very deliberate, very intentional choice made. Maybe it was made early in the game, during the dating stage, when it was obvious that they’d picked a good one. Maybe it was made six months after the wedding, when she balked when confronted with something that might tip the equality scale. Maybe it was made ten years into the marriage, when she was presented with an amazing work opportunity that put his on pause. Maybe it’s made every single day, when she remembers to advocate for what she wants, what she needs, and is prepared to insist on it, even if that means the conversation will be hard, the topic rejected, or that it might cause ripples in the relationship.
if you don’t preserve you, who will?
Ultimately, insisting on time to be alone is crucial for women—but it’s not something that every woman can attain easily. A lot of us have very real, very intense journeys (like being worried about where our family’s next meal will come from, or trying to figure out how to pay rent when there’s no money coming in, or navigating a humanitarian disaster with children in tow). But if you have the space to ask for time alone, I think you should insist on it regularly, weekly. Daily if it’s realistic!
I have personally done the most growth as a woman when I have had many opportunities to find out who I am at various ages, alone, without worrying about my child for a second, without being concerned about my husband’s job, or about money, or about the pets, or about the playdates for the weekend, or the doctor’s appointments, or what’s going on with our families, or… any of it. Just me, myself, and whatever book I’m reading that week. Or a nail technician. Or Terrace House. And obviously, taking this time can feel harder if you have tremendous responsibility or a whole passel of kids, but in those cases, it’s even more important to ask yourself a question: Is this impossible to actually attain, or am I just scared to ask for it?
I’ve spent the past few months being my family’s sole income provider, and I’ve never been more stressed out in my life. And lately, I insist on this time because I know that I need it. I insist on it because it matters. And I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter for anyone who isn’t a woman, too—in fact, I strongly feel that EVERYONE needs it—but I believe that for women? It’s vital, and it’s unfortunately not easily given. While men are often socialized to expect to have their own time by default (and many women in hetero relationships are socialized to give men this time by default), I don’t think women articulate this need—let alone ask for and take it—nearly as frequently. You don’t necessarily even need to leave your house. You just need to have a little time inside your own head, thinking your own thoughts, wondering about your own self.
At least… that’s what I’m aiming for.
do you insist on time to yourself? how… do you do it? what advice do you have for women (and anyone!) who is struggling to ask for or demand this time? how important is it to you to have a little alone time in general?