Dear Dr. Chani,
I read your previous article on personal space with great interest. I have always been sensitive to my own need for personal space. When I meet new people who stand a bit too close to me, I take a step or two backwards to keep an invisible bubble of space around me. I only enjoy hugs and kisses from my family and friends if I expect or initiate them.
Aside from needing physical space, I also need to have my own personal focus outside of home. Going to work each day gives me a welcome change from my home environment. Even if I did not need to work for the sake of my family’s financial stability, I would happily keep my job. It gives me an opportunity to leave my house each day and it is mentally stimulating and rewarding. Therefore, the current reality of my family being home all of the time is very challenging for me.
My husband and I have five wonderful children, ranging in age from 11 to 6 months old. They are delicious and have lots of energy. They need constant attention and stimulation. I understand that. Yet, how am I supposed to get the personal space that I need when they are all home all of the time?
Sometimes when I begin to get frustrated, my husband hears my tone of voice, and tells me, “Go relax in your room. I’ll take care of the kids.” On the one hand, when I hear him say this, I breathe a tremendous sigh of relief. I think to myself, “My savior has arrived! My knight in shining armor is giving me a well-deserved break.” On the other hand, I feel tremendously guilty. Sometimes I wonder if my husband thinks I am inadequate as a mother. Maybe he fears that if he does not step in to help me during the day, I will totally “lose it.” I am really not up to the task of caring for my own children all of the time?
You know how when there is a fast day, like Tisha B’Av, you count down the hours left until the end of the fast? That is what I do by mid-afternoon when I am watching my children during the day. By the fifth or sixth hour of structuring activities, making sure they get along, and giving them food and drinks, I cannot wait for my children to go to sleep. I feel bad about these thoughts.
I would love to hear your advice for how to get the personal space I need, even during these trying times. Should I feel bad about this? Am I being selfish?
Your desire for personal space, especially during this difficult time when people are at home indefinitely, is totally normal. Yet, even under usual circumstances, when you are able to maintain your routine, your need for personal space is valid.
As you describe, personal space has a broader meaning beyond the physical space that surrounds you. The simple meaning of personal space is the physical area around you that serves as a buffer zone between you and others. It helps you feel safe and calm.
Yet, your need for personal space also means that you desire intangible “personal space.” This concept of personal space includes opportunities to explore your own interests, advance your skills, and enjoy “alone” time.
For example, many of my clients have expressed a need for personal space in response to receiving a deluge of texts or whatsapp messages from their partners. Sometimes they get overwhelmed by the frequency of the messages. It becomes too much for them to consume, too much to respond to .Even though it is intangible, they can almost feel physically suffocated by the tsunami of texts. One fiance once threatened to break off her engagement because she could not handle having to respond to so many text messages throughout her day.
You might like to carve away personal space to just retreat to your inner world in the recesses of your own mind. Sometimes you may need to “just be,” without having to interact with anyone. A simple comment or noise during that time can feel unsettling to you.
Every person’s need for personal space is different. There is no right or wrong amount of personal space that someone needs. This is true whether you are an adult or a child. This is valid whether you are a couple who are married or dating. You are not being selfish and you are not inadequate as a mother because you long for more personal space.
The first step to help you get the personal space you need is for you to be aware that it is healthy for you to have this need. In fact, many research studies on work productivity have found that when you reduce the hours you work, and allow yourself a greater balance of personal time vs. work, you actually work better. Many people do not allow this space to themselves with the knowing compliant, “I know I should. I just don’t have the time.” They might even add, “Do you know what my life is like?!”
The research suggests to the contrary. If you imagine being a stay-at-home mother as your current primary job, then this research implies that you will be a better wife and mother if you set aside some time each day to be alone and recharge your batteries.
So how can you carve out personal time for yourself each day? Focus on quality instead of quantity. Ask yourself, “What experiences strengthen me?” Think about experiences and activities that nourish you physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually. You might set aside time to rest, take a bath, exercise, prepare your favorite smoothie, or call a loved one. You might choose to read, listen to a lecture, or pray. Of course, you may simply want to laugh at the latest viral video or meme.
You should not wait until you get frustrated, exhausted, or resentful, to the point that your husband recognizes that you need a break. This means you only give yourself personal space as a reactive response to reaching your limit. A reactive approach to meeting your need for personal space reinforces your feelings of inadequacy and guilt.
It is best to take a proactive approach. Share your need for personal space with your husband. Describe to him what you have noticed about yourself in the past in terms of personal space. Detail some activities you would like to pursue. Explain to him why this is important to you, and how it will make you stronger and more positive. Brainstorm together how to set aside this precious time for yourself each day. Partnering with your husband to address this can increase your connection and enhance your relationship.
Be kind to yourself by accepting your need for personal space and proactively pursuing ways to fill this need. You will emerge with greater patience, resilience and effectiveness because of it.
Wishing you health and happiness,