Mothers Must Guard Their Own Solitude

Thursday, July 27, 2017 - 5:00 pm

Mothers Must Guard Their Own Solitude

Is there anyone less alone than a mother of young children?

First, they were inside of my body. I was, quite literally, never alone for two different 9-month periods. I was not even alone inside of my own body. As we got closer and closer to birth, the sense of being inhabited became even more real. I would sit on my couch late at night and watch the surface of my belly stretch into strange shapes as one of my girls extended a limb or switched positions. Imagine your liver coming to life and getting the hiccups on a regular basis. It’s that strange.

Then they were born — the most ordinary/extraordinary separation of two beings. A wave of relief — physical, emotional, spiritual — passed through me. But was I alone again? Not at all. A newborn baby is a barnacle. An appendage. The cutest possible parasite you can imagine. The fact that she exited my body made her presence even more demanding. All of the automatic action that my body did to nurture her now had to happen via conscious attention. I have a memo on my phone where I documented my breastfeeding in the early days of my first daughter’s birth. Looking at it now makes me feel light-headed; the unceasing rhythm of it is so daunting, so heavy.

Now that first daughter is three and a half. I’ve been trying to teach her the concept of privacy — a close cousin of solitude. Sometimes when she goes into the bathroom she says, “I would like some privacy,” so we shut the door and give her some time. The other day she found me going to the bathroom and she said, “Would you like some privacy, Momma?” It was like the clouds parted and I could hear the sounds of a choir. “YES!” I said. She stepped inside the bathroom with me, shut the door behind her, and beamed at me.

Sometimes the absence of solitude in my life feels tolerable. I know it’s a season of life, fleeting and fantastic in all its own overwhelming ways. In these moments, I tuck my dreams of being alone away in some special place in my brain. These include:

  • The office with the door where I sit for hours and work uninterrupted on that memoir about generations of women and how we consciously and unconsciously influence one another’s life choices.
  • The day in a lounge chair on a beach where I read for three hours straight without moving.
  • The clawfoot bathtub in which I soak till the water goes cold.
  • The cushion that I rescue from the attic and sit on each empty morning — making good on my lifelong intention of being a person who actually meditates rather than talking about meditating.
  • The meal that I smell appreciatively before eating, then slowly consume one mindful bite at a time, the swallows of wine in between the bites…

Sometimes, those dreams chill sweetly with the promise of a future manifestation. I trust myself to protect them. I trust my children to grow and change. But sometimes, I grow dumb with longing for them now. In those moments I try to read the Sunday New York Times on the sly while “making art” with my daughter and she’s not fooled for a second: “Momma, momma, momma. This is a turtle station. It’s where the sick turtles go to get unsick. Look, Momma. Momma, momma, momma…”

You might wonder, why not rescue my endangered solitude during hours when I have paid childcare? Because I have to make money. And continue developing my professional identity. Perhaps there is no greater anxiety for a mother, or at least one with my particular temperament and family history, than the fear of becoming dependent or professionally unfulfilled. Besides, when I’m not with my girls or working, I am doing the nine million tiny, invisible things that a parent and partner does, or having breakfast at my favorite diner with my dear friend, or biking furiously in order to get to a yoga class.

Even so, I know there is no excuse. Mothers must guard their own solitude. It’s a radical act. It’s the kind of behavior shift that might seem like shallow self-help, but can actually be a profound breaking of a generational curse by which women automatically subsume their own needs and desires and end up sad or sick or bitter. Or dead. There’s that too.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women throughout history have traded their very lives for the idea that there is nothing more important than nurturing others. In some ways, I believe that. In other ways, I know that idea, unexamined, threatens my sanity and health. And maybe, to Jennifer Stitt’s point, it threatens the whole damn planet. She writes:

“Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness — and conscience — but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life.”

When women don’t take time to hear themselves think, and lead with the wisdom of that listening, we surrender to a degraded fate for the world — one where men with little capacity for solitude (not because of children, but because of terror at their own emotional interiority) rule.

Framed in this way, that clawfoot bathtub takes on urgent significance.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    Perhaps you are being too hard on yourself. Despite the very young children, you are, in fact, successfully finding time for yourself. You are going out to the diner with a friend. You are biking to yoga. You are going to work you find gratifying.
    Sometimes it can be uplifting to try on a change in perspective. If your children remain healthy, there will likely be time for everything you envision but not always at the same time! Some joys can be sweeter if they do not happen every day.
    It is not only mothers for whom not everything good in life needs to happen at once.
    You may have other options for expanding your alone time that you have not yet explored, such as cooperative childcare with neighbors. Perhaps if you spell another mother for a couple of ours each week by watching her very young children along with your own, you can secure for yourself an extra couple of hours to expand your “me” time.

  • 2cents

    Thank you for writing this. I have 2 pre-schoolers and full time job outside the home which leads to my sons spending a significant amount of time in the care of others. When I arrange time for me to have time or activities to myself it leads to intense feelings of selfishness. I am not with my children all the time shouldn’t I cherish the limited time I do have with them each day and not give that up for anything. The time is fleeting they say. Cherish every moment they say. What they forget is that in doing so it is too easy to forget who you are and become nothing more than Caleb’s mom. It doesn’t feel healthy for one aspect of my life and my relationship to one individual define everything I am.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Totally get that! Honor your instincts.

  • Rachael E

    I love to hear other experiences of women going through this stage of motherhood and the struggle to “do it all” including time for solitude, rest and/or meditation. I left the workforce 4 years ago and my 2 boys are now 7 and 5 years of age. Because of my boys having complex needs and my husband working long hours including weekends, and because we have had many failed attempts to find a suitable carer or babysitter I have found it too hard to return to the workforce to date. Some days I desperately search the career pages for a job that would fit into the little time in my week that would allow me to take a paid position and give me time off during school holidays and allow some flexibility around my family life. Other days I am content to drop the kids at school and have a less scheduled week to get all the chores and appointments done and have some catchups with friends, get some exercise in and some solitary time too. The more I witness the rush, rush, rush of friends that work and raise kids, the more I realise a less rushed pace is something that suits me and my family as this stage of my/our life. It still does not take away constant thoughts of returning to the workforce and utilising the 20 years of skills, knowledge and experience I have worked hard to gain to contribute financially, build on that skill base and reach my career potential. Even though this time in my life might be temporary it feels anything but….

    • Clara

      This is where I am, enjoying my children/ then driving me crazy and trying to figure out how/if I could develop professionally whilst still supporting my family through my presence at home.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thanks for sharing. We’re all just trying to find the path, right? I wish the options of caretaking and work didn’t feel so all or nothing some of the time. Regardless, thank you for sharing your path.

  • Linda B

    This essay seems to flow out of the author unencumbered, unedited. The last sentence is gold.

    Our children are 13 and 11, so I’ve moved beyond my quest for solitude and have arrived at a time when they need their own. It comforts me when I’ve realized they’ve snuck away from the household flow with a book or a quiet activity. It doesn’t always happen without sound. Occasionally a door is slammed, but the need is no different.

    Thank you for submitting this piece, Courtney. I love your writing. It always gives me something to reflect on in my quiet moments.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thank you so much, Linda B. It’s always such a pleasure for me to have windows into the future like this. I know every stage of parenting has its gifts and challenges. Good to remember that.

  • Clara

    Dear Courtney, thank you so much for sharing this so sensitively and sweetly. My children are 4 and 2 and it is an intense period of life where solitude can be expensive. This article moved me and reminds me of the importance to break the generational cycle of over-caring and to start caring for myself. So thank you.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thank you, Clara. Sending solidarity your way.

  • Courtney E. Martin

    That’s awesome! We have to keep sharing these stories of win-win situations.

  • Courtney E. Martin

    Thank you so much for the affirmation. Sending you healing and self-loving vibes.

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  • Gabby

    Dear Tina, an empty nest can be hard when you have poured all your love undividedly into it. It often arrives also at a time when other challenges appear, like aging parents who need your attention or health issues that bound what you can do.
    But I believe strongly that if you lead a life of going where love takes you, which it seems you chose to do, you have created a treasure you can hold to you even in the most unsettling times.
    I wish you a period now of growth and discovery and an expanded definition of yourself and your life. What I found is that it takes some time and attention to reorient, but it happens. Best wishes to you in the next steps of your life.

  • Alisa Joy

    Courtney, I believe you touched on the difficulty of being a mother and being yourself. As a mindfulness practitioner and occupational therapist working with parents and children, I feel your struggle. For me I try to share my insights on practicing mindfulness at

    I hope you get closer to your truth and find moments of solitude in each and every day – on the yoga mat, while cooking, biking, taking a bath, chewing, brushing your teeth, etc. You got this!

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