Here’s one thing I’ve learned in my two years as a mother: experiencing solitude and experiencing loneliness are not the same thing.

Before I became a mom, I frequently sought out solitude, but seldom felt lonely.

Pre-baby hammock relaxation
Pre-baby hammock relaxation

Now I sometimes feel a bit lonely but — until recently — hardly ever experience true solitude in the same way that I did before having a child.

I’ve been reading One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One by Lauren Sandler, and Sandler makes some provocative and insightful points about what we think we “know” about only children.  (I’m reading it for my Parenting Book Book Club For Parents Who Hate Most Parenting Books over at School of Smock.  Join the ongoing conversation about this book and Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us by Christine Gross-Loh!)

According to Sander, being alone is an objective state.  You may like it; you might not.  You may find being alone recharges your energy (as introverts like me do), or you may prefer to be around others.  But loneliness is different.  You’re not happy when you’re lonely.  You’re missing a connection with others.  It’s unpleasant.

In our culture, Sandler states, “We often mistake loneliness with solitude, confusing a state of grievous misery with a placid state of contentment.”

One of the main themes of the book is that only kids are not necessarily lonely at all, despite the stereotype.  They learn to be their own companions and are generally content in their own company.  They are more likely to be self-sufficient, to have a strong sense of self.    That only kid sitting by himself in the sandbox or drawing pictures without siblings may not be lonely at all, although it’s tempting to feel sorry for him.  But he might not be longing for company in the slightest.

On the other hand, motherhood can be truly lonely.  A new mom can literally never be all alone during the whole day:  surrounded by toddlers at the park, accompanied to the bathroom by her child, woken to the sounds of a screaming child over the baby monitor during the quiet first rays of morning sunlight.  But she may not feel a constant daily connection to friends or to a support system.

Solitude is about finding the time and space to have a deep relationship with yourself.  Solitude can be “down time,” moments to reconnect and recharge.

I experience solitude and peace during:

  • reading
  • walking or running
  • cooking a long meal

For me, cultivating happiness as a mom is about finding that balance: connecting with myself and with others.  Connecting enough not to feel lonely, allowing myself to be alone enough to be calm.

In One and Only, Sandler contends that only children are particularly good at this balance.  They’re skillful at forming and keeping social connections — on their own terms — but also seek and cherish time alone.

How do you find this balance?  Do you think that only kids are better at this balancing act?

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