Dear Dr. Claire,
I’m 40, and I have two kids, ages 3 and 6. I work full-time at a career that is fulfilling, although big changes at my workplace for the past six months have led me to feel stressed out. I used to do a couple of things for fun: I sang in a choir with a couple of friends, twice a month. I used to enjoy knitting while watching a video or listening to a podcast, but haven’t done so in about a year. Now I don’t go to choir, and I haven’t picked up my knitting needles in months. In my leisure time (9-10 pm and lunch breaks at work), I usually browse the net, sometimes reading articles, sometimes watching videos, but never feeling really good about it. Sometimes at lunch at work I walk and do an errand, but I often feel like I don’t want to see or talk to anyone. Weekends are a mix of getting the kids outside to burn energy (playgrounds mostly) and getting the endless chores done. My job is mostly working with the public, mostly children, by the way, so maybe it is no surprise that I crave a bit of alone time. My husband and I don’t go on dates very often, but I feel like our marriage is okay. I cry almost every day, feel overwhelmed because of work, but I wouldn’t say I’m depressed. I had post-partum depression after my first child was born, and it took me about 18 months to feel back to myself again. It didn’t happen (thank goodness) after the birth of my second child. Why do you think I can’t seem to have a good time doing the things that used to be fun? A friend said that she didn’t have any personal interests for years while her children were growing up so I could just accept that this is how it is for this time in my life, but the thought of being unable to have fun for the next 15 years truly is depressing.
– Heather, In Search of Fun
You certainly have a lot going on; caring for your children, working full-time and managing a household. It sounds like there is limited time left to have fun, focus on self-care, and relax. On top of the demands of raising a family, your workplace used to be a place of fulfillment and, as of late, has been stressful and overwhelming. All of these influences add up, it’s no wonder you’re stressed, overwhelmed and have little energy left to do things you once enjoyed.
I strongly disagree with your friend, I do think it’s possible and necessary to have personal interests and fun while raising a family. I think the challenge for parents is how make time for hobbies, interests, friends, and enjoyment. Let’s start by exploring your question a little more. You asked: Why do you think I can’t seem to do things that used to be fun? There is no simple answer to why, but, I can give you some possible reasons and provide suggestions to help you.
First, your life seems out of balance. Most of your waking hours are spent being productive — whether at work, caring for your children or managing your home. When you do have free time, lunch breaks and before bed, you mostly spend your time in passive, sedentary activities like surfing the internet. You do mention on occasion during lunch breaks you will run an errand or go for a walk, which is great, but I would suggest making this more of a routine. It is essential for your mental health to use your time more intentionally and to create a balance between work, rest and play, or doing fun things in life.
During the evening, instead of surfing the internet or watching videos, I want you to spend time doing something that brings you enjoyment. You could start knitting again, call a friend from the choir or find a new activity to do. I don’t think you have to stop surfing the internet. However, I do think you need to limit the time on the internet and vary the activities you do from 9-10 pm each night. Most people have a hard time coming up with activities when they’re tired so late in the day, so the television, computer, and the internet is often a default activity. Spend time on your morning commute planning what you will do in the evening before bed. If you need some ideas of activities, please check out this link called 55 Ways to Cope with Stress.
While you don’t feel like you are depressed, you do mention some concerns including loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, low motivation, crying, and feeling overwhelmed. There is a mild form of depression called dysthymic depression, where an individual has many symptoms of depression but can continue to function well in many areas of life. I often give clients this analogy: a major depressive episode is like having the flu, it knocks you out making day to day life and functioning difficult or non-existent. Dysthymic depression is like having allergies, there is agitation and discomfort going through daily activities, but one can function, just not fully. So it’s possible to have a mild form of depression and still continue to work and care for your family, but the motivation for activities and “joy” of living is diminished. You may want to consider consulting with a physician and/or seek support from a mental health professional if these symptoms continue to persist and you are unable to make behavior changes to improve your mood, energy, and motivation.
During your lunch hour, instead of running errands and being “productive” focus on caring for yourself. Go for a walk, sit and read a book, meditate or simply observe nature and your surroundings. You may want to consider journaling during your lunch hour about your feelings, thoughts and reactions to work. Journaling is one way to cope with stress and improve mental health.
On the weekend, schedule time for yourself. I know it’s important to focus on family time, taking your children to the park to burn off energy and run errands, but you also need to take care of yourself. Even a few hours of time alone can replenish your energy and help you feel more rested to face work related stress.
I often hear clients say they want to feel the motivation to do activities. However, the reality is, motivation follows behavior change. So you need to schedule activities you enjoy, regardless if you have the motivation to do so. Over time, you should begin to feel the motivation to continue the activities because you’ll feel better after doing them. I’m sure you’ve heard how people often loathe exercise but continue to do so because of how they feel afterward and for the additional health benefits. The logic is the same here, schedule the activity, make it happen, and notice the changes you experience.
My final thought on the “why” you don’t feel like doing activities you once enjoyed, is because you may be experiencing job burnout. Job burnout often occurs in helping professions, and you mention you work with children. Symptoms of burnout include cynicism, exhaustion, low productivity, negative attitudes about oneself or others, and feelings of ineffectiveness and a lack of accomplishment. If left untreated, a state of burnout can lead to other mental and physical health issues. You may want to consider seeking support from a mental health professional to help you cope with work-related stress and learn about ways to increase motivation.
Finally, if your schedule permits, you may want to consider rejoining the choir. It sounds like it was an enjoyable time, and you had some friends in the group. I hope these suggestions help and that you can reconnect with old and discover new enjoyable activities and hobbies. Here are some articles that may be of help to you: