The Lunch Break: Parenthood’s Most Underrated Hour

IMG_0764 When I became a mother, I had no idea how many things I had previously taken for granted. Like my lunch break. That simple hour in the middle of the day during which you sit, eat, talk, read a magazine, catch up on phone calls…maybe you even DO LUNCH with friends once in a while. That hour which, before becoming a parent, did not require you to wear noise-canceling headphones to preserve what hearing you still have left. Five and a half years into motherhood (a month or so ago), I realized I had not taken a proper lunch break in over half a decade. WTF? How could things get this bad? Don’t get me wrong-  it’s not that I don’t eat lunch.  It’s not that I don’t take breaks.  I eat.  I take breaks.  Just not in the middle of the day.  Not when I’m at work or at home with my kids.  That midday break is darn near impossible to make happen when you have young children.  It gets last place.  Well, last place right before Mom herself. The lunch break of the typical working parent I know goes like this: grab a sandwich.  Eat it while returning 6 text messages about carpools, permission slips, groceries, the strep outbreak at preschool, and maybe, if you’re nursing, while also balancing the flanges attached to bottles into which you are pumping fresh milk.  Errands to run?  Totally out of pull-ups back at home?  Don’t wanna hit Target at 5pm with two toddlers?  Most working moms and dads I know will choose to squeeze this errand into the “lunch break” whenever possible, if they are lucky enough to get one. The lunch break of the Stay-At-Home-Parent?  What lunch break? At work or at home, where is the “break” in this Lunch Break of the modern American parent? There isn’t one. Why have we all forgotten how important it is? I love my kids, and I love my work.  I feel fortunate to have healthy, loving, fascinating children (who sometimes give each other massages), and work that is fulfilling and exciting. GnLmassage Really, I shouldn’t be complaining.  But I know I’m not alone as a parent in feeling overwhelmed and wishing I had a Pause button. Right? Two books I’ve read and loved recently, “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink” by Katrina Alcorn and “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” speak to this core issue. Our culture does not support parents well enough. Whether a parent is working for pay or not (we all know parenting is hard work!), most American moms and dads feel stretched thin. Time that is BOTH kid-free and work-free is hard to come by.  Sure, there is the blessed 90 minutes (2 hours on a good night!) after they’re asleep before my own bedtime, but I have found that kid-free time when I’m brain-dead from a long day is just not the same as when I’m sharp and the sun is still shining. In an effort to make positive change in my own life, I’ve decided to start taking a lunch break every single day. I’m trying to emphasize the “break” part. Whether I’m home with my kids or at my place of work, I am trying (*trying*) to protect one hour a day during which I’m not doing work and also not doing mundane household or child-related tasks. When I am home with my children for lunch, I look at the lunch break as a time to eat together and then have Quiet Time.  My daughter still naps, and my son loves having sister-free time with me and/or his Dad.  We eat.  We talk.  We play Footsie. When I’m at work, I try to spend an hour taking an actual break from work. It’s amazing how the simple act of putting my feet up on the couch or desk tells my brain We’re Resting Now. Also amazing is how hard it is to stop myself from puttering around the house picking up stray toys, dirty socks, bills, or from starting to prep dinner, fold laundry, note how dirty the bathroom floor is and choose to be irritated by it yet also ignore it…Daughter napping, son happy crafting?  House quiet?  Hurry, go balance the checkbook! This is what I’m trying to resist. It’s been shockingly hard to break out of my pattern of rushing to Get Shit Done during the one hour a day when I’m not treating patients, running my clinic on an administrative level, or home with my kids. But I know it’s important for my mental, emotional and physical health to take that lunch break.  It’s also important for my children to see me taking that break, and to share it with me, when we’re home together. If I’m at the office, my new “lunch break” might include any of the following: Walk around the block of my office building.  The jacarandas are blooming, and birds never fail to take their lunch hour loudly, which is lovely to hear during a solo walk. Visit the farmer’s market, which is a mere one mile from my office building, every Thursday. IMG_0919 Sit and meditate for 20 minutes, then write in my journal. Catch up on one of the books I’m reading.  (I feel like an overachiever if I get to read more than two pages a day before being interrupted or falling asleep.) Sit down and eat my lunch with both feet on the floor.  Resist the urge to do something else simultaneously. Once I took a hike.  Not rest, per se, but a different, invigorating kind of break. If I’m at home for my lunch break, that usually means there’s kids with me.  Sometimes we take our lunch break at one of the local gardens. IMG_0943 Sometimes we all sit around the table and light candles and for about 3 minutes, it’s nice and quiet. IMG_0461 According to the classical texts in Chinese Medicine, it is said that when eating, you should not do anything else. Just eat; chew your food well.  Don’t watch TV, read, check your phone, Facebook, catch up on patient charts (who, me?), or drive a car. That’s a tall order for most Westerners.  Just eat?  How boring! Let me explain. In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach organ systems are the center of our digestive system, and the Liver organ system helps out with digestion in its role as Traffic Cop of Qi (maintaining the smooth flow of Qi throughout the body).  When we are thinking too much (reading, staring at a screen), the Stomach Qi goes up instead of down (leading to heartburn, acid regurgitation, after-meal headaches).  If we are stressed out while eating, the Liver can’t keep the Qi in check – in addition to being the Traffic Cop of Qi Flow, the Liver is also in charge of metabolizing Stress – and so digestion goes haywire. I have understood this intellectually for about 14 years, but the New Yorker in me, who is used to doing 143 things at once, has always found it hard to JUST EAT.  Until now, when I am forcing myself to take a one hour lunch break, every single day, for the sake of my sanity. I will admit to you: it doesn’t happen every day.  There are days when I’m home with my kids and we all just bicker and screech until we collapse into bed. Or someone throws an entire container of raw milk down the steps to the backyard.  Followed by a water balloon. IMG_0802 You know those days, right? There are days at work when I am so behind on paperwork that I plow right through my lunch break, catching up on patient emails, phone calls, charts, pausing only to heat up my leftovers in the toaster oven and grab a fork. But I’m getting better. More days than not, I’m taking that break, even if it involves cranky children demanding water/milk/spoons/a pickle/more napkins every time I sit down. On those days, I take a deep breath, send it down to my Stomach/Spleen, and plant both feet on the floor.  I remind myself that I am modeling the value of slowing down, honoring mealtime, making a ritual out of taking a break. Eventually, it will become habit, and I’ll forget I ever went half a decade without a proper lunch break. (Post by Abigail Morgan, L.Ac, acupuncturist and owner of FLOAT: Chinese Medical Arts.  Photo Credits: all photographs by Abigail Morgan, all rights reserved.)

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