One morning in September, I crept down the stairs and was greeted with an unfamiliar sound: nothing at all.
Our babysitter had just pulled out of the driveway, both kids in tow, en route to the playground. My husband was at work. I stood there in the kitchen, equal parts electrified and off-kilter. For the first time in months, I was home alone.
Around the world, as people start to head back to the office and many kids shuffle off to in-person school at least part-time, those of us left behind are emerging from the corners we’ve been holed up in trying to get some privacy all these months. We’re taking off our headphones, leaving doors ajar and trying to figure out how to seize the sudden, precious and possibly fleeting solitude.
“When it starts to happen, it’s just sort of the heavens-opening-up moment,” says Laura Vanderkam, an author who’s studied time diaries of working parents. “It almost feels scandalous that you are getting this time in a quiet house by yourself.”
You may have imagined some dramatic celebration or ceremonial rite to mark the occasion—say, dancing in your bathrobe in the living room—but it turns out freedom mostly looks like wandering the house in a delighted stupor, savoring the vestiges of pre-lockdown quotidian life. A dad of four in Indiana told me he was indulging in solo vacuuming breaks during the workday. A legal consultant in the London suburbs was reveling in his newfound ability to water the backyard without interruption.
“We’ve all been together essentially every minute of every day since January,” says Karen Grépin, a public health professor in Hong Kong who became round-the-clock tech support for her two sons during months of virtual classes and camps. On Sept. 23, after they boarded the school bus, she drank her coffee in silence.
“I was all alone,” she says. “It was very weird.”
“I felt wonderful,” she adds.
The pleasures of solitude are often a luxury for people with a lucky set of circumstances. For many, the pandemic has been marked by profound loneliness. Those who live alone have faced deepened isolation. Others remain separated from loved ones by closed borders or must keep distance from at-risk relatives in the hopes it protects them from the virus.
Still, those who have been holed up with family for months say they wouldn’t mind a break from their roommates at this point.
When Stephanie Matta’s parents decided to depart for a daylong trip to Cape Cod with friends at the end of the summer, the 25-year-old declined to join them, adding, “I love you guys, but please don’t let anything cancel your plans.”
Ms. Matta, who moved back into her childhood home in March when her graduate program in speech language pathology went online, had found herself pining for things like complete control over the thermostat or the ability to gab freely while on the phone with a friend.
“I’m always wondering, can someone hear me right now?” she says.
For nine hours at the end of August, when the answer was a resounding no, Ms. Matta blasted music from the Broadway show “Hamilton,” singing at the top of her lungs. She claimed the comfiest spot on the couch. And she left her dishes in the sink for an hour.
“It just felt freeing,” she says. “I can live however I want for the whole day.”
Even 15 minutes of alone time can have a calming effect, says Thuy-vy T. Nguyen, an assistant professor at England’s Durham University who studies solitude. Her research finds that time by ourselves leads to a drop in positive and negative emotional states of arousal, from the buzzy energy you feel at a concert to anger and anxiety. The result is generally relaxation, though sometimes boredom can creep in too. On our own, there are fewer stimuli and no social expectations.
That might explain why Sarah O’Donnell, an auditor and mother of two in New Jersey, felt empowered to keep a whole Snickers to herself while she was home alone for the first time since March.
“I finally realized I was free to go get my sneaky bar of chocolate, and I wasn’t going to share it with anyone,” she says.
Over the previous months, her days had been a blur of parenting and work.
“My only quiet time would be getting on the Peloton bike and having someone shout at me,” she says. Now she curled up on her back deck, chocolate in hand, feeling no guilt.
Reminders abound that these peaceful interludes could vanish at any time. In Israel, across Europe and in New York City, restrictions on businesses and movement are rolling out again. And even in places where schools remain open, plans feel precarious.
Kelly-jayne Smith, a 48-year old single mother in the British coastal town of Clacton-on-Sea, spent a blissful recent evening in her empty house, eating her favorite Chinese takeout order and watching an entire movie without pausing once. Three days later, her youngest daughter landed home from her recently reopened school with a slight fever.
Of the prospect of more alone time, Ms. Smith says: “It doesn’t look promising.”
That’s part of what froze me in place that recent morning—a disbelief that this could really hold, a bracing for the sudden return of noise and company. What if the kids forgot their snack cups? Was my husband planning to swing by the house for lunch?
Then I remembered my own mother, who for my entire girlhood hosted an annual Champagne toast on the first day of school where neighborhood parents would celebrate their kids’ departures. Carpe diem.
I retrieved a cookie dough ball from my personal stash, hidden in the bowels of the freezer. I turned on Taylor Swift, and turned it louder. Before I knew it, I was dancing around the kitchen, joyfully and terribly. Oh well. No one was watching.
You’ve Got the House to Yourself. Now What?
* Have a plan: Many people don’t deal with empty time well, Prof. Nguyen says. Have a goal and loose agenda for your solo stretch. That way you can look forward to it and avoid falling into worry and rumination when things are quiet.
* Put down that phone: “You can look at Instagram when the kids are tugging you to go get apple juice,” Ms. Vanderkam says. Use this time to dive deeper into something that requires full concentration, like reading a book.
* Set yourself up for success: Pick an activity you’re interested and competent in, Prof. Nguyen says. Now isn’t the time to try something super difficult—you don’t want to come away feeling like a failure.
* Establish boundaries: Tell those you live with you’re taking some time alone and try to have them fully leave the house, if possible, for a set period. That way you’re not constantly bracing for someone to walk in.
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at firstname.lastname@example.org
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