Stoking the inner fire

When parents don’t take time for themselves, it can lead to stress and burnout

A red-breasted nuthatch eats from Deanna Wright’s hand_Photo Credit Bonnie Thompson

While researching the flora and fauna of west Ottawa about 10 years ago, photographer Deanna Wright was surprised to learn just how many bird species live in the area. Fascinated by their colours and variety, a passion for birdwatching was born.


“For so many people, it’s exciting just to put up a feeder and see what shows up in their backyard,” she said. “But I love going out on trips into the woods, and learning more about their calls, and where certain birds can be found. I like studying habitat and weather and everything that affects them to learn more about how to find them. For me, this makes it more exciting, especially when you find something cool as a result of paying attention to these details.”


She loves to bird by herself — “there’s a major amount of peace to be found out in nature on your own,” she says — but since becoming a mother seven years ago to her son, Declan, she’s brought her family into her hobby. “That’s fun too, it’s just a bit different. I’m focused more on cultivating my kid’s love of nature instead of doing it for myself.”


She doesn’t spend as much time on it as she would like. “Mostly it’s stolen in other moments,” she said — during walks in her neighbourhood, and while riding as a passenger in a vehicle.


It’s a familiar story. Parents are known for having precious little time to themselves. But according to local mental health professionals, adults need time alone to stoke their own fires away from the kids and even their partners.


“Taking personal time allows individuals to give themselves and others their best version,” says Samantha Virgo, a registered occupational therapist and psychotherapist at Ottawa’s Breathe Wellness Studio. “Investing time for oneself allows us to reset, refuel and recuperate physically, mentally and emotionally. The results are beneficial for everyone. [It] is just as necessary and essential as fueling your car with gas when it is empty or putting your oxygen mask on before putting it on others in the event of an airplane crash.”


“Solitude generates creativity, offers you mental and physical rest, promotes self-discovery, and as a result, it fosters inner growth,” says Brenda Caron, a registered psychotherapist at Brenda Caron Psychotherapy. “I strongly believe that having some alone time is profoundly beneficial for people’s mental health and can even prevent burnout.” 


Such is the case for Wright, who always returns from birdwatching a little more relaxed. “I’m an overthinker, and I deal with anxiety, and having something to focus on helps to quiet some of the thoughts that otherwise cause stress. When you’re around kids, especially young kids, the focus is generally always on them,” says Wright. “Sometimes it’s nice to be able to step into my own space and not worry about whether he’s hungry or what he’s up to.”


This is not an uncommon thought. The need of some parents to constantly engage their children may give the kids more opportunities to learn, but it can also add to the pressures on the parents. Caron’s response to this is to “let your children play and take some time for yourself.” This benefits the kids as well. “It has been demonstrated through various research that children develop significant life skills through free play and downtime such as creative thinking, self-reflection, emotional expression, and a stronger sense of self.”


Relaxation does not have to be complicated, or an all-day affair. Self-care can be incorporated into your day-to-day routine, so it becomes a habit and is sustainable, says Virgo. “How people spend their time is unique to their own individual likes and needs. Some might need to sit and relax, and others may read a book, play golf, bake, take walks, do yoga, garden, or listen to a podcast.”


Jill Paulin’s “me time” is the simple ritual of painting her nails, which she does once or twice a week.


“Seeing chips in my nail colour is like a visual cue that I haven’t taken time to do something for myself,” says the 34-year-old Gatineau mother of two daughters. “Seeing a fresh [manicure] that I did myself makes me so happy.”


Finch resident Mariah Little habitually pulls out a book after her two children have gone to bed. How much she reads depends on how busy she is (in 2020 — the height of the pandemic — she read 214 books).  An avid reader of a wide array of genres and authors since she was very young, “I love to get lost in a good book, or to spend time learning something new and expanding my mind,” Little says.

Mariah Little loves to curl up with a book_Photo Credit Scarlett Little


Since becoming a parent, she’s found it to be a stress reliever, as well. “It’s good to have something for yourself, something to look forward to,” she says. “Sometimes, as a parent, you don’t always have the ability to take enough time for yourself. It can feel like everything is building up. Finding even five minutes for yourself is always a nice moment.” 


Every morning, government employee Danielle Woodland exercises for an hour, a habit she started during the pandemic. If her children wake up during this time, they know it’s mom’s time, said the Cumberland-area resident.


Sometimes, this me time can unintentionally turn into a business, as it did for Bonnie Thompson.

onnie Thompson with her crochet versions of Bernie Sanders and Bob Ross_Photo Courtesy Bonnie Thompson


The Carleton Place mother of two only learned to crochet four years ago, but her amigurumi — a Japanese term most commonly used to describe small animals or items crocheted from yarn — has become a welcomed obsession, keeping her both sane and up all hours of the night. Having a hobby is important, she says, “because it can help you regroup and reset.”


Not that it’s all about relaxation. Depending on the project she is working on, Thompson’s hobby can also be challenging, or frustrating. Although her hobby has since evolved into a business — her designs are available at and at The Craft Witch in Smiths Falls and Little Love’s Co. in Carleton Place — “it’s still an enjoyable thing.”


Ottawa-based visual designer Milusha Petrica, also pursues the arts in her downtime and sells her children’s illustrations, art prints and watercolours on at and @milushadesign on Instagram. She also dabbles in interior design, painting on her walls, and in fashion, having exclusively thrifted her entire wardrobe for the past four years. She posts her looks on Instagram at @everydaymilusha. “Anything in the way of creativity makes me feel at peace,” she says. “I enjoy being completely wrapped up in painting, designing and/or creating. Everyone should have something that brings them true contentment.”

Milusha Petrica art_Photo Courtesy Milusha Petrica

When people don’t take time for themselves, it can lead to chronic stress, pain, illness, and burnout, says Virgo. “Parents are often not able to recognize that they are in this constant stress state because they are living day to day, moment by moment in survival mode… We justify and normalize being in this chronic stress state and forget what it feels like to be in a relaxed state.”


Caron has also seen it in her private practice, “where people hit this wall and burn out. Many of them will initially claim that they did not see it coming. However, through pausing and self-reflection in session, they discover and can clearly identify the early signs and the slow deterioration of their mental health and even physical health. I am a strong advocate with my clients about the importance of carving some alone time to create the space to connect with themselves… many adults, especially parents, give so selflessly. My motto has always been, ‘you cannot give what you do not have.’”



Stress and the pandemic

The pandemic has worsened stress for many over the past year. Samantha Virgo lists the social isolation, job and income loss, difficulties and meeting financial obligations (and for parents, having juggle work, childcare and schooling needs) associated with COVID-19 as major contributing factors affecting mental health and well-being.


But there is light at the end of the tunnel.


“Mental health may improve, to some degree, over the next few months with vaccine efforts and reduced lockdowns,” says Virgo. “However, the level of stress caused by the pandemic’s long-lasting impact on many people’s lives as well as the ongoing day-to-day challenges are not expected to change. The need for, and importance of, self-care will be beneficial and potentially necessary on an ongoing basis.”