What Is PTO (Parent’s Time Off) And Why You Need It

Fortune well July 30, 2023


What Is PTO (Parent’s Time Off) And Why You Need It

A few months ago, I struck a very important deal with my husband: I would sleep in on Saturdays and he would sleep in on Sundays. Granted, sleeping in with a soon-to-be 2-year-old typically means waking up at 8:30 or so, but it’s 100% better than the 6:30 (and sometimes 5:30) a.m. wakeup calls our daughter has become known for. So when I saw entrepreneur and dad of three Matt Ragland tweet about the concept of a family PTO (parent’s time off) plan over the weekend, I nodded in deep recognition. 

Ragland and his wife’s plan includes one night per week; a half-day weekend per month; and one full weekend day per quarter where one parent is responsible for the kids while the other parent has much-needed time to themselves.

“Parenting little kids is one of the most meaningful parts of life, but the gift of time is one of the best ways to support your spouse,” he tweeted. “We use these times to meet friends, sleep in, go camping, play golf (me), long runs (her), read and journal, or just chill. It’s hard to run life’s race on an empty tank, and these times are great ways to refuel and recharge.”

Ragland is certainly on to something. Earlier this year, the couples therapist my husband and I were seeing encouraged both of us to (a) spend more quality time together by scheduling regular date nights and (b) spend more quality time with ourselves by scheduling regular solo activities.

After all, a 2022 poll found that 42% of working mothers surveyed were diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression and a recent Calm survey reported women “take less care of their own mental health after becoming a caregiver, while men take better care of themselves.”

As such, I’ve since treated myself to a few spa days and dance classes, while my husband got haircuts and, most recently, went to a luxury watch show. We even took our therapist’s advice a step further and planned weekends away from the baby and each other—I went to Las Vegas to see Usher with my sister, and my husband went to Indianapolis for a golf trip with his college roommates. Each time, we returned with a healthy appreciation for each other and with more patience to keep up with our daughter. 

“When you have the chance, remember to schedule in time for yourself to do things that make you happy,” Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., author of How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess, a cognitive neuroscientist, mental health expert, and mom of four, previously told Fortune. “This will give you the space needed to decompress and rest, so that when you get back into parenting mode you will have more energy and won’t feel so burnt out.”

But there’s no one-size-fits-all PTO plan for each family. What works for me and Ragland may not work for you, and there will be some trial and error. To start, Leaf suggests taking some time to openly and honestly discuss your needs with your partner, as well as reflect on activities that bring you joy and allow you to recharge. Then—here comes the important part—schedule that time off. Put it on your calendar as you would an actual PTO request at work, and honor the commitment you made to yourself. Revisit and revise the plan as necessary until you find a flow that works for your family.

“For some people, it’s ‘Watch the baby while I take a bath and watch Grey’s Anatomy.’ For others, it’s coffee with a friend or a football game,” Leaf says. “You are more than just their parent; you are also someone’s child, someone’s friend, someone’s partner, and an individual with needs and desires. You deserve to do things that make you happy that don’t just involve your children. Understanding this can help you establish a balance in your life that respects yourself and your family.”

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