The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American mothers need a break. But is the ‘momcation’ a solution to their problems or a symptom?

(Alla Dreyvitser/The Washington Post)
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Elizabeth Haynes recites the details with all the longing and specificity of a woman describing a forbidden fantasy: First, says the 33-year-old mom from Colorado, she checks into a fancy hotel and heads straight to the spa, where she relaxes in the sauna before a massage. Later, she orders a pizza to her room and eats in bed while binge-watching Netflix, then takes a long bath with a glass of wine perched on the rim of the soaking tub. She’s asleep by 8:30 p.m., and (this is the best part, she says) she doesn’t wake up for 12 hours, an indulgence that would be impossible at home with her husband and 2-year-old son. This is the cherished routine she enjoys twice a year, on her birthday and Mother’s Day. She even has a word for it.

“I can’t even tell you,” Haynes says, a few days before her January birthday, “I’ve been looking forward to this momcation for weeks.”

The “momcation,” for the uninitiated, is a temporary escape from the demands of modern motherhood. There wasn’t always a special designation for this — beyond simply “vacation” or “girls’ weekend” or “please leave me alone for an hour.” But in a society driven by catchy social media crazes, “momcation” references have increasingly saturated Instagram feeds and parenting blogs. There are listicles suggesting destinations for your next momcation or citing the telltale signs that you need one; there are Facebook groups and hashtagged posts on Instagram with moms posed happily in bathing suits on scenic beaches.

A momcation might mean a hiking trip with friends or a solo day trip to a spa; it could be a quick overnight at your sister’s place across town, or a week-long escape at a resort across an ocean. But no matter the place or price tag, the momcation is always presented as a necessary act of self-care, a way to reclaim a sense of autonomy, a correction — however fleeting — of an underlying imbalance.

In concept, this is surely something any mother deserves, especially in a country where married working moms spend five more hours per week on child care, and seven more hours per week on household chores compared with married working dads, according to the Pew Research Center. Among heterosexual partnerships, mothers are most often the ones tasked with the behind-the-scenes labor of managing a family: scheduling pediatrician appointments, keeping track of a growing kid’s pants size, planning meals. (Single moms, meanwhile, do everything themselves.) Throw in myriad societal hurdles — income inequality, a dearth of affordable child care and health care, sexism in the workplace, paltry parental leave policies — and who could argue against the need for relief?

But the ascent of a sassy buzzword also raises questions — about who can actually afford a momcation and why this escape feels so urgently necessary in the first place. What does it mean when an act of self-preservation is branded as something that only moms need and only certain moms get to experience? The burgeoning trend hasn’t gone unnoticed by travel agencies, hotels and spas, which might suggest a market responding to the demands of consumers — or maybe just capitalism masquerading as empowerment: You go, girl! . . . to Bora Bora, where seven-night “Magical Momcation” packages (complete with spa treatments and sunset-gazing on a catamaran) start at $8,900.

American mothers face real problems. Is a momcation a solution, or just another symptom?

Haynes, a stay-at-home mom, says she's grateful for the popularity of the word "momcation" because it's a validation: This is an actual thing, and other moms are doing it, and it's okay for you to do it, too.

“There is so much guilt and pressure that comes with being a mom,” she says. “I needed my family and my friends to tell me it was okay to leave for 24 hours and to go focus on myself. So I think the semantics of ‘momcation’ are actually kind of helpful, because I think there are a lot of women who need that same permission to step away, because you know somebody is going to judge you for doing it regardless.”

Once the baby comes, moms do more, dads do less around the house

Ingrid Chen McCarthy, 39, agrees that having a dedicated term for this phenomenon might help some women feel empowered to ask for the break they need. She used the word “momcation” to describe her first getaway after her second child was born, when she struggled with postpartum anxiety and her husband and her mom gave her the gift of two nights at a resort hotel near their home in Greensboro, N.C., for the Chinese new year (McCarthy is Taiwanese American). Her husband, whom McCarthy describes as a dedicated partner, also takes time for himself.

“I don’t mind that the ‘momcation’ thing has come into vogue, because I think it’s something more women should be able to do,” she says. “But I also totally recognize that it’s a place of privilege for me to be able to do it, on multiple levels.”

My wife and I swapped traditional parenting roles. It’s been harder than we expected.

To the extent that the rise of the word “momcation” signals a realization — that mothers deserve time to themselves, to engage with other aspects of their identities — it seems like progress. But only if the trend leads to an interrogation of the reasons these women so desperately need a reprieve in the first place, says Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.”

“I worry it obscures the problem,” she says. “Highlighting self-care for women is a wonderful thing. But calling it a ‘momcation’ suggests that it’s an exception rather than the rule. So for 362 days a year you give your all, and three days a year you focus on yourself? That’s insufficient to me.”

(Meanwhile, there’s no viral hashtag for men who take time away for themselves; a golf trip is just a golf trip. “You would never see #dadcation trending,” Collins says.)

There are actual, systemic solutions, she notes: “Thirty days of paid vacation — that is the standard in other Western industrialized countries,” she says. “Why don’t we devote our time and energy to campaigning for a federal minimum of vacation days, for all workers, men and women, so that everybody has the ability to navigate work and family in a way that feels a little less insane?”

But in the absence of societal support, the stress of motherhood is more readily commodified.

“The idea that you can turn to the market to provide these solutions, by purchasing services or taking trips — that benefits companies more than women,” Collins says.

It also means some mothers are left out entirely.

“Low-income moms and single moms are least likely to have access to paid vacation days, and they don’t necessarily have other folks to rely on to take over when they do need a break,” Collins says. “So in my mind the ‘momcation’ reinforces class divides, and racial divides, too, because race and class are so connected in terms of inequality in the U.S. All moms deserve a break from the day-to-day grind.”

There are also those moms who enjoy taking a momcation or are considering a momcation but refuse to call it a momcation.

Alex Riguero, a 37-year-old mom from Los Angeles who is mulling a getaway before the arrival of her second child in June, finds the term itself too twee and trivial: “Ugh, someone needs to run that word by a branding exec. It sounds awful,” she says. “I understand the concept of ‘momcation,’ but I think that word cutesifies the real psychological need for self-care when your life is overstressed.”

Darlene DiFrischia, 42, a recently divorced mom from Greeley, Colo., who went on a five-day solo trip to Venice Beach, Calif., in November, said “momcation” singles moms out unnecessarily. “I hate the word ‘momcation’ the way I hate the word ‘man cave,’ ” she says. Privacy, balance, alone time — those are basic human needs, she says: “Let’s hashtag ‘fair division of labor’ instead of ‘momcation.’ ”

Melissa Holland Mansika, 49, a mom to a 6-year-old boy in Colorado who relishes her trips away from her family, says she mostly loathes the idea that companies “see us as stressed-out, unhappy consumers and use this pain as a means to sell us something,” she says. “The message is that this exotic locale for a momcation or this new bottle or rosé is just what we deserve and will help us with our stress, poor us.”

Still, she’s already looking forward to her next non-momcation: “Just knowing that I have that break coming up is hugely stress-relieving,” she says. “One of my best friends calls them ‘the islands you swim to.’ ”

And while these women are away, removed from the demands of daily life, they describe feeling restored, refreshed, rebalanced. As for after:

“I’d say the feeling lasted — ” Haynes pauses to think. “Well, definitely a couple of weeks.”

“Two hours after I get home, it’s like it never happened,” Mansika says.

“A momcation is a Band-Aid,” McCarthy says.

But so long as American mothers are left to feel they’re drowning, they’ll swim to whatever island is in sight.

“This is a systemic problem that needs to be fixed,” McCarthy says. “But in the meantime, I will gladly take a momcation whenever I get a chance.”

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