I just bought a plane ticket for one.
I have four children, ages 3 to 9, which makes this purchase noteworthy. In a few weeks’ time I will pack a sensibly sized bag and fill it with things that belong only to me. Things that speak of a life beyond motherhood: clothes that don’t double as yoga-gear, books that can be read at will, toothpaste that isn’t fruit-flavored.
I am a stay-at-home mom and for five days I will officially be on vacation. Consider this me punching in my time card.
The average American worker is entitled to sixteen days of paid leave per year. If being a stay-at-home mom is tantamount to a full-time job, isn’t this a benefit we deserve as well? The obvious answer is yes. The reality is far murkier, both because of the nature of the “work” of parenthood and the extent to which it is valued by society.
A child-free holiday, regardless of the parent’s employment status, is not without controversy. Especially when the parents take it together. Eight out of 10 people, according to one survey, say this is not something they could do with a clear conscience. In a poll in Parents Magazine, 30 percent of respondents were prepared to go further and suggest there is an element of moral reprehensibility to vacationing with your partner but not your baby. In today’s era of intensive, all-in parenting, where there seems to be an expectation that a child’s perceived needs trump its parents’ at any cost, a trip sans enfants can take on an undeniable sheen of selfishness.
There is a paradox here, though. We talk ad nauseam about the exhaustion and manifold difficulties inherent in raising young children. Jennifer Senior has analyzed it painstakingly in her bestseller All Joy and No Fun, concluding that early parenthood is the phase during which people are, in fact, “least happy.” And yet, we are more hard-pressed than ever to give ourselves a proper break: the current climate of parenting tells us that enjoying extended time away from our offspring is indulgence at best, neglect at worst.
Is this more or less true for a stay-at-home mom? On the one hand, because I am with my kids for so much of the year, I probably feel less guilty than a working mother about taking the occasional break from them. On the other hand, young children tend to be very dependent on their primary caregivers, usually in a way that is unbalanced vis-a-vis the other parent. At almost 4-years-old, my youngest are still outraged on the odd night I am not there and Daddy has to put them to bed.
This kind of reliance (or over-reliance) on stay-at-home moms might just prove the point that vacations are particularly important for them. Not only to reinforce the idea—to their children as well as to themselves— that they are human beings with interests and identities of their own. But also to allow the kids the opportunity to experience life without the “default” parent, to witness their own resilience. As Katrin Schumann, author of Mothers Need Time-Outs Too, says in this context: “Parenting and birth order research shows that a little benign neglect turns children into independent, out-of-the box thinkers…Kids need space, too.”
My decision to take a holiday without my children is often met by the reaction: “Oh, I could never do that!”
Some of the nay-sayers think it is wrong full stop. For others the desire is there but the ability is compromised, either by external factors such as a partner unwilling to “babysit” or by internal ones such as guilt or anxiety. Perhaps this is not surprising. According to a recent study, America has developed a “work martyr complex.” Despite feeling “overwhelmed,” 35 percent of workers don’t take enough leave because they believe no one will be able to step in and do their job while they’re gone. And 22 percent fear being seen as replaceable.
I understand the mother version of this martyr complex well. I didn’t leave my first child overnight until necessity dictated it: he was 26 months old and I was in the hospital birthing his baby brother. Up until that point, I would have said I couldn’t possibly have left him, because he needed me, because nobody, including my husband, was able to care for him like I did. But really it wasn’t that I didn’t want time away. It was that I had created a situation where I was too attached and too controlling to feel comfortable taking it.
The longer I spent on the job, however, the more acute the symptoms of fatigue became and the less resistant I grew to the break that was clearly in my best interest. I left the second child at 18 months old to attend a close friend’s wedding; I left the third and fourth at 14 months old to celebrate surviving their babyhood. Since then, I make sure every year to plan some sort of trip that is solely about me. And I expect my husband to accommodate it, as I do his travel. The average worker’s holiday lasts just over four days. Don’t stay-at-home parents need a comparably unbroken period of annual leave?
For as we all know, it is the relentlessness of childcare, the 24 hour cycle of it, that grinds you down. Two or three nights away—it doesn’t matter where you go—can recharge your batteries and rejig your priorities in a way that a two- or three-hour visit to the salon cannot. The point of a vacation generally is to offer a sustained respite from the stress of the activity that takes up the majority of your time—so that you can return to it with the potential to do better. Such respite is even more crucial to one’s overall well-being when the work is of an intense, round-the-clock caliber, as parenting undoubtedly is.
When I get back from this trip, my children will be as thrilled to see me as I am them. There will be no damage to their little psyches, no trauma or long-term sense of desertion. They will regale me with details of what they’ve done in my absence, delighted by the gaps in my knowledge, and ask me questions about what I’ve done in theirs. They will hug me extra tight, but in a day or two they will forget I was ever gone. The best part, though, is that I won’t.
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