I just bought a plane ticket for one.
I have four children, ages 3 to 9, which makes this purchase noteworthy. A few weeks from now, I will pack a sensibly sized bag and fill it with things that belong only to me. Things that represent a life beyond motherhood: clothes that don't double as yoga gear, books that won't be read out loud, toothpaste that isn't fruit-flavoured.
I am a stay-at-home mum, and for five days I will officially be on vacation. Consider this me punching out my time card.
The average American worker is entitled to 16 days of paid leave per year. If being a stay-at-home parent is a full-time job, isn't this a benefit we deserve as well? The obvious answer is yes. The reality is far murkier, 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, said they couldn't vacation without their children and keep a clear conscience. In a US Parents Magazine poll of readers, 30 percent of respondents said it's not OK for new parents to get away with their partners but not their babies. In today's era of intensive, all-in parenting, when there seems to be an expectation that a child's perceived needs trump its parents', a trip sans enfants can seem undeniably selfish.
There is a paradox here, though. We talk ad nauseam about the exhaustion and manifold difficulties of raising young children. Jennifer Senior analysed 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: Extended time away from our offspring is seen as an indulgence at best, neglect at worst.
Is this more or less true for a stay-at-home mum? 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 would when I take the occasional break from them. On the other hand, young children tend to be very dependent on their primary caregivers, in a way that is unbalanced with regard to the other parent. At almost 4 years old, my twins 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 mums 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 let the kids experience life without the default parent around, to witness their own resilience. As Katrin Schumann, a co-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 with the reaction: "Oh, I could never do that!"
Some of the naysayers think it is wrong, full stop. For others the desire is there but the ability is compromised, either by the guilt or anxiety they would feel for taking off or by a partner who is unwilling to watch the kids solo. 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 want to take leave because they believe no one will be able to step in and do their jobs 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 it was absolutely necessary: He was 26 months old, and I was in the hospital birthing his baby brother. Until that point, I would have said that 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. It wasn't that I didn't want time away; rather 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 was. Clearly, a break was in my best interest. I left my second child at 18 months old to attend a close friend's wedding; I left the third and fourth at 14 months to celebrate surviving their babyhood. Since then, every year I make sure 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 US worker's holiday lasts just over four days. Don't stay-at-home parents need a comparable period of annual leave?
For as we all know, it is the relentlessness of child care, the 24-hour cycle of it, that grinds parents down. Two or three nights away - it doesn't matter where you go - can recharge your batteries and readjust your priorities in a way that a two- or three-hour visit to the salon cannot. The point of a vacation is to get a sustained respite from the stress that takes up the majority of your time, so that you can return with the potential to do better. Such respite is even more crucial to a person's overall well-being when the work is of an intense, round-the-clock calibre, as parenting undoubtedly is.
When I get back from this trip, my children will be as thrilled to see me as I will be 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 the adventure I've been on.
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.