Why we should all take holidays without husband and kids

On the 17 July 2014, I took a flight from London to Pisa, alone.

It was the first time I had taken a flight with neither my husband nor my children for five years – the last time I had boarded a plane on my own was in January 2009, when I went to South Africa for work. The flight I was taking this time was to attend my younger sister’s wedding.

I had been looking forward to it. Although it’s not really how I picture my life with children, it’s just a fact that I’m pretty much a full-time mother.

I was surprised that going was not more of a wrench.

I was surprised to have to admit to people I met at the wedding that this was my first time away from my children in their lives. I did not – I do not – see myself as the sort of person who won’t leave their children behind when they go on holiday; but, in fact, that is who I am.

In term-time I have four hours off in the morning every weekday to work, but that leaves the other twenty hours of the day that are all on me. And it doesn’t matter that they’re asleep for most of it – if they wake up, it’s on me. Even if they don’t wake up in the night, in the morning it’s on me. There is no flexibility, there is no ‘let’s see how it goes’. It’s on me. I am at their beck and at their call.

So even though I was rubbing my hands together with glee at the prospect of getting away from my domestic responsibilities for five whole days, I was surprised that going was not more of a wrench. I was leaving my husband behind to be primary carer, as the wedding was too far away and too hot to take Kitty and Sam, who were then 3.5 and about 1.2, and neither was especially interested in deep, cold swimming pools, very hot weather, or burrata.

He had left me on my own for seven weeks while he worked in Canada, and then again for a four-day boys’ walking holiday (don’t ask) to Austria. I felt I had earned time away.

My husband was to be supported by a tiny team of Eastern European helpers, (each allotted specific tasks, duties spread out over the day, so that no one particular girl could quit and ruin my life); and I cited this to myself to explain why I felt so worryingly little sadness at leaving – the children were with their father, and he had help.

In addition to this, he had left me on my own for seven weeks while he worked in Canada, and then again for a four-day boys’ walking holiday (don’t ask) to Austria. I felt I had earned time away.

For two days I slept, rising occasionally to take quiet snacks on my verandah, drink massive glasses of rosé and then shrink back to my damp room to sleep for an hour in the afternoon

I arrived, after a long day of travel, at my destination somewhere in Tuscany, where the rest of my family were staying. I stumbled to my room, a dank, dark, garden flat that smelled of mosquito repellent and wet flannels, and collapsed onto the bed.

For two days I slept, rising occasionally to take quiet snacks on my verandah, escort my nieces and nephews to the pool (all years older than my children and therefore a piece of cake), drink massive glasses of rosé and then shrink back to my damp room to sleep for an hour in the afternoon, undisturbed, unobserved. Nobody knew or minded where I was or what I was doing.

I had vague, dark-blue thoughts: maybe I would be happier without children. Maybe it was all a horrible mistake. How was I ever going to return to my life of duty and woe after this? How could I return to the endless wiping and bending? How could I bear to hear the whining and crying?

The silence was deafening, crushing. I looked obsessively at photographs of my children, rang my husband three times a day, desperate for updates.

And then on the evening of the third day I was gripped in the stomach and chest by a terrible pain that I concluded could only be homesickness. I could have vomited with it, cried with it.

Up until then I had barely noticed the room I was staying in – I had simply shut my eyes and willingly lost myself in its peace and quiet. Now it was beastly, bleak, depressing. I slept badly and woke up early.

The silence was deafening, crushing. I looked obsessively at photographs of my children, rang my husband three times a day, desperate for updates.

Kitty – who does not do long-distance relationships – deigned to come to the telephone and tell me about a successful bowel movement. After the phone call I wept.

I was relieved. I am moved by things that are truly sad, but I spend a lot of my life feeling quite disconnected. Mostly, I suspect, because my life is, in truth, very easy.

But the fact was that even I was faintly worried not to be missing my children. So I was quite pleased to feel, finally, the wrench of separation.

I returned to England after five days and I revelled in how full my life was in London, what purpose I had, how busy and efficient I was and how well-suited to the work.

On my holiday I had learned something: you can recover from 3.5 years of constant, hardcore childcare in two days.

Shortly after I returned I was, again, aching and exhausted by the end of the day, driven demented by Sam’s pre-verbal, guttural shrieking, wrung out by Kitty’s complicated games and non-stop chatter.

I marvelled at how back-breaking bath time was, and at the sheer weight and bottomlessness of the boredom, when it hit.

But on my holiday I had learned something: you can recover from 3.5 years of constant, hardcore childcare in two days.

I also learned that it is perfectly okay to ask for that time off, and that now my husband has been on his own with the children for five nights (including the weekend), two nights will seem like a walk in the park.

My life with small children no longer seems endless. It no longer seems like a prison sentence.

I remember when Sam was just born and my husband and I were talking about how long it would be before we could possibly go away together without our children. We looked at each other blankly. We had no idea. A year? Two years? Five years?

But we never considered the possibility that even before that time arrived when we could go away together without the children, we could, as well as going away as a family, go away separately, and enjoy a very particular kind of freedom that you feel when your co-parent is looking after your children.

Your children are having special Daddy time, and Daddy is seeing the world from your perspective …

… and you? You are able to exist, not as someone’s wife or mother, as the organiser, the schlepper, the worrier, the nag, but just as you, the way you used to be. You can be girlish and haphazard again. You can drift, pause for no reason, dither, stall, wander. You can detour and only achieve two things in a whole day.

You can look up for the first time in months or years, look up from inside bags, car seats, lists, buggies, cupboards, toy boxes, bins and shopping bags: you can look up, straighten your back and, like a sunflower, turn, close your eyes and hold your face up to the light.

  • This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book Bad Mother. We’re going to be serialising it over the next few weeks but if you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here

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