Have you ever vacationed with a small child? If yes, then you probably already know that the word “vacation” should never be used to describe that particular experience. The combination of unfamiliar sleeping quarters, a significantly smaller arsenal of distraction tools, and lots of time in the car or on an airplane can send most parents on a nonstop thrill ride of wildly erratic stress levels. On top of all that, you’re supposed to be having FUN! This is your well-earned leisure time, which only makes it worse when you feel miserable.
Personally, I’m the proud mom of a highly spirited 17-month-old daughter who is entering the height of tantrum age. When I’m with her, my time consists of 40 percent mild stress, 40 percent intense frustration, and 20 percent more joyfulness and love than I ever thought I could feel. My heart is either pounding with anxiety or absolutely bursting with pride, love, and wonder. There is very little in between. It’s quite a roller coaster!
My husband and I recently enjoyed a wonderful long weekend away with several close friends and their children, and despite my daughter’s frequent meltdowns, we did have a great time. Like so much of parenting, trips with a toddler contain a certain amount of what my favorite writer Cheryl Strayed calls “retrospective fun.” This term applies to an experience that is pretty stressful and not all that enjoyable in the moment, but you look back on it really fondly and appreciate the memories. In retrospect, it was fun.
But retrospective fun is not true relaxation. It isn’t the hedonistic pleasure of pre-baby vacations, when your biggest problem was feeling a bit too hungover to go on that morning run, so you decide to nap by the pool instead. If you’re in a position to take a child-free vacation, by all means, do it. But if that’s not in the cards for you anytime soon, I have an alternative.
Every three months, my husband and I each take a vacation day from work and send our daughter to daycare as usual. The key here is actually getting it on the schedule: I find a day that looks good a couple months out, tell my husband to request it off, and we get it on the books. We use this time to run errands, see movies, catch up on house work, or even just to sleep and veg out. On these days, we enjoy meals together without having to tend to our daughter every moment. We have full conversations that end of their own volition, not because a cranky toddler demands our attention. We get to remember who we were before we became parents. We look across the table and see the person we fell in love with, not just our co-parent.
These days are even better than a “date night” because we have a full EIGHT HOURS of glorious time to do whatever we want. And, unlike date night, we don’t even have to worry about relieving a babysitter. Our daughter is just having her normal day, enjoying time with her friends and going about her usual routine. Also, there’s less traffic during the day than Friday night at 7 p.m. We can take advantage of weekday lunch specials or spend a few hours in a coffee shop without having to fight for a good place to sit. It’s so quiet and peaceful. We can take a walk holding hands, with no diaper bags or sippy cups to occupy them.
We love our daughter more than anything and absolutely cherish our time with her, but between the barrage of daily child care, working full-time, taking care of a home, tending to family obligations, and keeping commitments to our friends and communities, there isn’t a lot of time left to recharge our batteries. And, we are extremely fortunate: We are not single parents. We hold wonderful jobs with benefits and paid time off. I know this type of self-care isn’t even an option for many, many parents, and that is unacceptable.
I’m so, so grateful for my life, and while it’s indeed amazing, it can also be draining. Parenting fatigue is a growing problem in our over-scheduled society. I don’t want to burn out, and I need to take care of myself in order to be a good mom and wife. And you know what? The world really won’t stop if you take a day for yourself every few months. You’ve probably heard that a staggering 55 percent of all American workers don’t use all their paid vacation days. It’s time to do something about that.
It’s important to savor this time of life. This time of life is toys on the floor and ear-piercing shrieks and the day’s fourth outfit change. It’s first words and first steps and the sheer magic of watching an entire person take shape. Childhood is fleeting and magical, and I want to be fully present for my daughter’s. I wholly embrace my identity as mother to a small child.
But there’s also this: Despite this coming era of playgrounds and swim lessons and homework and band practice, in 20 years, our house will be empty again. And when that day comes, I don’t want to look into my husband’s eyes and realize we don’t know each other anymore. I want to kiss our sweet babies, shed a few tears of gratitude and love for these crazy years, and then settle in for our next grand adventure.