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Monday, February 9, 2015

Time Out Parenting



The first birthday wish I got today was from my son, Max. I got a chuckle out of the greeting and thought back to the year I really did turn 40. I hadn't yet had a hip replacement, an ICU-worthy case of pancreatitis, a hysterectomy, a gall bladder-ectomy, or a double mastectomy. My knees were barely arthritic, my back rarely ached. I worked in an office, took my kids to daycare and lived in a crowded and chaotic house. Max was four years-old when I turned 40. Molly was almost six and Leo, not quite two. I think their ages alone is what made my first real vacation from parenting all that much sweeter. 

When we got married, my ever-loving spouse’s bestest boyhood buddies made me take the Wildwood Oath. I had to promise never, ever to allow anything to come between the boys and their August weekend – not  the birth of a child, the death of a distant relative or the inexplicable pang of possessiveness. Likewise, I had the Annual All-Girl’s Christmas Party with my college friends that was non-negotiable.

While a 24- or 48-hour jaunt is always fun, there's nothing like taking a five or seven-day trip. With your friends. Not your family.

The first time I did it was the year I turned 40. Thirteen of us managed to burst the bonds that tie and flew off to the Bahamas for five nights to soak up fun and sun at an all-inclusive resort. Those were the years before cell phones were the norm, but most of the mothers figured out a way to call home and talk to their kids and spouses who had so kindly granted them their freedom.  I, on the other hand, never could understand the need to check in. I’m of the theory we are much more missed and appreciated if we are not heard from.

Besides, I know how the call would go:

“How are the kids?” all too easily turns into, “Did you remember to take the trash out/finish the antibiotics/mail the mortgage payment/get the car inspected/feed the children?” 

You really don't mean to do it, but even a thousand miles can't take the nagging out of your nature. 

And then there’s the vacation-ruinous dissemination of information better left for later.

“Oh, by the way, the upstairs toilet overflowed and was pouring into the kitchen. But, I cleaned it up.”

“With what?” you ask in horror.

“Paper towels,” comes the prideful response.

“Paper towels? JUST paper towels? No Lysol? No bleach? No professional cleaning service?”

“It’s just water!”

“JUST water?”

And, there’s always the no-catastrophic but equally heart-wrenching call.
 
“How was the party?” you ask in reference to a Saturday celebration at Chuck E. Cheese's for your six year-old daughter's best friend.

“OK, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“I didn’t go. I sent Molly with Jenna and her mom.”

“You WHAT? You didn’t go to the party with her?”

And for the rest of the vacation you picture your poor, painfully shy daughter sneaking a suck on her thumb in the corner, all alone, afraid to ask for a slice of pizza, petrified to jump in the ball pit, eyes wide and sad, wondering what in the world she did to deserve such a frightening fate.

Or, perhaps worst of all is the home renovation call.

“I decided to paint the living room while you’re gone.”

“What color?” you ask meekly.

“Yellow.”

“Yellow.”

“Yes. It’s really bright. You’ll love it!”

“Yellow.”

“Why? Is there something wrong with yellow?”

You squint up at the big, bright, yellow Caribbean sun, take a long, long sip of your YellowBird cocktail and say, “Sounds lovely. Can’t wait to see it.”

“The only problem is, I went to two different paint stores and the walls don’t match exactly. But no one will notice.”

And when you call home, you find that there's nothing left to talk about when you do get home.

“Did I tell you about how you have to barter with all the natives?”

“You did.”

“We had the most delicious fish for dinner one night.”

“You told me.”

“One night there was a huge iguana in my room.”

“Was that the same one that was in your room on Tuesday?”

And as your spouse’s eyes start to glaze over you throw in one more tidbit just for good measure.

“So, there was this guy who was hitting on me the whole week.”

“What was he hitting you with?”

I learned long ago never to call home from vacation.

I was raised with traveling parents, as was my spouse. We value the importance of seeing the world as well as taking a break from our everyday routines. And of all the guilt that is broiled up in my simple little brain, I'm thankful that I never had the guilt of leaving my family for a few days. I am lucky I've been able to do it, and luckier still that they encourage it. After all, a happy mother means a happy home. 

And while I'm not sappy enough to say that the best part of a vacation is coming home, I will concede that there's nothing better than genuine hugs and rapid-firing children recounting the week's events, giggling with glee as they unwrap souvenirs and acting like they truly love you for a good twelve hours. 

The good spouses, like mine, don't play tit-for-tat, running out for a beer with the boys the minute you walk in the door. You know that despite the mismatched shoes on the front steps, the crunched up Cheerios on the couch and the damp bath towels in a heap on the floor, they've done their best to keep the house clean. Not for themselves, because they don't care. But because they know you do.

I got home on Saturday night from my first vacation as an empty-nester. Except for an extra foot of snow, the house looked exactly as I had left it. The kitchen table was clear. The rugs were dog hair-less. The laundry was done. And the dinner was made. 

My spouse and I sat together and ate our meal and talked about where I had been and all I had done. He asked me questions and let me tell the funny stories twice. He told me about his grueling week at work and his snowy walks with the crazy dog. I asked if he felt neglected that I didn't call him. And of course he didn't. 

It was much better to miss and appreciate each other. Because even when the kids are gone, a time out can do a world of good.

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