Note: I am a mother in a cis-hetero marriage, wherein I am the primary caregiver. My language reflects my personal reality, but is meant to include caregivers and families of any configuration. Whatever beautiful shape and form your family takes, if you take care of other people, this can apply to you.
If you haven’t (temporarily) left your family yet, you are really missing out. Not just you, either. Everyone. What? Yes. When you refuse to leave—ever—everyone is missing out.
I will never forget the first time I got ready to leave my children for a weekend. Wolfgirl was 2, Boy Marvel was 6 months old, and the other half of one of my closest, longest friendships was getting married, some 3,000 miles away. I knew I’d forever regret missing the wedding, but how on earth was I going to LITERALLY ABANDON my babies for 48 entire hours? Surely, the whole house of cards would collapse and all would be lost.
My husband, bless his soul, hyperventilated into a paper bag as he encouraged me to go and have a swell time. So, I pumped over 150 ounces of breastmilk (for, again, 48 hours). I cleaned the house from top to bottom. I washed every article of clothing any of us had, just in case someone needed that snowsuit in June. In Phoenix. I made lists upon lists, even though I just knew my husband wouldn’t do everything “right.”
I was so nervous and shaky at the airport that I got myself every type of additional security check one can earn, short of a full body cavity search. I texted constantly. I posted on social media about how much I missed my family, lest someone on the Internet think it was possible for a mother to have a good time if she wasn’t actively picking Cheerios out of her hair.
But I came home at the end of my 48 hours off-duty and guess what: The house stood. The children lived. Boy Marvel, who slept approximately nine total hours between his birth and the day he hit 16 months old, packed four of those hours into one night. I, having slept through the night (twice!), was exactly 400% happier to see my children than I was the day I left.
Your children deserve the opportunity to practice functioning without you.
Yep, we’re starting with how this serves your kids’ needs. If you need this pep talk, chances are, you’re going to throw up a brick wall when we talk about why you deserve time to recharge. So let’s start here. Your kids need you to GTFO. And not just because you’re getting cranky. They need you to leave sometimes because they need to know they’re going to be okay if you do.
Chances are, there is more than one person who loves your child(ren). If you have a co-parent who is in any way functional, this is a given. If not, maybe there is a grandparent. An aunt or uncle. Your best friend. Hire a sitter. If you are in a place in life where none of these are options, consider swapping with a friend in a similar boat. There is beauty in being a life-raft for each other.
Whoever you choose, let your kids see that they are loved by more than person. Let them see that the world will continue to spin on its axis, even if their peanut butter and jelly is cut by someone else (or, heaven forfend, themselves). Once they get over the initial shock of the change in routine, they will be as relieved as you are, to see that they will be okay in the capable hands of another loved one. There is power in knowing that you will be alright without each other. This is a gift to them.
Your co-parent deserves the opportunity to build their confidence.
After being left alone with his own children for two days, my husband leveled up on fatherhood. The pride he felt at knowing that he’s got this, was worth the price of the flight and hotel. He now had the confidence that he could rock being a dad, even without me hovering over his shoulder, helpfully pointing out everything he did “wrong” (read: differently from me). My children had the opportunity to learn that they will be cared for, even if it’s sometimes not directly by me.
He doesn’t hyperventilate over this anymore, not by a long shot. He can handle whatever. He’s confident and capable and probably better at a lot of this stuff than I am.
Warning: They may not do things the way you would. And by “may not” I mean “abso-frigging-lutely WILL NOT.” Husbandman likes to say that when I’m gone, he feeds them exclusively from the beige food group. Do I leave them with fruit and vegetables? Of course I do, every time. Last time, I even left him with a list of snack ideas, 50% of which were produce-based. Do they eat them? Not so much. And guess what–they’re fine. They stay up late, they watch too many Marvel movies, and they get bribed with candy. This is not their real life, any more than reading David Sedaris over an airport breakfast margarita is my real life. It’s okay to balance the grind with a little fun. I promise, everyone will fall back into step when you return. So quickly. So very, painfully quickly. Sigh.
You deserve a break…and your family deserves a version of you that has had a break.
Ah, yes. Now we’re talking about you. I can already feel your resistance to this concept. It’s burning through your screen, buzzing through the entire interweb, and slapping me in the face. But I have to do, but I can’t, but I shouldn’t. No, actually, you don’t. You can. You should. These are justifications you are giving yourself to avoid stepping out of your comfort zone and prioritizing yourself. Martyrdom doesn’t become any of us, and frankly, it can really screw up your children. This doesn’t mean you continually put your children behind your desires; it means there is room at the family table for everyone’s needs. Again, this is a gift to all involved.
If you’re resistant to this idea, I’d encourage you to sit with why that might be. Is it because, in the absence of additional butts to wipe and an endless to do list, you’re not sure what to do? Or worse, who you are?
American motherhood culture expects you to permanently devote your body, mind, and soul to someone else, the minute those two pink lines materialize. Whether you stay home or work outside the home, you will be expected to be the Doer of All Things, Knower of All Info. You know how many mothers I know who have caught vomit in their bare hands? Literally almost all of us. It’s just a thing we’re expected to do. What a metaphor.
Even if your children are healthy and overall typical, caregiver burnout is very much a thing. When we run ourselves in the ground and sacrifice ourselves in the name of parenthood, we risk going actually crazy. Furthermore, we teach our children that they should expect the same from their future co-parents, or themselves. (Look, we’re back to talking about the kids’ needs again. I bet that makes you so much more comfortable.) Do you want grandbabies someday? Don’t model martyrdom. You’re sending the message that your life ends when you have children. You’re much more likely to see your genes propagate for another generation if you demonstrate to your own children that one’s own life doesn’t end the minute someone else emerges from your body.
One day, these babies are going to get up and fly, mama. And you’re going to be left with…you. Don’t let her be a stranger. Nurture some little piece of her so that when their bedroom doors close for the last time, you recognize yourself in the mirror.
And you know what? If you’re feeling burnt out, overwhelmed, dare I say, a little resentful of your current situation, it shows. Really. You think you’re masking it, but you’re not. Everyone can feel it. There’s a saying about this:
Truly, getting away sometimes is a gift to everyone. Every time I have gone away from my kids (probably about six times in a decade of motherhood), I come back a better person.
So, Mama, go. Daddy, go. Just…go.
I can’t tell you how glad I am I didn’t miss that wedding, or the dear friend’s wedding that followed a couple years and a whole child later. I spent my most recent birthday weekend at a family member’s seasonal condo across town. It cost me nothing. I didn’t do a damn thing I couldn’t have done at home. Except sleep, perhaps. And simply…Be, alone.
Do whatever you have to do to make yourself feel comfortable leaving, and leave. Whether it’s an overnight at a friend’s house or a conference that inspires you or that business trip to Singapore that would make your career, DO IT. You’re not abandoning your children (unless you don’t come back). As someone who is hypersensitive to the abandonment of children, trust me, I want you to come back. Everybody wants you to come back.
But first, you have to leave.