To be the mother and partner I want to be, I need days and months alone.
Every six weeks or so, I go away for a few silent days by myself. I go to a clothing-optional hot springs to bare my all, and I speak only to say, “Excuse me, that’s my towel,” and “I’ll have the Tofu Delight.” In between hot soaks and free yoga classes, I stay in my tiny rented room (bathroom down the hall) and write. No Internet, no phone, no family.
It’s a writing binge — I sleep with the laptop on my bed, waking every three hours to continue on. I take my notebook into the restaurant, scribble notes with a gentle but clear “don’t approach me” look on my face. Back in my room, I write standing, lying down, at the desk facing into the trees. I hike the woods. Wild turkeys call and walk across the lawn, gray squirrels chase each other through the fig trees. A mother deer and her doe stop in front of me, ruminating, and I lose my breath. I soak in the hot springs again, take a nap on the sundeck. Then I go back to my room to sleep. And to write.
Once a year or so, I extend those three days into a month at an artist’s colony — where I write all day and attend readings at night, and generally just. . . leave my family-self behind. I get high on words, on silence, on myself. I return home blissed out, refreshed, ready again for the often interrupted life of partner-in-marriage and mother.
It wasn’t always like this. Early in our relationship, Bill and I quit our jobs, stored our stuff in my parents’ basement, and traveled around Asia for a year — Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, India, Japan. We weren’t completely cut off from family ties (my stepkids traveled with us for part of that time), but we were away from the rest of our usual world. And we were with each other almost twenty-four hours a day. It was a fascinating and transformative year. It was also exhausting, boring, scary, frustrating, humiliating, confusing, homesick-making. It was relationship by fire. “If we get through this,” we told ourselves — sick in Northern Thailand, fighting on the streets of Kathmandu, weathering a 28-hour ride through India smashed against a broken window in an old school bus — “we can get through anything.”
We got through it, and we still wanted to be together. We came home and got married. That year of intense togetherness in Asia gave us a foundation — from there, we could learn to differentiate and move out into the world without each other.
As a baby, Annie cried a lot, slept only in our arms, refused to be put down. The first time I left her, it felt like a piece of me had been amputated; a piece that just happened not to have nerve endings. I was thirteen days post-partum and it was my birthday. My parents babysat. We walked four blocks to a lovely restaurant, ate dinner (talking about our baby the entire time) and then rushed back before dessert, my milk spilling through my blouse. We’d been gone 90 minutes.
We took it slow, and I was okay with that, maybe because she was my only baby (my stepkids were teens when we entered each others lives), and I felt keenly how swiftly the season of her childhood would pass. Annie slept part of the night in our bed until she was seven. But when she was ten, Annie began going to sleep-away camp. Her decision. Also her decision, her adamant refusal to let any of her friends come along. “I might want to reinvent myself this summer,” she said, “I can’t do that if my friends are there.”
Now she’s fourteen, and Bill leaves every year for a month (last year France, this year Spain), and I leave every year for a month, and I ask Annie: “What is it like for you when I go away, like the times I went to the VCCA?”
“It’s just four weeks. That’s no problem, Mommy.”
She’s not being callous, or hiding a broken heart — she’s being truthful. When I leave home, Bill stays, and they have special weeks together. When Bill leaves home, I stay, and she and I have our special times together, too. Annie understands why I leave home. Like me, she loves to spend time with people but needs her time alone to refuel.
Don’t misread this. When we’re together as a family, which is most of the time, we’re very together. We eat together most nights. We play games together, watch movies, travel together. Like many contemporary families, we spend a lot of time together in the car. Last Friday, Annie got home late from babysitting, Lola the puppy freaked out at the disruption and howled until we all ended up — me, Bill, Annie, Lola, and our older (calmer) dog Mollie — grumpy and exhausted, passed out in the same room, Bill and I in our bed, Annie on a foam mattress on the floor, the dogs sprawled around her. It was fun.
We’re a happy family. We like each other, we make each other laugh, we need each other. Just not all the time.