The Emotional Stages of Vacationing Without Kids

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A couple vacationing.I’ll be the first to admit it. There haven’t been a lot of opportunities for vacationing without kids since they’ve made their presence known in this world. And that’s generally by choice. I want them to see varied cultures and become global citizens, so I’m always seeking out trips that can happen with them.

But once in a while, every year or so, I get that itch. You know, the one every mother has. The “I just want to remain untouched and goop free for at least 72 hours while sipping (insert drink of choice) on a nice (insert location of choice) without worrying about keeping another human alive.” And it happens twice, first while planning and second while experiencing.

Planning is an exciting stage filled with all the “what ifs” and “could bes.” It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

1. Denial: I look at my husband with a raised eyebrow. “Can we do this?” I think. “Can we do this?” I say. And he, seasoned at spending days away from our children because of work trips, shrugs his shoulders in reply. It’s just the “Well, why not?” gesture I need (some may say it means that he doesn’t know…I’m being an optimist here and suggesting that it’s him saying nothing is stopping us). I check my Mommy Handbook, where I realize it says nothing about vacationing without kids and shrug back in silent approval. And we’re off to plan.

2. Excitement: We’re going to do it! Ohhhh. Awww. There are so many pretty places to go. We search and search for that perfect place. It can’t be too far. It can’t be too close. We want somewhere new. Oh, no way. We want somewhere we’ve never been so we can explore. It should be warm. Wait. It should be cold. No. It just needs to have wine. Yes. Wine. We get days of hunting and imagining ourselves in places and situations we don’t often have. The world is available to us. 

3. Acceptance: So now we’ve decided to go. We’ve figured out where we’re going. So yeah. That’s it. Let the house fall down and the laundry pile up. Mommy is going to be on vacation in a few weeks. I feel untouchable. It’s pretty much like I’ve gained some superhuman power that allows me to see nothing but beautifully clean, well-behaved children, sunlight streaming through spotless windows, and wonderfully well-balanced meals on the table. That’s right. Mommy has checked out and already mentally placed herself on the beach. I have accepted my destiny.

4. Anxiety: Every mother worries about her children, and I am no exception. We make plans to leave our children in good hands, but I’m pretty positive something will go wrong. Weeks before we leave, I start making lists: “The Kids’ Favorite Foods,” “The Order of the Stuffed Animals in Bed,” “The Names and Numbers of Doctors,” “Children’s Favorite Toys,” “How to Properly Slice the Apples, So They Get Eaten.” You get the picture. Anyway, I plan. Day and night, I keep myself awake, trying to anticipate any issue that may arise and make a list to address it. I’m sure my efforts are appreciated and not found annoying.

5. Guilt: This is where I convince myself my children will feel abandoned. Homeless in their own home. Every time I look at the eyes of my little loves, my heart rips. I certainly don’t have to go on vacation, but I am. And I’m leaving them (at home). They won’t have Mommy snuggles to get them to sleep or silly songs to wake them up. Who will make the chocolate milk or tie their shoes? 

6. Sorrow: Quickly, this mom guilt turns in on itself, and I weep as I smell their hair and say their names. How will I go on for so long without these tiny hands in my hands? Whose booboos will I kiss? I miss them, and I am not leaving for another month. It is a long month. (And by the end, I think they’re probably ready for me to go. There are only so many times a child can wake up with their mother staring at them through the night before they get creeped out). I breathe it all in. As much as I can, every second of those days.

7. Hope: With their assurances and the assurances of the grandmothers staying with them, I usually conclude that my children can do it. Believe it or not, they can go on without me. They will be ok. And honestly, so will I. Maybe we’ll come out better because of it.

Experiencing the trip is a whole new set of feelings. 

1. Denial: My mind races as the house fades into the distance. Did I do that? Are we alone? Is anyone following us? Are we allowed to do this? Is CPS behind us? There is a moment of surreal realization as I start to notice that I am traveling without my kids. It’s like walking through the fog to have it disappear into the sunlight. It’s a new world, a different world. Suddenly I am focusing on myself—just me. 

2. Excitement: This stage is pretty intense. This is where I attempt to feebly revert to my pre-kid self, which I unsuccessfully pull off. I put on make-up and do my hair. I wear clothes that are not sticky with baby food and have hurried conversations with people. Real conversations. My energy is so high that I stay up late, and I regret that decision in the morning when my ever-present internal Mommy clock still has me up with the sun. But this touch of freedom is enough to revive me and see me through my day exploring.

3. Acceptance: Once I’ve gotten past the need to indulge, I can sit back and enjoy the time I have and the place I’m in. I can chat with my husband over a cup of coffee or try a new food. I can walk a city street without fretting about my flock of little people. I get the chance to reconnect with my husband, myself, and the world without interruption.

4. Anxiety: Somewhere around four in the morning on the second night of being away from my children, I wake up in a cold sweat, unable to get back to sleep. I am unsettled. Something is wrong. This is a slippery slope for a mother to go down. I check my phone. Nothing. I check the messages on the hotel phone. Nothing. My husband’s phone is silent, too. I get back into bed, and two hours later, I fitfully fall asleep, the anxiety having dug its fingers into me.

5. Guilt: Once the anxiety subsides, I buy presents. This is the emotional stage in which I feel that my children must be experiencing abandonment issues. I’m sure they are all in their beds, huddled under covers, stoically attempting to hold back the tears that are beginning to pool in their eyes. I call home often during this stage, but it seems my children are working hard to hide their sadness from me each time I call. They all sound happy on the phone, but I’m sure they’re broken. I promise presents, and then I lose the afternoon to finding something meaningful for each of them. I search for something they won’t just toss into their piles of “stuff,” but rather something they will each cherish and hold so dear it goes with them to college in fifteen years.

6. Sorrow: The day I have to come home, I am filled with a sadness so profound I cannot enjoy my entire mimosa before the pulp separates. I miss my children and feel anger towards the car drive or airplane ride that keeps me from them. Perhaps there’s also a little bit of mourning for the end of my grown-up vacation thrown in there too, but you never heard that from me.

7. Hope: When I walk in that door and breathe in those children again, all feels right with the world (except the laundry because that’s never right). They excitedly tell me all the details of their special stay with their grandmothers. I hear of cookies made, pictures painted, new hiding spots found. It sounds wonderful and exhausting (really, just mostly exhausting). And as they chatter away, I realize they didn’t have these stages. They were content, pleased even. They noticed my absence and made the adjustments they needed. And then, with their tiny voices as a backdrop, a wave of warmth washes over me, and I realize it’s the feeling of hope. I hope to do this again, maybe even before another year slips by.

Have you traveled without your children? What were your feelings?

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Jen is three-year resident of Westchester County and a five-year resident of Mommyhood. She enjoys writing, reading, coffee, wine, Disney World, and traveling with her husband, five year old daughter, two year old son, and 13 month old tiny son. She used to teach high school English in the city, but she decided to give up that stress for the stress of being a SAHM. Her least favorite things to do are laundry and dishes, but those seem to be the two things she puts the most energy into, hoping that one day, someone will create a Roomba-like device that will gather, sort, pretreat, wash, dry, fold, and put away the now clean clothes that her children shed like snakeskin around the house. Aside from dishes and laundry, Jen also occupies her free moments traveling and writing for her blog Three Kids and A Car where she provides travel tips and stories she’s collected since she first started bringing her daughter with her while she traveled the world.

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