I’m about to leave home for a month. This is the longest time I’ve been away since I had children. I feel no guilt. My two older children are working and living in share houses, and the youngest went away to university in another state earlier this year. With the exception of ongoing financial support for the youngest, they have largely launched. For the first time in more than 23 years, I feel free to go, to travel, to explore the world.
The first time I left my children was when they were seven, five and two. It was hard. The tasks of booking, packing and arranging for my parents to step in seemed like insurmountable tasks. My spouse had an international job that took him travelling every fortnight, with his time at home spent working across several time zones. He slept in beyond the time when he could have been useful with the morning routine, and he worked beyond dinner-time, well into the evenings and often beyond midnight. I was overwhelmed with parenting, schedules, meals, medical appointments, swimming lessons and every other demand on my time and my sense of self. But I recognised I was in a rut and I climbed out of it and went. Madrid gave me a week of relaxation and sightseeing whilst my spouse attended a work conference and a girlfriend who lived in Belgium joined me for tapas, wine and adult conversation. When I arrived home a week later and walked in the door, my two-year-old threw his arms around me and burst into tears. It seems that two-year-olds can experience stress and anxiety, even if loving, competent grandparents are filling in.
Despite the guilt, I left again about a year later to walk the beautiful Bay of Fires in Tasmania. My spouse’s job was unrelenting, which meant mine was too. Popular media and culture told me that I should be working, developing a career and building financial independence, but every non-financial part of the load of raising three children was falling to me and I couldn’t see how to combine that with a paid job. And so I booked my spouse’s support into our family calendar a year in advance and went away to think. Getting out into nature and walking with people who led different lives to mine was therapeutic. It was a special time away during which I reflected upon my situation, my family and what I valued most. I came back committed to retaining our family unit.
A few years later, still unable to find time to even look for a job let alone manage the family logistics around employment, I enrolled in a PhD program. My spouse expressed his support then promptly took up long-distance running, which meant that any free time he had was spent away from home running bushland trails whilst I juggled the family schedule and my studies. By now my parents had passed away and I was an expert in managing a household, three children who all loved sport, multiple school routines and my own studies and university teaching commitments. I wrote a paper that was accepted at a conference in Wales and booked time away into the family calendar. At the conclusion of the conference, my friend from Belgium joined me and we travelled to the north of the UK, rented bicycles and cycled coast-to-coast over four days. Once again, testing myself against the elements (which included several days of heavy rain, fog, mists and sometimes traffic) was therapeutic and I came back refreshed and energised.
Two years later, I fulfilled a twenty-year goal to hike the very challenging South Coast Track in Tasmania. Again, the family was left at home to manage. After nine days with no phone coverage, I emerged from the trail and called home at 9 pm. My youngest son, then nine, answered and I asked him why he was up so late. “I’ve been so busy,” he replied. “I had to cook dinner for everyone and I have quite a lot of homework.” I asked where his father was. “At the gym,” he replied. What could I say? We do parenting differently.
I’m sure there are parents out there who don’t leave their children to go travelling or hiking, but for me these short breaks have been essential. My experience of parenting has been intense and has consumed my life for more than 20 years. If I hadn’t escaped from time to time, I may have lost myself or left my marriage. I have girlfriends who have escaped on “girls weekends” to the wineries or spa resorts. While these sound fun, they don’t have that soul-cleansing, calming effect that I find so therapeutic when I’m out in nature with nothing but my own feet (or perhaps a bike) for transport, and a hiking pack and tent.
This next trip is a repeat of that coast-to-coast cycling trip in the UK, but this time on foot. My spouse will be at home looking after the dog and cat, with no need to juggle three schools, multiple sports, Scouts, music lessons, homework and family meals as all the children have left home. And I will be away with a long-standing friend (the same one who walked the South Coast Track with me ten years ago), testing my fitness in the wild beauty of remote north England.
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