Sometimes Mama Gets Away
A vacation away from your family can help you reconnect - with them and yourself
It was a stressful autumn. My husband’s campaign for city council was in full swing. It has been a hot and sticky summer full of him being gone most days, working and knocking on doors for the campaign. I was trying to balance parenting alone and my own work obligations. My dearest friend and favorite travel companion, “Honeybee,” was also running into hard times. Her second job was making her into a workaholic, filling her body with aches and pains and mysterious food allergies. Our weekly phone conversations often turned to our past travels when we had taken two previous adventures to Italy in 2001 and 2013.
One morning in late September there it was, in my email inbox, round trip fares to Italy the following spring for half the price I paid when we went six years ago. Honeybee and I had made a pact that we would try to go to Italy every 10 years or so, would 6 years be okay instead?
Honeybee and I both love life, and the pleasure of life was escaping us. We dreamt of leaving. Honeybee is Italian American, and I grew up in an Italian Catholic community, giving us both a special connection to Italian culture. We laughed about our adventures and dreamt of the ease we experienced when doing something completely different than the normal routine.
I called Honeybee and pondered if we could swing an Italy adventure. Uncertain about money, as a small business owner, my income fluctuates from season to season. Honeybee, at that point, was about to lose her second job, leaving her unstable financially, though happier for it. We slept on it and thought some more. Should we bring our significant others? Honeybee’s boyfriend was in a wheelchair, making the whole trip more challenging trying to integrate his needs. I have a family of four. Could I really afford four plane tickets plus all the expenses of travel? At some point, if you really want something, you just have to say, yes! After some debate and asking each of our partners if they were okay with it, we went ahead and bought the tickets to Italy for an eleven-day trip. Two good friends, sans family and partners, would take our third get-away to Italy the following spring!
Travel comes with a lot of privilege. I own that I had the privilege to make this voyage happen. I was raised in a family that valued adventure over material goods. When it came time to save money or use it toward exploring, we opted for the journey. Having this value and mindset has helped me to continue this tradition of travel even into the lean years of parenting and starting a family.
Being a busy, work-at-home parent and small-business owner, how did I give myself permission to go? With two young kids, ages 8 and 3 ½, a life that has made me feel both integral and often too full, how did I decide actively to put myself and the beauty of my dreams first? It wasn’t just me. My partner really gets me. He understands that to love a dreamer, a romantic artist, is to not tie them down. I am a person that loves to be in community and in the middle of cozy family life. I am also a free spirit who craves beauty, needs art and complicated moments like navigating winding European backroads. I travel to stay sane in my current role as a teacher, caretaker, healer and translator of culture. Trips like this make me a better teacher and a better mother, modeling to my children that its good to have breaks and miss each other as long as when we come back together we make it a sweet reunion.
I also have in-laws who are actively involved in my children’s lives. Sleeping over grandparents’ house for several nights is normal for them. When I am away from my kids, I know they have at least three other adults watching out for them.
Next, I have to do something mothers hate to do: I have to give up control. I would not describe myself as a control freak, but I like things done the way I want them done. When I decide to leave my family and go on an adventure, I have to let go and trust that my children will survive and thrive without me. Doing this also gives those awesome three people I mentioned before a chance to manage and navigate all the many facets of parenting I do on a daily basis. They take on all the emotional labor of keeping to everyone’s schedule, doctor appointments, after-school activities, making lunch, who likes what, how to manage bickering and sibling rivalry, and the list goes on. Giving my husband and in-laws the chance to do all these aspects of parenting makes them appreciate me more. My husband also gets to be closer to our children by shuttling them through all the daily tasks without my help.
The same went for my business. As a teacher, I spent a lot of time in the weeks leading up to the trip making sure I had all the supplies, all the lesson plans and all the communication I needed with my subs to make the time away from my business easy on them. Letting go of being physically present was an important lesson for me in asking for the help I need in general to pull off a lasting, sustainable business model.
I had to manage some of my parenting tasks while on the trip. It was pretty funny stepping to the side in the Venetian renaissance museum to reschedule a dental appointment my husband completely forgot about. I wonder what the secretary would have thought, knowing I was staring at a 12th-century fresco in Venice while deciding what day of the week would be best for my daughter to miss school for the appointment? Other then a few instances like that, I left the rest up to my husband and in-laws. The children might not eat and sleep on a regular schedule. They may get huge knots in their hair because mama is the only one that knows how to get the knots out without hurting them. Still, I know that their ultimate needs–unconditional love and respect as well as their basic needs–were all being met. This was the biggest gift of the trip, getting a chance to step out of the emotional management of motherhood and family life.
As I packed for the trip I snuck in a soft little sloth-unicorn hybrid stuffy that belongs to my oldest daughter. I told them it was a way for me to hold them close while I navigated far-away places. I took photos all over Italy of “Slothy.” Slothy enjoyed a picnic in a park in Rome, hung in the shade of an olive grove in Tuscany, and balanced on the rails of one of the many wrought-iron bridges connecting the tiny islands of Venice. Slothy kept the children engaged with my travels, wondering where he would show up next.
My smart phone was the connecting thread to my family and business that made this trip feel achievable. The last time I traveled internationally was 2013, and I did not have a smart phone. Having a smart phone was a game changer. I used my phone to easily take beautiful pictures everywhere we went, with the convenience of stuffing it quickly back into my pocket after the shot. The GPS guided us through the ancient, city streets with ease, even telling us which direction to head when we got turned around. Navigating the back roads of Tuscany was a breeze with this amazing contraption. When I felt homesick on the trip, I could call my children and video chat with them wherever I was at that moment. One time we were ending a lunch at a pizza place, and my kids got to see their mother speak Italian to the waiter, then walk down to a quiet part of the canal to connect with them while they caught glimpses of Venice surrounding me. When I needed to, I could check in via email with the teachers I had subbing for me and make sure everything was running smoothly.
Parenting and work responsibilities never fully leave me when I travel, even when I am hundreds of miles away. But these small disturbances do not feel burdensome; they are just a part of who I am and the life I have chosen. Travel is a time for me to connect to the inner artist and adventurer, who is often left back-stage behind the dominating curtain of responsibility of being a mom and a small business owner. If anything, travel serves as a reminder that the independent artist-adventurer part of myself never fully goes away, even in the most busy, distracted times of my life. Also, it is so good to catch a break. I become so much more present with being a parent after I have had some distance and an opportunity to miss my children.
When I got back home I squeezed my girls extra hard. I gave them each a chunk of time independently to play or do whatever they wanted with me as I gave them my undivided attention. This was great for them and for me to really reconnect with them as two separate people, not just always being together. I still had to go to work the next day, and the parting was extra hard on all of us, but by the end of the week we had adjusted back to our regular routine. It was wonderful to see that our time apart did no harm to my children. They were able to show me their big feelings when I returned but also did great managing life without me. Travel teaches me to remember to be a little less strict about things, a little less grumpy at bedtime and to live with an appreciation of the sweetness of doing nothing, or in Italian “dolce far niente.”
Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek is a naturalist, writer and community educator committed to teaching the skills of sustainability and instructing children and adults on how to connect with the natural world that surrounds them daily. Arthrell-Knezek hails from New Haven, Connecticut where she began her work in the arts and environmental activism in 1997. She graduated from The Evergreen State College In Olympia WA, 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in multi-media art and sustainability studies. She has traveled the world and landed in Tulsa, OK where she is the Executive Director and Lead Educator of Under The Canopy LLC. She is a parent to two awesome children and wife to Mykey Arthrell-Knezek. You can learn more about the programs she teaches at www.underthecanopy.org She is a regular contributor to TulsaKids.com and also keeps a personal blog about parenting in all its real and messy forms firstname.lastname@example.org. She was also published in Hilary Frank’s 2019 book, “Weird Parenting Wins.”