Recently, my wife and children up and did something pretty unusual for our family: They left the house, and the town, for four days.
Everybody left: my wife, the two kids, Blankie, Meow, the iPads (which have basically assumed family status). Only the fish, who are exceedingly difficult to bring on planes, remained. They all flew north to visit my wife’s extended family, a trip I skipped because of work and because, at some point, I was provided the option to avoid a six-hour round-trip one-connection flight with a small child. I love that shrieking little potato to pieces, but come on. If you’ve yet to enjoy the process of changing a loaded diaper in the sprawling comfort of airline lavatory, let me put it this way: Have you ever had to put on a full suit of English chain mail in a phone booth? Because that’s a three-month luxury vacation to French Polynesia compared to changing a diaper in an airline lavatory.
A little warning: The balance of this story may unnerve those with an aversion to being apart from their families for extended periods of time; it may also burn feverish jealousy in those who don’t. So let’s get out of the way that of course I missed them and of course I was thrilled when they came home. But that interim period, those four days of not-screen time monitoring and not-daily dishes and not-cleaning up 38 impossibly adhesive strands of fallen spaghetti noodles after every single dinner… let’s just say these four days were not the worst thing to ever befall me.
It’s a good idea to revisit this state now and again, not necessarily by shipping your family away, but in whatever small way you can.
The first morning began with airport security-check goodbyes and that curious stew of sadness and freedom that, if you are me, demands you maximize every nanosecond, squeeze the last bleeding drops of value out of the endlessly promising downtime you’ve been insanely afforded. (I felt like Phineas and Ferb in the summer, a reference I resolved not to make for a while.)
The second morning began with zero obligations. None. Do you remember the last time you woke up with actually nothing to do, no one in the house and nothing that needed attention, a waffle, or a walk? It’s a deeply unsettling feeling; I ended up putting on my running shoes and heading out to a trail because … actually, I have no idea why. Because my central nervous system is only satisfied if it’s engaged in semi-pointless motion? I found myself driving there mostly because I thought “Shouldn’t I be driving someplace?”
I spent the next day at a park with several hundred tourists, all of whom I avoided completely by putting on shoes and hiking in whatever direction was closest. This was a theme of the weekend, actually: the amount of people that I didn’t talk to. Aside from the nice folks at a barbecue joint and a grocery-store cashier, I really didn’t speak to any other live humans for about three days, which started by accident and then ended up being a policy I guarded jealously. (Managed pretty well to stay off the grid too, so my apologies to anyone who’s still waiting to beat me in Words With Friends.) I sat by the river and got dinner, I watched boats and clouds. I was either embarked on a stress-dissolving, mind-clearing Thoreau-inspired spell of protracted self-reflection, or I became a cat lady. I cleared out some of the clutter that drives me to complete the bottomless roster of tasks in the house, rather than be present with my wife and children.
It was mostly the temporary obliteration of the routine; not so much that the kids weren’t around, but that for a few days, I was.
When your family departs for a substantial period of time, people warn you about how weird it is to not hear all that joyful noise, though I always found “joyful” a highly suspicious adjective in this case. And, yes, there is something instinctually unsettling about the instant absence of activity, knowing that no one is upstairs covering your laptop in Wheat Thin crumbles, no one is maybe in the cabinet with the cleaning supplies, no one is trying to figure out who’s picking up which kid from which karate session. After a few days, it got old and lonely, and I wanted my people back. But if there was supposed to be a moment of clarity, a gut-punch of a missing feeling, I was neither blissful nor melancholy. Mostly, it was super-weird. And that weirdness was great.
It was weird less because of the freeing of the usual morning obligations, making breakfasts and lunches, remembering that Tuesday is swim-bag day, sweeping up the garbage swamp of under-table post-dinner debris, hanging out with my wife for the 25 minutes between the kids’ bedtime and hers — all the things that parents count as givens and non-breeders count as some of the primary reasons to never procreate, to never forfeit that freedom. It was less the lack of ironclad times that I needed to be places, less the curious notion that the floor of the laundry room had zero clothes on it. It was mostly the temporary obliteration of the routine; not so much that the kids weren’t around, but that for a few days, I was. It’s a good idea to revisit this state now and again, not necessarily by shipping your family away, but in whatever small way you can.
Epilogue: When I picked them up at the airport, the kids covered in Wheat Thin dust and toting iPads, it was nothing but joyful, actually legitimately non-suspicious joyful. Except maybe for my red-eyed two-hour-layover-in-Charlotte wife. She is very much due for a four-day break. She gave me this gift; I’ll gladly return the favor.