A Parenting Away Game
Just one day out of life ... it would be so nice (A TNF Remaster™️)
“No man needs a vacation so much as the man who has just had one.”
– Elbert Hubbard
Expectant parents soon tire of one constant refrain: "Everything changes when you have kids."
It's normally followed up with proof points: a fresh perspective on what matters in life, a "temporary" halting of your sleep schedule, or the metaphorical multiplying of your heart.
But there's another big change that rarely gets talked about—the end of the holiday, at least as you once knew it.
When you finally manage to break through the baby fog and bag yourself one, they're an off-kilter echo of what they once were—like drinking a sugar-free Coke, accidentally listening to a cover version on Spotify, or trying on a shirt that doesn't fit like it used to.
In the days Before Children (B.C.), holidays were a time to recharge. A week—maybe more—to detach from the day job, to work your way through a suitcase full of books and a well-stocked bar, whilst all you hoped for was sun and a western-facing viewpoint to exhaust your camera roll with a hundred identical sunset shots.
Post-kids? They're something else entirely. No longer a time for rest, at least by the old yardstick. It's a parenting away game: in a new place, and without your home ground advantage; up against formidable opponents who are out of their regular routine; on full-time duty, more exhausted than you were in the office, and making it up as you go along. It's simultaneously wonderful and terrifying—a microcosm of the parenting experience all at once, a beautiful chaos, living atop of one another in a hotel room.
Holidays as a memory making machine
So why do we do it? Part of it is a break from the routine. To get away from the steady drumbeat of parenting: waking them up, making sure they're fed, getting them dressed, exiting the house in a whirlwind of flailing limbs, managing all your own shit at work, then collecting them, trying your best to feed them, wash them and finally get them to bed, just to fall asleep in front of the TV to later have Netflix ridicule you with “Are you still watching?” before you hit the sack and start all over again the next day.
But if it was just about escaping the humdrum, I'm not sure we'd place so much importance on time off. The key factor—for my money, at least—is the unique ability of the family holiday as a memory maker. Close your eyes, just for a second, and think back to a vacation from your own childhood. I'm sure it won’t be long before something clear and concrete comes to the fore.
My mind takes me back to sometime around 1991. It was a Eurocamp location on Île de Ré, a small island off the west coast of France. We'd driven down in the car from Manchester, our first trip that wasn't Ireland-bound. We'd wake up every morning at the crack of dawn, pick up a fresh baguette (très chic), take it back to our lime green tent and devour it for breakfast with with spoonfuls of strawberry jam and whatever cheese we were brave enough to try that day.
It was an eye-opening experience, and the first time we met other children that weren't like us. We made friends with two Dutch kids in the tent next door, amazed at their English ("they're the same age as us and they speak TWO LANGUAGES!") We played board games together, smiling at their pronunciation of "Mono-poly", and how it rhymed with "roly-poly". We stayed up late (at least we thought it was, it was probably only 8.30pm), running around the campsite with our new European copains, convincing the pool manager to open the piscine one evening, swimming under the light of a full moon, in awe of more stars than we'd ever seen, our parents enjoying a drink or two with new friends who were similarly relieved to have a few minutes peace to themselves.
Last year we took the short flight from Barcelona to Mallorca for 10 days of island living. We’re there again, right now, as you read this. Like many who took the plunge last summer, it was our first real vacation since THE UNPRECEDENTED TIMES began. I first came to the island with baggage—both of the literal kind (travelling with two kids is no joke) and the metaphorical too. For those of from the UK, you'll have grown up with a murky view of Mallorca: it was primarily known for the resort town of Maguluf, home of the Club 18-30 holiday, marketed as a place for "sun, sand and sex", who ran adverts like this on TV in the 90s (can you even imagine that running today, let alone winning a Gold Lion at Cannes, the ultimate award for any commercial?)
Within a day of arriving at our quiet, quaint town in the middle of the island, I realised I couldn't have been more wrong: golden beaches seemed to be at the end of every street, aquamarine seas that looked Photoshopped, and to the north the most stunning mountain range holding us in it's embrace. The kids spent at least five hours a day in some kind of water, and I was getting worried they might grow gills if we stayed any longer. We left with sand in our suitcase and smiles on our faces.
A holiday away from your family
Sure, holidays feel different now. And the family vacation will keep changing, as our children get older. But as parents we need to start thinking about time off in two different ways. There's the holiday you take with your kids, the aforementioned memory makers. Then there's the holiday you take from them. This second type of vacation isn't as common, though it needs to be. For the last two Easter weekends my wife has taken the kids to the UK to see her parents. I stayed in Barcelona, seeing friends, catching up on reading, walking in the Collserola, cycling to the beach and watching sunrises. In a strange way, it was like a pre-kid holiday—quiet time, mine to do whatever I wanted.
First time round, I didn't expect one week to be so transformational. I've had time away from my kids, sure. But it was always for work. This was dramatically different. When they came back, I felt like I'd been away for a spa week, or a meditation retreat—fully recharged, afresh, anew. And so glad to see them again. I’d missed them all so much, and realised that I actually missed missing them—we'd been together so long that I'd forgotten how that felt.
When this essay first went out, it was a week late. And the reason why was that I was in Manchester, visiting family and travelling solo with two kids, whilst my wife had the same kind of time to herself. And honestly? I absolutely underestimated how relentless that experience would be. It was the first time I had them on my own for longer than a night. This newsletter normally takes me about 10 hours a week. And I just couldn’t find the time. I was jumping between parenting and a calendar full of meetings, leaning on family members to keep an eye on the kids for 30 minutes while taking a call or replying to an email. Thinking about that week was a contributing factor in the decision to take this summer off, properly. One recurring thought of the week: how in the hell do single parents with a full-time job do this? By the time my kids went to bed I wasn't far behind.
Robert Orben once said "a vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it." He clearly wasn't on a weeklong holiday with his kids. But what might it look like if the vacation away from your family became just as normal as the one with them?
These two holidays are complimentary, and just as essential as each other. The time you spend alone makes you a better parent for when you're back together.
It could be a week, maybe a weekend, or—like Madonna famously said—“just one day out of life”.
What would you do with it?
“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”
― Maya Angelou
An earlier version of this essay was published in August 2021. This one is better. And you probably weren’t even here then! What did you think? Your feedback helps me make this great.