In praise of partnerless holidays

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Photo: Jodie Griggs

At least once a year, I pack up my two children and we drive away from my job and the house. We stay somewhere cheap and peaceful, in the company of other mothers and their children. Sometimes there is long-term planning behind these holidays and we spend half a year looking forward to the escape, while other trips are much more spontaneous.

On one occasion, a couple of mothers, as bored with school holidays as I, invited me for an impromptu holiday, leaving that very day. I should be on the run from the law because I can pack fast, even with a child and baby under foot. On that holiday, we ate whatever meals we could assemble from the random ingredients we’d taken from our kitchen cupboards in the rush to escape.

While it is the carefully planned holidays that have undoubtedly been the most successful, it is the impulsiveness of that other holiday that appealed most to me. Because when was the last time I felt some risk in my family routine? When did I last find the day adventurous as a mother? When did I last feel like myself?

Something interesting happens on these holidays with other mothers. The boundaries between families collapse without the fathers there to keep them nuclear. The children roam from cabin to cabin. They eat together and sometimes sleep together. If I am lucky, one of the mothers will take my children with her into a shower and she will wash the salt and sand out of their hair for me while I find their towels. My children will come back to my cabin and tell me about the pimple on her bottom.

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When it is working well, the older children look out for the younger children, although soon enough they get bored and distracted and I have to look for the baby again. If there are enough children in the group, they form and pull apart and re-form during the course of the day in different play configurations with different leaders; sometimes in pairs and sometimes in big groups, like flocks of birds. There are few fights on days like this.

The mothers I holiday with are the relaxed types. I like to watch them for clues. But these holidays are tiring, too, because sometimes there are as many as ten children between us. When we take them to swim in the sea, we walk as far as we can carry the youngest of them and very often that will be to a beach lacking lifeguards. Cheap accommodation is not central to amenities. We herd the children into the sea and then position ourselves around them so we can bunch them up tightly, like hunters circling prey. This way we can count them more easily, an activity that requires an almost painful level of concentration as they bob under and up through the waves, and then we nudge them up the beach every few minutes, away from the riptides they are slipping into.

The children draw with sticks on the sand, the toddler falls asleep in my lap, we find a wobbegong shark for them to see in the water, and they fight over jellyfish eggs, proving that it is possible to squabble over any limited resource, no matter how random. These days are unexpectedly perfect. There is a sense of lost community in these holidays, and I wonder if there was a time when mothering was more like this. Are we simply rediscovering something mothers used to know?

But it is not all sharing and harmony. At some point each mother becomes exhausted by her own children's demands and sometimes this happens simultaneously. The day threatens to shatter and buckle under the weight when the children are suddenly all hungry at once, or when one after another they hurt themselves or lose their things.

You can feel the tension, and everyone is tempted to throw in the towel and call it a day right there. But if we push through this until the children are bathed and fed and quiet again, then we can sit together for a glass of wine. By the evening I am in a kind of awe at these mothers and the way they summon patient voices for the last of their children's needs. I have a gentle voice by then too, but I am not used to observing it from the outside and I always suspect my own voice is less sincere than theirs.   

We talk a bit about men, about the arguments and the failed attempts at sharing workloads fairly. And we talk about sex and how you never really completely know your partner—even after all the intensity and tedium of parenting together, they are still a mystery. And we talk about how that “intensity and tedium” either fuses you closer together or drives you apart.

There are two ways to end the night. The first is here, and most of the mothers I holiday with do, in fact, end it at this point. The children are sleepy and we peel apart to get them to their beds and wash up the dishes and make goodnight phone calls to our partners. We are constrained by separate dwellings and the need to keep to some kind of schedule.

But there is another way to end the evening. I have this other old friend, and when we go on holiday together we often take the children out for a walk along the beach at ten o’clock at night because it is just such a beautiful night, and if they get the cuffs of their pajamas wet and drag sand into the beds, well what does it matter? The walk was lovely. On these walks we will have our best conversation of the entire day. It will happen at that very moment in the evening, and we could have missed it if we had surrendered to the night any earlier. Sometimes it will be the most rewarding conversation I have had in weeks.

It’s times like these where the words of author and poet Adrienne Rich come to mind: “This is what living with children could be—without school hours, fixed routines, naps, the conflict of being both mother and wife with no room for being simply, myself.”

The quote comes from a larger anecdote Rich describes of holidaying alone with her young sons while her husband is working abroad. Without a sense of outside authority in her home Rich discards one ‘rule’ after another. Suddenly she finds mothering both pleasurable and compatible with a sense of self.

Rich wrote these observations back in 1976 in Of Woman Born. Her book was a refreshing and intelligent exploration of the institution of motherhood. Rich has, at times, been unfortunately divisive, but there is no diminishing her importance to motherhood. Her discovery back in the seventies that being a “bad mother” could actually make you a “happy mother,” and that happy mothers are good for their children, should not have been news to me when I started my own journey into motherhood in 2005. But those sentiments of Rich's are as revolutionary today as they were then, more than forty years ago. Motherhood, as an institution, remains oppressive to women today—competitive, artificial, isolated, and individualistic.

While some mothers will find a kind of structure in routine to support the chaos of the demands of mothering, other mothers, many more I suspect, will find a kind of pleasure in the chaos that can be located only when routine is abandoned.

This is an excerpt from Another Way to End the Evening by Andie Fox in The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014. Available for purchase from Amazon