Ten years ago, Lee and John Bath, both aged 44, found themselves in a familiar pickle. It was school holidays and they wanted to take their kids away for a break. The problem was, as full-time workers, they each were entitled to only four weeks' annual leave. No matter how they looked at it, they couldn't see a way to stretch their leave to cover the 12 weeks the kids had off school. Something had to give.
After some serious brainstorming, the couple devised a plan. Instead of going away together they would take turns holidaying with the kids, leaving the other parent at home to continue working. Thus began their ongoing love affair with the "one-parent holiday".
Going away with the kids is wonderful, says Lee, a public servant. You get a break from routine, the chance to explore a new destination and create lasting family memories. But staying home alone to work is an unexpected thrill. "I have to admit, I love it," Lee says. "It's a perverse kind of pleasure. Obviously I miss John and the kids when they're gone, but I don't wish them home any sooner."
From the moment her family walks out the door, Lee indulges in every mother's fantasy: having the entire house to herself. While she says John uses his time "productively" when she's away (doing handyman jobs and cupboard overhauls on top of his day job as a contractor), she engages in her favourite pastime, binge-watching an impressive amount of TV at the end of the working day. She's so far seen all the episodes of Orange Is the New Black, Breaking Bad and Suits. Next on her list is Hung and Pretty Little Liars. "I have to do all my 'low-brow' TV watching when John isn't around to judge me," she says.
At the same time, she kisses the housework goodbye. To minimise cooking and cleaning, Lee becomes a master of eggs, "fried, scrambled or boiled". Putting the dishes away would be a waste of time, so "the frypan stays in the sink until I need it again".
When it's not dinner, most food is eaten on the go. "I eat straight out of packets and never sit down at the table – a handful of nuts, a chunk of capsicum, a slice of ham," she says.
It gets better. To further reduce her need to clean up after meals, Lee cuts some interesting corners. "It isn't unusual for me to buy a cooked chook on the way home [from work] and in the 10 minutes [it takes me to drive] from the shop to our place, I have eaten half of it," she says.
With domestic duties discarded, it's on the weekends that Lee's life as a home-alone parent really shines. She books herself massages, pedicures and manicures. "I go to the shops and waste hours clothes-and shoe-shopping," she adds. (It's okay, you can swoon.)
She doesn't just swan around town in day spas and boutiques. Lee also basks in that most rare and precious of weekend activities: pottering around the house. On those days, she showers and then hops straight back into her pyjamas.
"I sit and finish a coffee without having to heat it up in the microwave. I waste time on Facebook without feeling guilty that I should be doing something else."
Psychologist Madonna Hirning says the one-parent holiday may be the ultimate modern-day solution for families. "The human brain is wired to thrive on novelty, so doing things in new ways and breaking from set routines can definitely be good for everyone." The partner who goes away gets precious time with the children, while the partner left behind has a chance to "enjoy some [possibly] rare freedom".
Andrea Robinson, marketing director of STA Travel, confirms that one-parent holidays are on the rise. "It's becoming more and more common for one parent to take leave from work to travel with their children, while their partner continues to work," she says.
Life-balance coach Fiona Craig says being home alone is a "chance to be selfish, with more freedom and less responsibility". But it's men who are most likely to be left solo. She says mothers, often the primary caregivers, are more likely to "ask for flexible jobs and hours" and have more holidays. (Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from 2012 show almost half of employed women worked part-time, compared to less than 15 per cent of working men.)
When left to his own devices, Craig says, the man of the house can "walk around in his underwear, play video games and have his mates over. He can relive his old bachelor days or rediscover who he really is, and not worry about being lumped with the responsibility as a father, lover and provider."
While the free time is often spent indulging in harmless "guilty pleasures" such as binge-watching TV, being home alone can lead to more risqué pursuits.
Love and relationship coach Katie Austin says some men – particularly those who view sex as a form of "stress relief" – may be more likely to cheat when the family's away. So if hubby is left at home to work, work, work, the pressure can build.
But for Tim James*, 39, a sports reporter, being left alone when his family leaves town is simply about having downtime. When his wife Jess*, 36, a freelance writer, takes the kids to stay with her sister this summer, Tim will take the opportunity to relax.
"I always hope to squeeze in a game of golf at some stage ... but more often than not I'm just happy to be home in the peace and quiet," Tim says. He also indulges in culinary behaviours he knows Jess won't approve of, such as gorging on chorizo-laden frittatas for dinner, and having the leftovers the next day for breakfast. He also downs extra beers while watching footy "guilt-free".
Tim may embrace a quasi-bachelor lifestyle while Jess is away, but he reverts to his gentlemanly ways before her return. He changes the sheets, takes out the rubbish and makes sure the house doesn't resemble a den of slothfulness.
Jess knows she's lucky to have a flexible job that gives her the ability to travel with her kids. But she is also wondering if Tim has the better deal. "There's no doubt staying home, even if it is to work, is the easier of the two options," she says. "Yes, the kids and I are on holidays, but the truth is it just means doing the same old daily stuff, but in a different location."
Nicole Leedham, 47, a copywriter, agrees the home-alone parent is the lucky one. She enjoyed taking the kids to America last year for three weeks – sightseeing in Washington, spending four fun-filled days in Disneyland and lounging on the beach in Hawaii – but she came home so exhausted that, a few weeks later, she organised a weekend away minus the kids.
"I was the one who needed a holiday when we got back," she muses.
Meanwhile, her husband Rob Humphrey, 48, a winemaker, played his music extra loud and also enjoyed seeing a movie – "a rare treat".
But being home alone isn't as fun for everyone. Steve Mathison*, 40, who works in finance, thought he'd live it up when his wife Siobhan*, 38, a manager, took their two small kids to Ireland for six weeks to see family.
"I ended up working long hours and coming home late at night and having a bowl of cereal," he says. The idea of having "massive nights" remained a pipedream. An old friend visited from the country and they planned to hit the town – but they were too tired.
"We got nice takeaway food, watched a movie at home, and felt very old," Steve laughs. "Being home alone without the kids is not all it's cracked up to be. It's lovely for an afternoon or a night, but then it's lonely, silent and [you feel like] most of your life is missing."
Siobhan adds, "Before we left, he thought it'd be like being back at uni – but with money this time. But he realised his life had moved on from the 'lad' stage and, even if he wanted to, he didn't move in those circles any more anyway. Life had become all about the family, and the same for his mates." Next time, they have resolved to travel together.
But Lee will continue to savour her home-alone time. For the rest of the year she is doing the heavy lifting when it comes to domestic and mothering duties, as well as bringing in an income. "Essentially, I give myself permission to be a complete sloth," she says. "If I start to feel guilty, I push the feeling aside, as I know that in a week or two weeks' time it will be back to 'action stations'."
In other words, Lee says, going away with the kids is fun, but staying home to work is the real holiday.
*Not their real names