An Unconventional Family Vacation

"Where's the daddy spider?" asked my daughter, Helena. "He's across town in his own web. The baby spiders visit him on weekends."
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Young mother and her daughter splashing in the lake
Young mother and her daughter splashing in the lake

As we sat by the dock of the house I rented last month with my friend, Morghan, our 4-year-olds excitedly pointed to a spider web glistening in the late afternoon Catskill sun.

"Look! A spider!" they shrieked, as only little kids in the summertime can.

"That's the mommy spider," I explained. "And she's going to get that moth so she can feed her babies."

"Where's the daddy spider?" asked my daughter, Helena, who has always had the ability to ask questions that leave me speechless.

"He's across town in his own web," Morghan deadpanned and then threw me a look. Her wry expression mimicked just how I felt: equal parts happy and sad. "The baby spiders visit him on weekends."

That was also our stories, not just the spiders'. We were two moms in different stages of divorce, each armed with a 2- and a 4-year old, sharing a lake house for the week. Along for the ride was Sabine, a French babysitter, who pitched camp in the basement master suite where she entertained the kids while Morghan and I slept in. We'd booked the place at the last minute -- the Astoria daycare our kids attended was closed for the week and we were both desperate for some country air, to say nothing of a break from our intense lives.

We found it. The house surprised us as remarkably large, clean and pretty; the lake was beautiful and the fresh air liberating. The kids ran in and out of screened patio doors, splashing in the kiddie pool on the deck as we took turns barbequing, slathering them with sunscreen and filling water guns. What was not to love?

Morghan and I met four years ago at baby music class. At the time, we both told ourselves that we were happily married. Now I was nearly three years into life as a single mom, and this week away was the latest mark of pride I took in the new life I was creating for my little family. Who better to share it with than another single mom, who was still in the tangle of separation?

After a couple of days we settled into a flow, navigating each other's habits, quelling our own expectations and finding ways to give each other a break from four preschoolers' squabbling, need of food, potty and naps. Despite it all, we were committed to having a good time. Sabine's nightly hand-mixed Mojitos didn't hurt.

We took turns entertaining the kids -- Morghan took them fishing where they'd catch sunnies, and my heart filled as Lucas, my 2-year-old, yelled and laughed as she stoically gripped the little fish and removed the hook. Then a couple of our tan, tired kids jumped into the paddle boat with me and we'd cruise around looking for turtles while waving at neighbors on their speedboats. "You have to help your mom peddle!" they called, laughing at the kids' bare feet dangling off the seat.

Our temporary, 24/7 union was not perfect. Afternoons we'd wrangle everyone to a local beach where I'd give Morghan the stink eye for checking her Blackberry too often. She'd later return the favor by grumbling about my healthy cooking, which the kids barely ate. And when we'd had enough, we'd call in Sabine, who helped with dinner and amused the kids by juggling heads of garlic. It teetered on the perfect "Brady Bunch" household -- Sabine standing in as every mother's fantasy Alice.

Then we'd tag-team bedtime in the house's loft, and when all was quiet we stretched out on the deck, Mojitos in hand. Morghan -- coincidentally, a divorce attorney -- offered up advice on child support, and I -- further along in my breakup -- counseled her on dating and moving on. We looked at real estate on our iPhones' Zillow apps and dreamily imagined our futures -- a townhouse in Queens with a unit to rent out, perhaps? Maybe an apartment in the city with a weekend place upstate?

There were so many unknowns about where we were headed, each of us simultaneously thrilled and overwhelmed by the prospect of doing it all by ourselves. Our marriages over, our kids so small with big school decisions to be made, each of us growing our businesses as we stitched our hearts back in place, pulled our children close, and stepped forward into the rest of our lives.

"When I have experiences like this, I feel a sense of triumph," I said to Morghan on our last day at the lake, "like I'm creating a great life for my kids and me, even if it isn't the life I initially imagined."

Morghan, barely separated, felt differently. She worried that this would be one of the few fun times she'd share with her children, as she focused on earning a living while managing their daily lives. Meanwhile, her soon-to-be ex spent his visits taking them on adventures around the city and feeding them ice cream.

On most days I felt that my family of three was stable and whole and happy. However, the initial thought of a summer vacation with just me and the kids struck me as boring and lonely. There would have been no one to share and appreciate the beauty of the mountains, or the way kids seemingly blossom in new places, or laugh weeks later at the memory of them relentlessly screaming on what would be a four-minute canoe ride.

"This has been a good trip for me," Morghan said, finally. "It's good to wake up and have adult conversation with my coffee."

I knew what she meant. People often marveled at my seeming ability to "do it all." But no matter how efficiently I gather moths for my babies, it never quite feels like enough. "Yeah," I said. "Morning conversation is important."