When It's Mom's Time to Leave

Why isn't it OK to jump off and explore the world without my family? Why did I feel like I was abandoning my post? My partner leaves once or twice a year, for a week or two, and no one even remarks on it. It's culturally acceptable for him to leave.
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No one has the same story. No book can predict the right age or the exact date, and no "expert" or blogger will ever know better than you, so let's make that perfectly clear.

But at some point, someday, moms... we are going to have to leave our children.

I just left my 3-year-old for the first time for 10 days, offline, on another continent. It was excruciating, liberating and completely disorienting. I struggled to find the balance in having two arms again, the seemingly endless time to focus on my own needs and desires, my hands searching for things to do despite my brain's insistence that I could finally sit still.

Before I left, I got a pedicure (my toes suddenly unfit for public consumption without a child on my hip). The 19-year-old pedicurist asked what I was looking forward to the most. I was, after all, going to Paris and Florence, two of the most iconic cities in the world. I replied that from where I was sitting, a 10-hour flight all to myself was as far as I could imagine (it had been a long time since I'd been alone for 10 hours). I explained how I planned to read a book cover-to-cover and to cry openly to a sappy movie while drinking red wine from tiny bottles.

She looked up, shocked, and said, "Wow, that is soooo sad. See, that's why I'm NEVER having kids, cause a 10-hour flight sounds like total hell to me!"

And that is the difference between motherhood and everything else. And, yes, 19-year-old, it is kind of sad.

I have deferred every moment, every best-laid-plan, every nugget of personal desire for my daughter. Often willingly, sometimes begrudgingly, once or twice with pure white rage inside, but she has always come first. Not only am I unpaid for this work, it is rarely even acknowledged as work, with friends and family regularly asking, "What are you doing with your life now that you're a mom?"

This is the "Catch 22" that catches me every time.

In reality, I don't have a life outside of being a mom. What semblance of a life I manage to scrape together sounds pathetic when you don't factor in the 60 hours a week I spend taking care of a tiny, evolving human. But, culturally, I'm still expected to have a vibrant life outside of motherhood. So I end up saying words like "consultant" and "writer" to paint a slightly more palatable picture of my days than "butt-wiper" and "short-order cook"... though my greasy hair and snotty sweatshirt aren't foolin' anyone.

For now, motherhood is my life. I chose it, I'm living it and I'm leaning into it...

But sometimes, I can hear a rumble from my former self. Her spirit lays dormant, waiting patiently for her turn.

"Take turns!" My daughter reminds me daily and it occurs to me that if I don't give me a turn, if I don't learn to share with myself, what is she actually learning? Like so many of us, she too might come to see motherhood as an end, not a beginning.

I watched as my mom gave up everything for my brother and I. We were poor and he was sick with cancer and she was hard to find under the weight of that blanket. In the shadow of caring for everyone else, she stopped caring for herself much. Plus, her generation of moms were fighting just to be allowed to work outside the home, while my generation of moms are expected to work outside the home, raise amazing kids and still look good in a little black dress come date night... thus, most of us feel like we're failing.

I am determined to break this cycle for my daughter. I want to her to know that motherhood is a metamorphosis from which she can emerge stronger and more whole than before. I want her to feel her alone-ness in the world and make friends with it.

In order to do that, I must leave.

When the opportunity came for me to travel this spring, I took it. Some guilt arose at first and I found myself telling other moms that I was going for work, which wasn't remotely true. I just couldn't manage to say, "I'm off on a girl's trip to wander, eat, sleep and be inspired by Italy!"

But why not? Why isn't it OK to jump off and explore the world without my family? Why did I feel like I was abandoning my post? My partner leaves once or twice a year, for a week or two, and no one even remarks on it. It's culturally acceptable for him to leave.

If one more person said what a "great husband" I have for "letting me go" on this trip, I was going to scream! He is a good husband because he pulls half his weight, makes special time for our daughter and stands by my growth... but that should be the standard, not the exception. And, believe it or not, it was his idea that I go. He wanted our daughter to know for certain that he had her back, that if something were to happen to me, she would have him completely and that he can do everything too. He wanted her to see a fully-functioning, full-time father who can play dress up, braid her hair and cook. He wanted her to understand that it's fun when dad steps in and mom takes a break.

If we are going to raise happy, balanced children, then we have to model equality in our relationships and our independent, ever-changing, selves outside of the home. And we have to show them that it's healthy, even joyful, to be alone.

Now, I realize that my having an able and supportive partner, plus a generous best friend and a highly-involved community, is a privilege that not everyone enjoys. This is what allowed me to leave.

What allows you to leave will look different. No one has the same story, and for many moms, especially the millions raising kids without partners and family support, a real break is impossible... for now. But there will come a time when it's safe to leave your kids and it's up to you to have the courage to do it. And I'm not talking about cleaning the house or grocery shopping while your kids are in school or daycare. I'm talking about letting them know that mom is taking a break. It has become all too common for mom's to carry the entire burden of child-rearing, all while not inserting a single need of their own. But it doesn't serve our children, it doesn't serve our families and it breeds resentment to play the martyr all the time.

For our daughters, who will become the next mothers, we need to demonstrate that "personal time" is part of creating a balanced life; it's part of motherhood. For our sons, who will become the next fathers, we need to imprint experiences of fatherhood that are whole and complete.

Our choices and our patterns will be etched into the fabric of our children's lives and they do not disappear... even our invisibility leaves a mark.

So, if your time away is a long bus ride going nowhere while your children are cared for by a neighbor, a trip to the movies alone one evening when a close friend can step in, a night off while your partner takes the reigns, or a personal getaway in row 36 seat C... you've got to go! And you've got to make sure your kids know you're going.

Think about it as part of good parenting, make your plans and leave. Be your best when you get back and show your little ones that mom has a fullness and a brilliance that extends beyond them... and that they have it too.

When I got home from my trip, my little girl had three things to say:

"Daddy can figure it out!"

"I want to go on adventures when I'm a big girl!"

And... "Where's mommy going next?"

And for that, all the stress and heartache over leaving her for the first time were worth it. She knows that she's just fine in the world without me, that other adults love her and can fully take care of her and that I can thrive in the world without her...and there is no price tag on that gift.


Kiri Westby
Changemaker, Rulebreaker, Storyteller

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