Haven’t you ever just wanted to disappear? Be a gone girl? Just take off on a personal journey and not worry about anyone else but yourself? Or maybe it isn’t even as meaningful as taking a personal journey, but just get the hell outta Dodge and take a break from reality? I have a friend, an amazing woman, who recently decided to take off for Kashmir for several weeks because, well, she wanted to. While she was there she discovered some interesting pathways she could follow in her PhD research, which was an added bonus, but she was initially driven by her deep desire to experience this place that she felt a longing for, a connection to. This all sounds great, right? Here’s the rub – she is a mother of three and she caught some heat because of her decision. She didn’t go for very long, but she still experienced judgment and disapproval. It got me thinking about being a woman and a mother and an adventurer, and how those things sometimes have a hard time coexisting, especially when women are often quick to judge and criticize other women for their choices.
Back in the 90s I used to watch the sitcom Mad About You with the incredible Helen Hunt and hilarious Paul Reiser. They played an adorable married couple, Paul and Jaime Buchman, navigating life in NYC, marriage, careers, and all of the other things young married couples must navigate. In the last season of the show they had a baby. I will never forget the scene when, before the baby is born, it hits Jaime that she is going to be tied to this child in a way that Paul isn’t. She is spinning out a bit, ranting about how she doesn’t understand why Paul won’t be able to assume more of the responsibility, and why will she have to stay home more, work less, etc. His response is, “Because you’re the mommy.” She stops dead, her face drops, and she responds with heart racing, “Oh My God, I’m the mommy, I’M THE MOMMY!” Paul immediately rushes to her side to comfort her, but calmly affirms that yes, you are going to be the primary care giver because you will, in fact, be the mommy. This scene has stayed with me all these years because I remember feeling what she was feeling in that moment, that as a woman, if you have a child, like it or not you are the mommy! You are the one who will be expected to be the primary nurturer of the child. Yes, I know there are all sorts of modern families, and more and more families are non traditional, with moms working more and dads staying home, or two moms raising children together, or two dads, and all of that is absolutely fantastic! But the bottom line is, even with the changing landscape of what defines a family, women are still expected to be around more than men. If my friend’s husband had taken off to Kashmir for two weeks, nobody would have batted an eye. After all, she would have been the one home with the children, and isn’t that how it is supposed to be?
It turns out I have many more female friends who have never left their children for more than one or two overnights than female friends who have gone on an extended adventure sans offspring. For some of them it is simply lack of opportunity. For others, overwhelming guilt about the idea of leaving the kids for a few days, or a week, or more. And for others it is simply that with the limited amount of time off that they get, they don’t want to go somewhere without their families. There are all sorts of reasons it is hard to disconnect from our kids for more than a day or two, not the least of which is our desire to be the best moms we can be. Something definitely feels wrong about packing up and taking off for a week or two, and leaving our children in the hands of someone else. But when that someone else is their father (or other parent), it seems to me it should be perfectly okay to disconnect for a period of time to foster our own personal growth. That might be in the form of two nights away with our girlfriends. It could be two weeks in a country we have always wanted to see. In the world of geology, it could even be a month away doing fieldwork for our research. In my wildest fantasies it could be a week on a beach with a cocktail and a good book! None of these situations should cause anyone to brand a woman a bad mother. But the reality is, people are quick to judge, especially when you are a mom. I read an article recently about how modern American parenting is ruining modern American marriages. The idea is that we are so committed to our children’s every need and desire that we often forget ourselves. We give up opportunities to be alone, or be with our spouses, because we think we are bad parents if we don’t put our children above all else.
I would go a step further and say as women, we are more prone to sacrificing our own needs and desires to keep the kids, the spouse, the employer, and the family happy. If putting our kids on a pedestal is ruining modern marriages, couldn’t us putting everyone else but ourselves on a pedestal ruin the modern woman?
I have personal experience with this. My husband and I are both geologists. When we were graduate students we both did fieldwork in Tibet for months at a time. We disappeared, went off the grid for 100 days at a time, blissfully unplugging from our regular lives. At the time, we were not married, we did not have children, and the disappearing was part of our work, so it was never really questioned or judged. Actually, my mom questioned and judged it, mainly because she was terrified I was going to die out there and she would never see me again. She also questioned my choice to live in a tent with no running water for months at a time, as that seemed extremely unappealing to her. Whose kid was I who wanted to go for months without a shower? Surely not hers. Anyway, taking off was accepted as part of our lifestyle back then, and we were lucky to have the opportunities that we had to do this before the responsibilities of real life crept in. Now, the responsibilities of real life have crept in, set down roots and taken over like Kudzu. You might be thinking that we stopped going to places like Tibet for extended periods of time because we have kids and jobs, and that makes sense. In fact, I have stopped going anywhere for field research, mainly because my position doesn’t require me to do field research, but also because with two young children it has never seemed opportune for me to disappear for extended periods of time, and I know I would miss the little monsters terribly. However, my husband never stopped doing fieldwork. It was never even discussed as a possibility. He misses them when he travels, but doesn’t seem to worry that his absence will fuck them up monumentally. Shortly after our first son was born he was diagnosed with a type of pulmonary stenosis. It manifested as a murmur that the pediatrician picked up on during a routine check. His aorta was too narrow and his heart couldn’t pump the blood out efficiently. This caused a build up of pressure inside of his heart. They were hopeful that he would outgrow this issue, but we had to take him in for monitoring every couple of months. He had a limited amount of time in which this needed to resolve or they would perform open-heart surgery to expand the aorta. This was terrifying to me, a first time mother, with this tiny little baby who seemed to be in perfect health. All of this was happening right before the start of one of my husband’s field seasons. Our son was diagnosed with this problem in late February and Paul (hubby) was supposed to leave for Tibet in May. We talked about him canceling his field trip but in the end decided he should go. It was only six weeks of fieldwork (yes, that is considered short for us), and even if our son needed the surgery it would be at least six weeks on a wait list before the surgery could take place. So off Paul went, with my blessing, and home I stayed with my little baby boy, a brand new mom, facing the possibility that I would be told this precious little guy would need open-heart surgery. I never faulted Paul for going in the field – we made the decision together and if I had wanted him to stay home he would have stayed home. But what would have happened if I were the one who had to go into the field for research? What kind of mother would people have judged me to be if I took off while we were waiting to hear if our six month old needed open-heart surgery? I suspect I would have been labeled a horrible, heartless mother and shamed for the rest of my days. And I probably would have believed it.
To be fair, Paul is primarily a field geologist, and fieldwork is a necessary part of his work. It is also his passion, the main reason he got into geology in the first place. I never even considered that he would stop doing fieldwork, so it is not like I wanted him to stop and he refused. His fieldwork excursions are just part of our yearly experience. The reality of fieldwork lives inside our relationship like a permanent pillar. It isn’t going anywhere. On some level I am completely fine with this – I mean, I married a field geologist after all, and wouldn’t it be crazy to expect a field geologist to give up fieldwork? Yes, it would, at least for my husband who would probably lose him marbles if he couldn’t get into the field at least once a year and flex his mental (and physical) muscles. On another level, though, I wonder why it has never really come up that I don’t get to unplug every year, for several weeks at a time, from the daily realities of being a parent. Yes, when my husband does it, it is for work, so it is not like he is taking off on vacation. But if you were to ask him about fieldwork he would not describe it as strictly work. It is not as if he grudgingly goes because he has to. He chooses to keep fieldwork as a vital component of his research because he absolutely loves it. He tells me that he is calm, happy, and revitalized after a trip to Tibet, or South America, or Egypt, or Tajikistan, or any of the places he has visited for fieldwork. That sounds a lot like a vacation to me! I believe this revitalization he feels is only partly because of the rush of the work and of being in the field, but also in large part because he can spend several weeks not being a dad, and just being a geologist, a scientist, a man. Doesn’t that sound excellent?
I have been able to escape for ten days at a stretch, which is absolutely amazing and don’t knock it till you try it. Seriously. I highly recommend it. I am lucky that I have a mother who is happy to take our boys for ten days at a time so Paul and I can adventure together. On one of these trips we kayaked the NaPali coast of Kauai, one of the top 10 adventures in the world according to National Geographic magazine. On another trip, we spent ten days exploring Uganda and tracked mountain gorillas in the impenetrable forest, a mind-blowing, once in a lifetime adventure. I am thankful for these opportunities and don’t want to downplay their importance in my life. But not once have I ever considered leaving for two or three weeks without my husband, just me, to pursue a passion, do research, or just plain unplug from life. It just doesn’t seem like an option. In fact, the first time Paul and I were leaving our son to go on a trip together, I was talking with a great aunt of mine on the phone, and I told her about how excited I was for our first vacation away from the baby. Her response was, “Oh, how nice. My granddaughter would never dream of vacationing without the kids. The kids are part of the family, why would they go anywhere without them? Oh well, whatever works for you, I guess.” Her voice dripped with judgment and sarcasm. Why would they go anywhere without the kids? Because they are human, and need time alone together to foster their marital relationship, and kids are exhausting and we all need a break from them, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be something besides mommy sometimes…etc. I was dumbstruck and didn’t reply. I also have heard, many times, from friends and family, “How can you let Paul take off for weeks at a time and leave you alone with the kids? I couldn’t do it.” Well, some of it is that I am the type of person who likes a challenge, likes to be independent, and honestly CAN do it without him. Also, everyone needs time apart, and it really does make the heart grow fonder, which is great for our relationship. And finally, I married a field geologist and never considered that long stretches away would stop being a part of our lives. But I also never really considered that I, too, would need time away. I just assumed I would be at home and that would be just fine. Mostly it is. What isn’t fine is the assumption that I will be home, and that if I am not home I am neglectful. That sucks.
Now on to a different example, fellow geologists Paul and I went to graduate school with who are married with two kids, and both incorporate fieldwork into their lives. It didn’t start out that way. It began with the husband being the primary fieldworker, and the wife being the primary care giver, and resentment started to build. She had just as much need to be in the field as he did, but as is common, it was assumed she would be home with the kids. It just made more sense. Or did it? It wasn’t making sense for her, and she told her husband that she needed more time to do her work. They ended up keeping track of every day, every hour that each of them gets away from the kids, and making sure the other gets the exact same amount of time kid free. He tells us it is hard, and that he often gets much more time away from the kids, and finds himself facing quite a debt of time that he owes his wife. But ultimately, it works for them. It keeps any resentment from flourishing. Just last night Paul and I were out to dinner with friends and someone asked me if he was planning on going to Tibet next summer. I replied that he was done with Tibet fieldwork for a while, but he would be going to northern China, or Tajikistan, or somewhere else because a year cannot go by without some sort of fieldwork. My friend commented, “He owes you quite a bit of time away, doesn’t he?” This friend is a man, and I was a bit stunned, and grateful, to hear him say that. Hell yeah, he does owe me quite a bit of time away. I don’t think I can ever cash in, though, as I would end up missing a year or two of my kids’ lives. Even if I spread them out, I don’t have enough time off of work to make good on the cashing in of all my accrued away days. But we don’t keep track, and I don’t make plans to disappear, and that is my choice, but it is also my curse. It just doesn’t feel possible. It just doesn’t feel right. Because I’m the mommy. Oh. My. God. I’M THE MOMMY!
My friend who went to Kashmir told me it was one of the most wonderful experiences of her life. She went back not long after her first trip, for a couple of weeks, and again was given hell by many people for abandoning her kids. Both times her kids were home with their father, by the way, and were perfectly well cared for. She came home a happier, healthier human being, which I would argue benefits her kids. They may not know it now, but seeing their mom be independent and adventurous will influence how they expect their lives, and wives, to be. It is especially great for her daughter to have that kind of female role model in her life. If I could take off somewhere and spend two weeks doing nothing but writing I know I would come back a happier, healthier human being, which would also benefit my kids. I don’t think I know of one woman who would not benefit from being a gone girl at some point in their adult lives, making a conscious decision to disconnect from kids, spouses, and daily life to do something purely for themselves. Whether it be work related (doing research, writing, meeting new colleagues, marketing, networking), pursuing a passion, adventuring, or just plain taking a break, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting, needing, and expecting time to yourself beyond the occasional hour or two when dad takes the kids to the movies so you can stay home alone and paint your toenails. Don’t get me wrong, those little snippets of time are a delightful treat and we should expect them (not beg for them). But we should expect more, too. And if our spouses don’t have to go do fieldwork, or travel for work, they should also expect more. Men and women, moms and dads, we all need time away from reality to recharge our souls in one way or another. Lucky for men, it seems to be acceptable when they do it. But it should be acceptable for women too. It doesn’t have to be weeks, maybe just a few days will suffice. There are no rules. The point is, we all need to take a trip, take a break, and be able to do it guilt free. We shouldn’t shame a woman for going on an adventure without her kids, or her spouse. We should applaud her for knowing what she needs and going after it. We should support her for accepting that she will miss her children, but doing something outside her comfort zone anyway because she knows it will better her life in some way. Especially us ladies…we should support the other ladies in our lives who take these chances, not make them feel worse for doing so. I guarantee any woman who leaves her kids for more than a day or two feels guilt, misses them, and worries they will feel abandoned. Women worry about that stuff. We don’t need others telling us we should be guilty and that our kids are going to be fucked up for life because we chose to take a couple of weeks for ourselves. It doesn’t seem to fuck them up royally when daddy takes off for a few weeks to bang on rocks. I think they will survive if mommy does the same. Our kids may not know it, but their lives will probably benefit too, because mommy will come home with a big, happy smile plastered on her face, and maybe a healthy glow from some sun exposure that didn’t involve chasing her kids around the zoo all afternoon.
So get out there, girl. Get going, girl. If you need to do it, do it. If you want to see it, see it. Be gone, girl. Everyone will survive and be better for it. Including you.