When we had our daughter 10 years ago, one of the things we promised each other was that we would try to find a way to make time for just us. In our dating years and early marriage, we watched as my in-laws increasingly took mini-vacations now that their kids were out of the house, and then I thought back to the years growing up and never seeing my parents go on trips without us.
I knew people who did it, people who left their kids with grandparents or close friends so they could have a couple nights away from the little people who brought them joy while inadvertently putting physical and metaphorical space between them as a couple, and I knew that the occasional time away was something I wanted for my own marriage. But life with little ones is busy, and getting away takes money and a lot of careful planning. Once our son was born, I really didn’t know how often we would be able to manage it or if it would even be possible at all.
While my loving husband saw that it wouldn’t be easy to convince me that we could do it, he also wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. We were parents, yes, but we were also a couple and we needed time to remember that our every moment didn’t belong to just the two little humans who occupied our every thought and conversation.
So for our tenth anniversary, six months after our son was born and in the middle of weaning him from breastfeeding, we drove south from Indiana for a December trip to the Smoky Mountains to celebrate, returning to the same region where we had celebrated our honeymoon and our fifth anniversary. By the time we returned from a couple of days of uninterrupted sleep and driving around the national park, I was more than ready to see my babies and reclaim the title of “Mommy.”
While we haven’t made the parenting escape every year of parenthood, we have now managed six total kid-free trips. All of them just a couple of days long but to places we wanted to visit without our kids. We spent a couple of days camping, touring, and biking the battlefields at Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. We camped in Kentucky and visited six of the major bourbon distilleries on the Bourbon Trail (a dream of my husband’s). We spent our 15th anniversary camping at a state park across the river from New Orleans and two full days exploring and eating some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. We spent the next anniversary in a condo just outside of Austin and exploring our new state’s capital. And, most recently, we celebrated my 40th birthday with a trip to Las Vegas.
Each time we did the best we could to budget an affordable trip that would give us quality time together in just the right number of days so that we weren’t burdening a set of parents with our kids while we got to play. Each time we picked a location or activities we knew we couldn’t do with our kids in tow. Each time we came back remembering that we were more than just “Mommy” and “Daddy” and we were once again ready to embrace those roles.
I’ve always loved these trips with my husband. For those who don’t frequently travel without kids, there are sure to be expectations when we leave the kids at home. And sure, sex without fear of interruption is definitely a part of the “no-kids” vacation, but it is so much more than that. We have fun, we get to be best friends, and we get to remind each other why we fell in love in the first place. We demonstrate just how well we know each other by looking out for things the other person might want to do and new places we can explore.
As our kids have gotten older and we’ve talked about vacations that we want to take as a family, I have found myself obsessed with making sure our kids get to have all sorts of new experiences. And because I wanted to have new experiences, suddenly my new experiences are automatically tied up with the kids. It’s not that I’ve decided to stop planning new adventures for just the two of us. After all, we’re not taking the kids on a dream vacation to Hawaii; they can do that on their own time. But I frequently find myself considering a place I want to visit and thinking about whether or not our whole family would enjoy it.
This past spring, as I made plans for our summer vacation and waited to see how much time and money we would have left to have our own vacation, all the while struggling to find a location for just the two of us that we could both agree on, I finally had an epiphany: We were still allowed to have our own new experiences that didn’t involve our kids.
I had been so focused on where I wanted to go as a family, I had stopped considering all the things that I wanted to do with Jeff. I finally realized that I might be suffering from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) — not for myself, but for my kids. It’s the same fear that drive us parents to sign our kids up for all of the sports, music, and dance lessons that we can. Twenty-first century parents don’t want our offspring to miss out on anything so we drive the family bonkers signing them up for everything. This includes our insistence on carefully planning expensive “perfect” vacations, putting our kids’ experiences ahead of our need to nurture our marriages. There’s nothing wrong with planning great family vacations. I firmly believe in them, and our kids are still begging to someday return to Fort Wilderness and Disney World.
But I’m not responsible for making sure that my kids get to experience all the things in the first 18 years of their lives. I’m just responsible for guiding them toward a desire to continue learning and exploring long after they stop taking vacations with us.
And so I’m back to dreaming about the places I want to go without the kids. The list is long and the dreams are big, and I know that we can’t do it all and some of them will have to wait for at least another decade. But I’m over thinking that it always has to be the four of us. The trips are short, but more than just a date night, our kids are seeing us put our marriage first, and I hope that is a lesson they take into their future relationships.