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Melissa Petro with her youngest child.
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer based in New York with her husband and two young children.
In early May, she took a weekend to herself for a “strategic absence” vacation, or “momcation.”
Petro says the time off allowed her to feel connected to herself as well as appreciative of her family.
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A lot of moms spend their “day off” just like any other: cleaning up messes and watching the kids. In year’s past, I’ve been that worn-out momma.
For example, there have been many Mother’s Days when after opening my gift and shoveling down breakfast in bed, life would go back to normal, with a deluge of diapers to change and dishes in the sink.
But not this year.
This past Mother’s Day, I skipped the subtle hints and gave myself the one gift I wanted more than anything else: an entire weekend by myself.
No shouting toddlers. No waking up in the middle of the night. No endless list of chores. Just utter quiet and complete solitude. Hour after hour to do whatever I desired.
Fellow working moms, can you even imagine?
Even though Mother’s Day has passed, it’s not too late to coordinate your own escape. While many moms find it difficult to justify leaving their families, taking time and space for ourselves is not only good for us – it’s good for our loved ones, too.
Citing the work of researcher and motherhood experts Petra Bueskens, Amy Westervelt, author of “Forget Having It All: How America Messed Up Motherhood and How to Fix it,” calls it a “strategic absence,” which she defines as an intentional period of time when mom is not around.
Maybe you’re at a conference for work or maybe it’s a girls’ trip. Or maybe it’s a trip orchestrated solely for the purpose of being away. The point is that you’re not physically there to make dinner or help out with bedtime. You’re mentally unavailable to figure out why the baby is crying or carry the load of remembering to reorder wipes.
Not only does a strategic absence give the primary caretaker a much-needed break, but according to Bueskens, it can generate a “structural and psychological shift in the family” by redistributing some of the work that falls onto one parent by default (typically mom) and requiring the second parent (usually the father) to step up.
The author with her kids.
I first wrote about strategic absence back in January 2020 in an article for Elemental, where I bemoaned the fact that the most time I’d taken away from my then-two-year-old were the 24 hours I spent in the hospital giving birth to baby number two.
I was long overdue for what some call a momcation – and was in the works of planning one – when the pandemic hit, adding another 14 months onto the two years I’d already essentially been sheltering in place.
A 2018 survey found the average mother ends up with a mere 30 minutes to herself a day. During the pandemic, you can bet alone time was at an even greater premium – at least it was in my household.
Now that people are vaccinated and travel is a bit safer, I could finally have the time off from mothering that I richly deserved.
The thought of just being in a space by myself for an extended period of time sounded magical: Imagine no one is touching you, shouting in your face, demanding snacks, and crying when you give them exactly what they asked for.
Beyond leisurely bubble baths and uninterrupted sleep, experts say a strategic absence is time away to pursue other dimensions of yourself.
If you’re a type-A working mom like me – you love your job and don’t get enough uninterrupted time in your everyday life to focus on it – there’s nothing wrong with using your strategic absence to tackle a work project.
My goal for this past Mother’s Day weekend was to make a significant start into a new idea for a book proposal that’d been rattling around my head for months – exactly the kind of thing that requires significant “maker” time.
No one wants to come back from a vacation feeling like they need a vacation, and a momcation is no different. While you may use the time to be productive, it ought to be restorative as well.
After arriving at my destination, I spent an hour in line at Whole Foods. It started raining, I was cold – I’d forgotten to pack a sweater – and so instead of exploring a new restaurant like I’d intended, I went back to the apartment, zapped a microwave burrito, struggled with the beginning of my book proposal, and went to bed. It was pretty uneventful.
Fortunately, I woke up with a clearer head and zero distractions (the beauty of a strategic absence!), and I got straight to work. By day two, I knew I wasn’t going to end the weekend emailing my agent the 30 perfect pages of prose I’d promised her, but that was OK.
The most important part of a strategic absence is to protect yourself from intruders. Trust me, they will intrude.
A good friend will need to process the fight she’s having with her husband. Your cousin will want to know how your strategic absence is going or talk about where your moms went wrong when you were both kids. If enjoying phone conversations without screaming kids in the background was part of the plan, allow it, but if not, send those calls to voicemail.
The second I arrived and before I even put my bags down, I got a text from my husband complaining I’d overfilled the garbage can. It wasn’t a conversation we needed to have right then, and so I didn’t respond. I checked in with my family every night before bed, but other than that I ignored his messages.
Sure, I felt a little guilty, but they were never an emergency and I knew I wasn’t obligated to respond.
When I got home, my husband admitted that he’d actually enjoyed his time solo-parenting and said that, in some respects, it was easier. This isn’t unusual: Often without the primary parent’s micromanagement, the secondary parental figure develops competences and confidence. Do it often enough, and a strategic absence teaches your kids they can rely on both parents, not just mom.
In the end, I came back feeling more rested, connected to myself, appreciative of my family, and eager for my next escape.