The Fountain of You: Why Time Away is Essential to Refilling Your Cup

Mom Travel: The Fountain of You..Why Time Away is Essential to Refilling Your Cup
Getty Images

Mom Travel: The Fountain of You..Why Time Away is Essential to Refilling Your Cup

I have discovered the secret to finally refilling the empty, days-old-coffee-crusted, and chipped cup of motherhood. And no, this realization did not happen overnight. Like many times in life when you finally say yes to yourself, it only happened after putting everyone else first for far too long. Here’s the skinny: The fountain of youth is not found in lasers, or upping your water intake, or doing one of those classes where everybody primal screams together. It’s being without your family – preferably somewhere lovely, like Tulum or Paris, or a cabin in the woods, or even a hotel in your own city.

Let me save you some time in figuring this out for yourself, by taking you on my own journey. It was five years ago or so, and my kids were in kindergarten and preschool, respectively. My husband had been on a pretty consistent binge of solo vacations since I was pregnant with our first — it felt like bachelor parties just couldn’t exist if he wasn’t going to attend them. “But can’t you say, “Sorry, I have a toddler at home and my wife is pregnant?” 

“No, they need me there,” was always the answer. To be honest, “they” did. My husband is a natural planner and born event producer. He has an innate way with logistics rivaling covert military ops.

It wasn’t just bachelor parties. He became drawn to music festivals, sometimes leaving for a week to go to Palm Springs or even Glastonbury. He’d send me photos from his trips away, and I’d be both jealous and hurt that he looked more radiant— his eyes sparkling, his skin more glowing, his smile more genuine — than he’d been before he’d left.

Then there was the plus side of his having been away: When he’d come home, he would bring that same energy radiant energy with him. He’d be jet lagged, a little bit tired, sure. He’d also be excited to be with the kids (he’d miss them a ton), he’d chatter away with me about the adventures he’d had (a welcome respite for us both from talking about work stuff) and it would be nice too for us to have missed each other.

I’d recently become friends with a mom influencer around the time he came back from one of his longer trips. She and I hadn’t met more than once in real life, but we had talked several times a day via DM on Instagram. We had a lot in common career-aspiration wise, our backgrounds growing up, our social circles, and overall just really liked each other. One night she messaged me:

“Any chance you can come with me to Tulum in April?” A friend of hers had dropped out of the trip and she had space in the room they’d reserved together.

I was brushing my teeth when I read the message. I jokingly read it out loud to my husband thinking he would laugh and be like “Yeah, like you would ever do that.”

“Babe, you should go.”

As soon as he said it I felt something, an inner voice I guess say, “YES YOU SHOULD GO.”

I thought of all the trips I never took and that I had helped facilitate for my husband, and the way he seemed to feel and look when he came back from his adventures. I wanted that for myself too.

It was extremely hard to imagine being away from my little ones for several nights, and giving up control of the household to my husband and a babysitter. I agonized over how the kids would feel with me gone, and pictured them weeping into a phone screen every night.

The minute I was on the plane with my friend, all of my worries had gone away. I was filled instead with exhilaration at what lay ahead. And this feeling came over me that lasted the entirety of the trip: Every moment of every day here, I had agency over my own life. Every minute was filled with choices I was making for myself. I hadn’t felt that happy and free in . . . I didn’t know how long it had been.

We spent our days on the beach reading, talking, planning our futures, eating, sleeping . . . It was the most wonderful feeling, and I knew that this was something enormous that had been unlocked inside me that my husband had been gifting to himself all the while. Why hadn’t I known this was accessible to me, too?

After that trip, I took other solo trips over the years: A few restorative days in Miami with a best friend, two nights in a cabin in the woods to write and dream with another friend, a trip to visit a former NYC friend who had moved out East, a sleepover in Manhattan at a hotel with friends from out of town. Each trip would fill me with anxiety leading up to it: Would my family survive without me? Would the kids be OK? Would they eat their broccoli? Be able to fall asleep? And each time the kids would wave the phone away whenever I called, or they would say hi and then go back to doing whatever they were doing (because they were busy). They were fine! And when I came back from my trips I would feel so FULL because I had given myself that time to recharge, to be with myself, to have uninterrupted thoughts and conversation.

Most recently I was invited to go to Paris for a work trip, although it hardly felt like work. My work friend and I were being flown there by the French airline, French Bee — a cost-accessible airline that allows you to customize your flying experience. There are three ticket option tiers from which to choose: Basic, Smart, and Premium. From there, you can add up to 20 services and products from extra leg room, additional luggage, a la carte meals, upgrades, lounge access, and much more.

Neither my friend nor I actually believed we would be going on this trip until we were standing across from each other in a terrible bar at Newark Airport. There had been so many obstacles standing in the way of our trip: potential family member Covid illnesses, surprise school shutdowns, a work fire that could require us staying in order to put it out. Somehow, some way, we found ourselves actually boarding an Airbus 350 to Orly airport near Paris.

What stood out to us more than the great amenities on the flight (USB and electrical ports, adjustable headrests, unlimited in-flight entertainment) was the incredible customer service of everyone who worked at the airline — especially the in-flight staff. I’ve never been asked so many times if I was doing OK, and if I needed anything else. And it wasn’t just because we were guests of the airline. There was a woman on the plane — another mother traveling without her kid, but she was having a hard time (we could hear her on the phone before take off) — and the crew was so accommodating and patient with her in the midst of what seemed to be a mild panic attack. They brought her tissues, water, and allowed her the extra time she needed on her phone instead of curtly making her put her phone away like most airlines do before take off.

Once we arrived at Paris, and settled into our sweet little hotel room in Montmartre, we planned out our adventures for the next few days. Our main goal: To inhale as much art and food as humanly possible before passing out each day. The Paris Tourist Office gifted us with museum passes for the week for easy entry to all the sights. [Quick tip: In order to get access to any museum or restaurant, current Covid safety policies require everyone to carry a Carte Sanitaire aka a Sanitary Pass. Bring your U.S. vaccine card to any local pharmacy in Paris and they will give you a printout of a Carte Sanitaire which has a barcode on it that you will use to enter most public spaces in Paris.]

After these past few years of living with Covid restrictions, sicknesses, school closures, and so much uncertainty, it is hard to explain the exhilarating joy and unique freedom of walking down a cobblestone street in Paris with a friend, knowing that your only to-do list item is to look at some Picassos. We would often just stop, remove our masks, and take in the scent of the pastry shops and boulangeries and close our eyes and try to bring it all deep into our bellies, as if by consuming it we could hold it all for longer. This was heaven.

When was the last time either of us had lingered in front of a painting without having to rummage in a bag to grab someone a snack? When was the last time we had been anywhere without thinking about an obligation to something or someone later in the day? Even when you have a “day to yourself” there is always bed time looming over you, or the madness of the breakfast and school-day rush waiting the next day. Imagine the luxuriousness of waking up in a cozy room in Paris, looking up at tall French windows with lace curtains and wraught-iron gating, listening to the streets below come alive with the clack of Parisian women on the way to work or the occasional polite beep of a French cab?

Of course, being geographically distant from our families didn’t mean that all of our responsibilities magically disappeared. Even with the time difference, my internal clock knew when school was letting out, when to check with the sitter that the ten-year-old made it to Jiu Jitsu, that I had to send a Zoom link for the virtual piano lesson.

All the while, my travel buddy was coping with a death of a very close family member who had unexpectedly passed just as we were taking off for our trip. She put on a brave face the entire time, determined to stay in the moment for what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get away. But whenever there were quiet gaps in the day, she was making calls to her mother, to her sisters, checking in on them and trying to maintain meaningful connection from afar. “Don’t worry about us,” her sisters implored her. “Enjoy Paris. We’ll still be here when you get back!”

It wasn’t hard to enjoy Paris. We would start out at The Louvre, wander through the Medieval wing, sit under the sky roof of the Greek sculptures, and make our way to Rennaissance paintings of Italy. It was cold for Paris, but warmer than New York, so we enjoyed being able to take a leisurely walk through the Tuileries gardens, and then stopping for coffee and actually sitting to drink it instead of running with it to our next meetings. We happened upon a vintage carousel in the middle of the gardens on our way to Musee de L’Orangerie to see Monet’s “Waterlillies” and my heart felt a pang for a moment as I thought, “wow, the kids would have really loved seeing this.”

But the sound of a child whining nearby (and even though it was in French, it still grated on me) reminded me of why this time away was so important. I belonged to no one but myself, the Paris streets, the sidewalk bistros with the young French people meeting for Aperol spritzes after work. My friend and I looked at each other and talked about how wonderful it felt to be doing exactly what we wanted to be doing in every moment. The times I feel this the most are when I am on my alone trips.

When it was time to go home, I was ready to go home. I missed my family, I felt revived, and excited to get back into my home routine. I wasn’t even jet-lagged. The kids did not fall at my feet at my arrival back to the apartment, sobbing about how awful every minute was that I was gone. In fact, everything had been fine. They had had a great time with their dad, and — getting some extra iPad time and junk food.

“You’re just . . . better after you go away,” my husband remarked a few nights after. “This is really good for you. You need this.” He wasn’t saying anything I didn’t already know, but it felt good to hear him acknowledge the value in my alone trips. It’s a double standard for sure — when dads go away, it’s called a “boys trip”. When moms go away, it’s . . . well, it doesn’t happen often enough, and when it does society frowns upon it. Moms have gotten so used to getting so little, that a trip to Target is a “Momcation”. We deserve better.

What used to be difficult for me to fathom — taking time away from my kids and home life — is now something I am intentional about planning into my schedule. I know what it feels like when I’m near running on empty, and I know exactly what I need to fill my cup. And for me, that’s warm ocean water where I’m not chasing after a child worrying that they’ll drown, or a perfect espresso enjoyed slowly without having to check my phone to make sure I’m on time for school pickup. I fill my own cup with time spent on my own, and when I return home, there’s much more me and a much happier Mom for everyone else.

Psst..check out The Best Mental Health Podcasts for Parents 2022