Do you dare to holiday without the children?
A much-needed exercise in marriage restoration or an unthinkable desertion of the little darlings?
Published 17/07/2013 | 05:00
Two parents stand up for their different views
No: 'The scowling faces of my kids left behind would puncture my heart'
Holidays with the kids: same stuff, different sink. Be it rinsing baby bottles or rubbing at ice-lolly stains, the drudgery of parenthood cannot be left behind with the cat. It's even worse if you're self-catering. As my husband said during our last Easter break: "This is hell! It's like being at home but without the help. Never again . . ."
But, of course, we will do it again because – like the eight out of 10 people surveyed this week – I couldn't, with a clear conscience, book an entire holiday sans enfants.
I blame my mother. She's always been so damn devoted. I remember her looking bewildered by parents travelling alone, "I'd just want you all to see everything I was seeing," she'd shrug; "kids just need your time"; and the most powerful of all, "children benefit so much from being with Mum and Dad all day. You never bring the same kids back from a holiday".
I have actually often wished that I wasn't bringing the same kids back from a holiday – normally at the moment when the baby has pooped on the poolside at the very moment I took off her swim nappy and the other two are fighting over a lilo, dangerously close to a cliff edge. This usually coincides with the husband suggesting he might just go and spend a little time in the hotel gym.
Psychologists say that angry people need either "to be heard" or "to have space". Funnily enough, family holidays offer little of either to parents, who suddenly learn the meaning of rage.
I am fascinated and slightly in awe of friends who leave the children with the nanny and jet off for a week or two. Their marriages will be stronger, happier and they will definitely have more sex. I console myself that their children will be discussing their abandonment with a therapist in 20 years' time, because it's just too painful for me to imagine what it must be like to eat a meal in a sarong without constantly apologising to the waiter about the mess under the table.
Or to saunter along a moonlit beach without a handbag full of half-eaten biscuits and wet wipes. What would it be like to hold an uninterrupted conversation with my husband? And even more puzzling, what the heck do these holiday-making child-free parents find to talk about?
I try to picture such bliss, but I fall at the first hurdle – who would look after my three (aged nine, four and two)? I couldn't possibly leave them with a stranger paid to do the job and, despite having brilliant grandparent support, when I consider their confinement, my kids morph into World War Two evacuees with a gas mask over their shoulders and a white name-label around their neck. Their scowling faces would puncture my heart.
And I'm always surprised to find that I rather fancy the husband when he's sulking, laden down with sandy buckets containing half-eaten crabs and with a small girl swinging off each arm. I'll kiss his whiskery face and tell him how the kids will thank us one day. It fosters a trench mentality: we can survive this together.
There will be time, I guess, to take day-long climbs up sunny peaks without the hindrance of a buggy; or drink a bottle of wine at lunchtime because nobody depends on you to stop them from drowning in the afternoon.
In the not too distant future, our kids will recoil in horror at the idea of holidaying with us. We must make the best of it while we can – and look for sinks with a fabulous view.
Yes: 'Our own breaks restore our priorities'
How do you like your holidays? By the sea? In the country? On the Continent? I'll tell you how I like them, in three little words: without the children.
I love the little darlings, truly I do. I don't mind spending all morning making a picnic for the beach, only to discover that the teenagers are too hungover to go anywhere.
I don't mind waiting hours for someone's girlfriend to have her shower – and then finding she hasn't left any hot water for me.
I don't mind rubbing suncream into the 10-year-old, only for her to flop all over my kaftan. I don't mind cigarette burns on the kitchen table in the cottage we're borrowing from a friend . . .
Yes, I can put up with it all – so long as I know that we've got a holiday on our own to look forward to as well.
A survey of parents reveals that my longing is neither cruel nor abnormal: the majority wish they could have more time away from their children – they just feel guilty about paying a childminder for the privilege.
Guilty? Not on your life: money spent parking the kids with someone responsible while the two of you have a blast is money well spent.
We've been doing it since we got married: every year, we organise to go away for a few days (four or five, really, will do). Venice, Vienna, Villefranche: it doesn't matter where we go, so long as we need only pack for two.
I still remember the first time. Baby was not yet three and I was drenched in mother love. The husband came home with my birthday present: two tickets to Venice. To his dismay, I burst into tears: "Bbbbbut what about Izzyyyyyyy?" I wailed. It took him about half an hour to reassure me that my mother and the babysitter, together, would care for her beautifully in our absence.
He whispered promises of gondolas, Titians and, above all, lie-ins. I dried my tears – and I haven't looked back.
The breaks restore our priorities. Life is so frenetic when you live with three children (ours are now aged between 10 and 20) that you can easily forget what matters most. Without a break from it, I start to think that Game of Thrones is more important than visiting the grandparents; that recycling trumps going to church; and that having a Samsung Galaxy S4 is better than a Masters degree.
A vacation à deux rekindles romance, too. Even the deep sleep of the marital bed (let alone any hurly-burly) is compromised by the proximity of children: we are always listening out for a persistent cough, or for the teenagers coming home from a party. It's very difficult to be uxorious when a chorus of "yuck" and "gross" greets even the briefest exchange of kisses.
Time away from the children not only ensures privacy, it has a delicious hint of the illicit about it. When the plane takes off or the train pulls out of the station, I feel as if we're embarking on a dirty weekend, rather than a legitimate vacation.
I should add that a few days without Mummy and Daddy have a salutary effect on the offspring. They, too, are refreshed by the break. And now that the older ones are 20 and 18, they love to be thought of as adults whom we entrust with looking after their little sister – while she relishes the bacon and maple syrup set before her at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So I cannot urge you strongly enough to break loose from the parent trap. You'll be amazed at what two grown-ups can get up to.