Why I Take A Sabbatical Away From My Family And Kids Twice A Year

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Why I Take Time Off From My Family
Contributor
Self

In the last two weeks, I have only seen my husband and two sons for less than 24 hours and that is just fine with me. I love them all, enormously. But I love being alone, too. It's what feels natural to me. This was my biggest concern before getting married — could I live with someone, or several someones, for an extended time, no matter how much love was involved? To my relief, I discovered having a family, and living with them, is lovely — but only most of the time.

I'm not craving the popular "me" time that many women’s magazines tout ... getting manicures or reading poetry in a bubble bath. In a house with three males, I get enough of those escapes, like when the World Cup recently overtook their imaginations. No. What I'm after, on a fairly regular basis, is "absence of them" time.

I've always been a happy loner, perhaps because I grew up as a sort-of only child, whose siblings left for college when I started kindergarten.

I was on my own a lot — and liked it. I requested single dorm rooms in college, and lived alone before moving in with Frank at 26. Even then, our divergent interests and my business trips sated my taste for solo stints. 

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Then the kids arrived and, for 11 years, I was what my mother's generation might have called "tied down." I didn't feel restricted so much as rooted, but even the most nourishing roots can bulge from an unseen rot far below the surface.

About five years ago, that simmering, unmet need for solitary time coincided with a desire to complete a graduate degree. I chose a "low residency" program — 12 days on a distant campus, five times over two years. And just like that, I was on my own 24 days a year.

Being apart, though hard at first for my younger son, barely 8 when I began the program, turned out to be a terrific experience for the testosterone-laden trio, who learned they could survive, even thrive, minus Mom. For me, the thrill began each time I started the seven-hour drive from New Jersey to the Southern Maine campus; I even snuck in an extra "decompression" day on the trip home.

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There were unintended benefits to these trips, like showing my sons that one is never too old for education.

But what I really learned is that a fairly regular "sabbatical" from family life is essential to my admittedly idiosyncratic and certainly selfish sense of well-being.

I quickly realized that I'd better figure out how to have those time-outs once the program ended.

I scored a grant to spend two weeks at an artist’s colony six months after my final grad school residency, exactly the time I was chafing, again, to bolt. Frank and the boys, 15 and 11 by then, accustomed to the routine, teased me about what they did while I was away—eating cans of Campbell’s Chunky Soup, watching TV shirtless while chomping on chips, renting inappropriate video games.

I didn't mind, because there's something to be said, too, about returning after a week away from one's spouse — absence makes the heart fonder, or at least the libido stronger.

Getting-back-home sex, it turns out, is almost as good as make-up sex.

After the artist's colony, I didn't know how I'd manage future furloughs. Then last summer, the male contingent signed up for Scout Camp—eight days at an overnight camp—and I had my first at-home sabbatical.

This year, the week before Scout camp, my older son was slated to attend a science program at a college five hours from home. Since Frank couldn’t spare time from work to make the car trip twice in one week, and savvy by now about my greedy need for shore leave, he suggested I decamp to a hotel near the college for a writing retreat.

These are the moments in a marriage when you know you've chosen right. 

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I dropped the teenager on campus for what turned out to be a confidence-building time, and spent the next six days in a lovely inn, with just me and my solitude. Frank and our 12-year-old had a one-on-one week without older brother or mom around.

As I write this, I have two days left before the menfolk return from camp, dirty, tired, exuberant. They'll be wanting hugs, decent food, to tell me stories; they'll want, well, me. And because I've had me to myself for a while, I'll want those stories, and them, too.

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Lisa Romeo lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and teaches writing online and in the Rutgers University Writing Program Extension. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, online and in literary journals and essay collections. She is at work on a memoir. Lisa has written for YourTango before, about marrying her opposite. Follow Lisa on Twitter.