Since this is a parenting column, I thought I'd write about something unusual that happened last week regarding my children:
They left for four days.
Everybody left, my wife too. They all flew to visit family in upstate New York, a trip I skipped because of work and because, at some point, I was presented with an option to avoid a round-trip one-connection flight with a 2-year-old. I love that little shriek machine to death, but come on. I'll spare you the details of trying to change a loaded diaper in the sprawling comfort of an airline lavatory, but let me put it this way: Have you ever had to put on a full suit of chain mail in a phone booth? Because that's a three-month summer vacation to Tahiti compared with changing a diaper in an airline lavatory.
The balance of this column may put off anyone with an aversion to being apart from their kids for more than short spells at a time; it may also burn feverish jealousy in those who don't. So let's get out of the way that, of course, I missed them and of course I was happy to have them home. But that interim period, those four days of not-Temple Run and not-daily dishes and not-cleaning up flying globs of peanut butter ... well, it wasn't the worst thing that's ever happened to me.
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When this sort of kid-free time happens people warn you about the lack of the joyful noise in a house that's usually full of kids -- though I always found "joyful" a highly suspicious adjective in this case -- and there is something unsettling about the lack of activity, knowing that no one is upstairs getting Wheat Thin dust on your laptop, no one is maybe in the cabinet with the cleaning supplies, no one is in need of mountain-climbing on your back. They tell you either that you'll miss the kids so much you won't be able to see straight; alternately, you hear that you'll love the freedom so much you may actually waste the time off happily sobbing.
Mostly it was just weird.
Friday I dropped everyone off at the Charleston airport, saying goodbye in the TSA line and feeling that odd mix of sadness and, if we're being honest about it, slightly insane freedom. I spent that day in Charleston, wandering downtown, getting a burrito all by my damn self, running around town, floating around the Apple Store without removing floor-model iPods from the mouth of a 2-year-old.
I spent Saturday at Hunting Island with several hundred outdoorsy tourists, all of whom I avoided completely by jumping on a bike and venturing several miles south of the main beach. This was a theme of the weekend, actually, the number of people that I didn't talk to. Aside from the nice folks at Bluffton BBQ and the people at the Walmart checkout in Beaufort, I really didn't speak to any other live humans for about three days, which started by accident and then ended up being a notion I guarded jealously. (Managed pretty well to stay off the grid too, so my apologies to anyone who's still waiting to beat me in Words With Friends.) I sat by the river in Beaufort and got dinner, I watched boats and clouds. I was either embarked on a stress-dissolving, mind-clearing Thoreau-inspired spell of protracted self-reflection, or I am becoming a cat lady.
Sunday morning I woke up -- at 6:30 a.m., because the kids have permanently obliterated my morning clock -- with zero obligations. None. Do you remember the last time you woke up with actually nothing to do, no one in the house, nothing that needed attention or a waffle or a walk? It's a deeply unsettling feeling; I ended up taking running shoes to the Sea Pines Forest Preserve because ... well, I don't really know why. Because my central nervous system is only satisfied if it's engaged in semi-pointless motion? I found myself driving there mostly because I thought "Shouldn't I be driving someplace?" (Also I've been trying to keep up with running friends, though I discovered that there's only so much peer pressure can do when the heat index is 90 and you're hallucinating about Abraham Lincoln running next to you.)
It was weird less because of the freeing of the usual morning obligations, making breakfasts, packing the swim bag, making coffee, sneaking in a morning run, showers, shoes and socks, all the things that parents count as givens and non-breeders count as reasons never to procreate. It was less the lack of ironclad times that I needed to be places, less the curious notion that the floor of the laundry room had no clothes on it. It was mostly the brief obliteration of the routine; it was less that the kids weren't around and more that I was. It's a good idea to revisit now and again, not necessarily by shipping your children to the Adirondacks, but in whatever small cat-lady way you can.