What a kid-free vacation can mean for parents

Jen and Ashlee in Mexico

“Get up, stand up, come on, throw your hands up.” The raucous tunes of a resort wedding are piping in the background as I write this, from the hot tub on a balcony overlooking the Caribbean Sea in Mexico. It’s a writing setting unlike my unusual—the Oreo-covered couch in Willow Grove, where usually at least one of my three kids are yelling nonsensically through a monitor and I’ve spent the better part of 14 hours being pooped on, kicked and at the beck and call of humans a third my size. Tonight, however, I’m basking in the Mexican breeze, sipping red wine with my feet up on the side of a bubbling tub, after a day where the greatest responsibility I had was determining whether I wanted to use spray or lotion sunscreen. I have zero idea what day it is, let alone what anyone who typically depends on me may need in this very moment.

That’s not a situation I am used to—nor one I am comfortable with, by any means. Typically, nearly all of my waking hours (and somewhere I should be asleep!) revolve around the needs of three little humans. But for five blissful days, they have been in the care of other people. And this meant I and my wife, Ashlee, have been able to focus on ourselves, our relationship and our identities as people outside of being parents—which I found we have nearly forgotten about. But this week, I’ve discovered we’re still here, even though it may have taken a bit to find us. 

A hesitant vacation

When Ashlee first floated the idea of a Mexican vacation with two other friend couples a few years back to celebrate their 40th birthdays, the year “2024” seemed so far off to me. As the date got closer and Ashlee dove into planning, I was so focused on planning for the immediate, day-to-day of three youngsters that I felt like I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, spare a brain cell for anything else. While she excitedly bought new sandals and matching vacation T-shirts online, I tried to make myself excited instead for the kids’ Valentine’s goodies or Easter egg fillings that were arriving from Amazon. 

We had more than one disagreement about why I was resisting the excitement of a trip away from the hustle and bustle of family life. From this side of the Caribbean, I can see now that it’s because we as parents can get so programmed by our routine of meeting our kids’ needs around the clock that we lose sight of who we were before those kids arrived. Years ago, Ashlee and I meticulously planned for every trip we took; I loved seeing new places, trying new things and embracing adventure. But this go-round, my tunnel vision on my identity as a parent made me so overwhelmed with guilt at the thought of jet-setting away from my kids that I found it hard to muster up the enthusiasm for the rest and relaxation to come. 

Tell that to the me now gleefully soaking in this hot tub.


Welcome to Mexico

The whole plane ride, I kept checking the time: OK, Jackson should be on the school bus. Avery’s speech therapist should be at the house. August is going down for a nap. I felt like if I at least knew what the kids were doing at each moment, I could still be present in a sense. 

I knew the kids would be well-cared for and we had nothing to actually worry about. Ashlee had written out an eight-page grandparent guide and they were about to be showered with snacks and snuggles. But I also was cognizant that they’re most at ease and feeling safe when we’re all at home, in our routine—and I felt like I couldn’t be at my happiest if they weren’t. 

And then I walked into the resort…greeted by a bellman offering a cool towel and a glass of champagne, quickly followed by a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries. OK, maybe I can be a little happy. Walking to our room, I caught a glimpse of pool after pool and the bright blue Caribbean, and then our king-sized bed that we could sleep in until whatever time we wanted (let’s get real, we were up at or before 6 each day). OK, I can definitely be a bit happy. 

In the last few days, we’ve checked in on the kids via FaceTime every day and, each time, seeing them still happy, healthy and totally intact made me accept that, OK, this can actually be OK! Even if they may be most comfortable when they have both their parents in the same room as them, this week showed me how beneficial it can be to push outside your comfort zone. The kids can miss us and still have an amazing time with the rest of our village—giving Ashlee and I the space to invest in what makes us happy outside of those three.

And for this trip, that’s been sinking into an entirely new routine! Lazing in bed for a while before hitting up the far-too-expensive breakfast buffet. Being the old folks who claim their lounge chairs by the pool at 8 a.m. when the rest of the vacationers are sleeping off their hangover. Spending hours reading books that don’t involve Mickey Mouse or Elmo, mingled with a walk to the beach hut or a margarita in the swim-up pool. In the evenings, we’ve leisurely gotten ready for dinner, taking the time to put on makeup and clothes that aren’t yoga pants. 

It’s a pace that we are wholeheartedly not used to: Typically, it’s up and moving by 6 a.m., cooking and serving meals, potty time, therapy appointments, walks, baths, work—and the moving doesn’t stop until the kids are down around 8 p.m. Not that we lived the resort-life pre-kids by any means, but this trip has given us a taste of the lazy freedom we used to have—freedom to explore our interests, and enjoy each other’s company, and our own. 

Jen and Ashlee in Mexico

Returning refreshed

This vacation has given me the perspective to see how important self-care is, and also how possible. I won’t be soaking on a Caribbean balcony likely ever again, but I can certainly spend an evening on my back deck after the kids go to bed. And while Ashlee and I likely won’t be having five-star, four-course dinners again any time soon (it’s back to noshing on the kids’ leftover dino nuggets for us!), we can call in the occasional babysitter for a few hours away. And I’m realizing how much we should. I’m confident the benefits of this break from the monotonous chaos of parenting are going to make me a stronger, more centered parent, and I think following that up in micro-doses is a way to sustain that energy. We were fortunate to have years to save for this trip of luxury, but opportunities for parenting self-care don’t have to be so grand, nor so few and far between. 

While the blissful relaxation we’ve had has been a much-needed breath of fresh air for both of us, I’m actually looking forward a bit to going back into the lion’s den tomorrow. I’m certainly not eager for changing diapers, scrubbing food off the floor and breaking up toddler wrestling matches. However, at the end of the day, I’ve found myself missing all the other moments that come with our kids: the 10,000 kisses before Jackson steps on the school bus, the way Avery fast-stomps across the house, how Auggie smiles before fully opening his eyes in the morning. This trip has given me the physical space from the kids to appreciate them in a new way. 

I may be coming back from Mexico about 10 pounds heavier from all trips to the buffet, but I’ll definitely be a heck of a lot lighter in other ways.

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