Why parents need to get really far away from their kids every once in a while—and not feel the least bit guilty about it.
Last week, my wife and I abandoned the boy, the house, and the car to my visiting parents and skipped town. Not for an overnight excursion, either. We fled the country to Cuba.
Grabbing a last-minute deal, we spent four days in the small beach town of Guardalavaca. It’s the longest and furthest we’ve ever been away from our son Emile since he was born three-and-a-half-years ago—in fact, we’ve only been away from him together three times, each time to Niagara Falls and for at most two nights.
Not only was Sol Rio de Mares y Lunes a full 2,500 kilometres away, but it barely had internet and data roaming was unaffordable, so we were really cut off from him. When I went to South by Southwest earlier this spring, E and I FaceTimed almost every day, but the most contact we had from Cuba was a couple of text messages.
My God, was it amazing.
My folks live out west, a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, while my in-laws split their time between a small town outside Ottawa and a small town outside Tampa. So we’re pretty much rolling solo here. My brother-and-sister-in-law do live in downtown Toronto, and help when they can, but they also have a young daughter of their own and obviously can’t provide the same support as grandparents.
You know that expression about it taking a village to raise a child? Well, villagers tend to be pretty busy, so those of us who live far from our own parents find ourselves under an incredible amount of pressure, even if you get so used to it you sometimes don’t realize.
Parenthood is pretty tough on a couple, as your child’s well-being understandably takes precedence over your relationship, and the inability to take romantic getaways can make matters worse. So we knew we needed to get some time away from Emile, especially after the incredible intensity of his recent two-week surgery recovery, but maybe not how much.
Not that it was easy to get him out of our system. Of course, an adorable baby on our flight kept reaching her hand between the seats to steal my beer and giggle. And naturally, when we got to the resort, there was a family in the swimming pool in full formal wear, having a little post-wedding fun as a dad tossed his soaked, suited young son to and fro.
Even eating pineapple ice cream by the pool or seeing a sand crab prompted thoughts of how much Emile would’ve loved it here—splashing in the warm water, gorging on mango, and building/stomping sandcastles.
But he wasn’t here, so during the day we did as little as possible. Only parents really get how much of a luxury that is. When I brought Emile to B.C. last summer by myself, we hit the beach every day. It was fun, but intense. If a kid can drown in three inches of bathtub water, an ocean—even one with minimal waves—requires constant vigilance. And the blazing sun on toddler skin can be nearly as stressful.
Being able to just lie at the beach and read rather than ensure your child remains alive and unburned was soul-soothingly relaxing. I even finished two full books (the awesome Robopocalypse and the meh Wicked sequel Son of a Witch). And rather than being on lockdown or wandering out alone after E’s bedtime, we got to leave the room together at night, to drink too much and dance to reggaeton at the open-air beach “disco.”
Parenthood, I epiphanied, is like scuba diving and a vacation offers the chance to head back up to the surface. But if you ascend from the deep-sea water pressure too quickly, you can get the bends. We could feel the metaphorical bubbles in our bloodstream; we were disoriented from the sudden lack of intense responsibility. One night, a bottle of champagne sent us to bed at 9 p.m., and there were a couple fights about nothing worth fighting about. But, mostly, the trip was a massive relief.
At least in these first few years of being a parent, you can forget how deep underwater you are because so many of your memories were made up on shore. This all may sound negative but it’s really not. As any diver will tell you, there are marvels down below that will make you weep with wonder. You just need to be mindful of the effects of the pressure and watch your bottom time.
I once went night-diving on the Great Barrier Reef. While floating down there in the liquid blackness, a shark swam past the boat’s spotlight just a few meters above me, slicing through the water with fearsome grace and flooding my system with fight-or-flight adrenaline. I reacted by moving backward, unintentionally surrounding myself with a sudden swath of bioluminescent sparkles.
It was simultaneously one of the most scary and sublime moments of my life, and perhaps the closest approximation I can think of to parenthood. As much as I intensely love being a father, I now understand how much the pressure can really get to you if you don’t occasionally surface to relax and dance on the beach.