I’m going to rehab. Mommy rehab, that is.
My husband’s work schedule will become very unpredictable next month, and remain that way for the foreseeable future. The pressure is on to take that mama getaway I’ve been fantasizing about. We’ve been talking about it for over a year, and I have needed it – but there’s always something in the way. I pretend it’s an event on the calendar that I don’t want to miss or some expense that calls more loudly for the money I’d spend. In reality it’s just that parental guilt saying stay, keep plugging away at the day to day. Be there. Always.
The problem is that my ability to keep plugging away is slipping. I’m tired. I’m irritable and easily agitated. The house is a mess, the kids are spending too much time on their devices, and even with a very hands-on spouse, I am barely managing the mundane chores of life in a full house. I know I need a reset, and yet, I hesitate. Is this what Stockholm Syndrome is like? I’m finding it difficult to break free of my captors. I really just want to be here and make them dinner and clean up the legos (but cheerfully so, while reasonably rested, and with just a hint of a tan!). Despite an avalanche of memes reminding me that mothering is “the most important job in the world” and a to-do list longer than I care to recite, I’m bored. No, bored isn’t the right word. I’m dulled, unmotivated, and approaching burnout.
“Burnout Syndrome” describes a state of physical and/or emotional exhaustion, detachment, and a feeling of inefficacy or lack of accomplishment. It’s been studied in parents and in occupational settings, and has been proposed for consideration as a distinct and defined illness in itself. In other words, it’s a real thing with real consequences. As parents, we know that it’s our job to look out for the well being of our kids and it’s all too easy to put our own needs on the back burner. But our well being affects our kids deeply, and they benefit when we are healthy, happy, and high functioning. Taking care of ourselves IS taking care of our kids, so it’s time to put that mama guilt aside and go for it.
We (barely) manage to squeeze a block of days into the bulging calendar where I can be officially off the clock, and I sit down to figure out what I want to do. As we’re thick in the throes of a particularly cold and snowy Wisconsin winter, warm beach wins.
I don’t need much: a decent place to stay with a kitchen, warm, near a beach, no rental car needed. An inexpensive Airbnb studio in the heart of Waikiki, within spitting distance of a grocery store and a block from the beach fits the bill. It’s just across the street from the hotel we used to layover at during my flying days, a neighborhood where I’ve spent time more than once. I book it, and now it’s real!
It takes me a good day and a half to come down from that always-on caregiver high. I was fidgety (but well-fed!) on the flight over, and kept myself busy on the first full day. It’s hard to be still when most of your time is spent in perpetual motion. That’s the purpose of the trip, to slow down and unwind. I feel tense and awkward walking around without small hands to hold, with no little people to help navigate the streets as I cross them. Finding no stray children who need mothering, I press on until it feels normal again.
I imagine that most folks visiting Honolulu might prefer to do little more than indulge in a lot of beach time and mai tais, but I figured I could manage to put that off for a couple of hours. The hubs had given me a gorgeous ukulele for Christmas and I was eager to learn more about the instrument and do something a bit off the beaten path. The folks at KoAloha were really wonderful, and clearly passionate about what they do. Our guide Lloyd walked us through the entire process that takes their raw planks of naturally-felled koa acacia and turns them into beautiful ukuleles.
Luckily for us, it was a teacher inservice day in the local schools, and this meant that Lloyd’s daughter Kennedy was hanging around the shop. A budding young musician, she treated us to a lovely impromptu performance with a clear, soaring voice and beautiful uke playing – even with a splinted finger! Meeting Alvin Okami was another bonus. He’s the creator of KoAloha, the “Picasso” behind their spectacular custom ukuleles, and a warm and engaging musician as well. By the time my group was finished, we knew that the sign hanging over the door wasn’t lip service. They are a family, ohana, and they made us feel like a welcomed part of it.
Back in my little apartment, I spend some time on the balcony with my ukulele, pretending that my view of a dodgy alley is a little more inspirational. My place is kind of a dump to be honest, but this week it’s my dump, and it’s quiet. Ish. If you’ve never been to Honolulu, know that it isn’t the idyllic natural setting that thoughts of Hawaii often conjure. It’s an urban city with a great beach, wonderful local flavor, and a lot of tourists. I like Honolulu quite a lot, but FYI, it’s not the spot for your Moana-inspired dream vacation.
Day 2 finds me at Duke’s for lunch and an obligatory mai tai (or two). Duke’s Waikiki, named for this handsome guy, is an institution, and I can’t be here without stopping by for at least a cocktail (or three). There is always a lot of camaraderie at the bar, and the conversation flows as easily as the booze. Uninterrupted adult conversation is a luxury in my life, and I drink it up. I meet a lot of couples, extended families vacationing together, and men, but I see no women alone and ask the bartender about this. He’s been slinging drinks here long enough to know his clientele. Except for women here on work trips, it’s not terribly often that he meets women traveling alone, just for fun. I order another mai tai and think about this. I really learned how to confidently travel solo when I was a flight attendant. Long layovers are often parties or group sight seeing adventures, with a few crew members meeting up to do the big stuff. Other times you’re on your own to explore, and I did a lot of that, wanting never to take for granted the gift of being in interesting places. I love taking trips with friends, with my husband, with my kids – but I’m a person that needs quiet time with myself too, and I love wandering in new places with no one else’s agenda to manage but my own. By mai tai number 3, I thought about how enormously lucky I am to have a spouse who gets that and is nothing but supportive of it.
I leave Duke’s and make my way to the sand, and decide that it’s perfect napping weather. It is! I kick back and feel really and truly relaxed for the first time in some time. The knots in my muscles loosen up and my toes dig deep into the sand. My mind wanders back to the constant movement of motherhood and the energy required for it. I remember my fourth grade teacher telling us that energy is neither created nor destroyed. Where does it come from during those times when the well is dry? Where does it go when rest finally comes? After years with a spent well, I think I know. The body spends energy during rest and sleep repairing itself, righting the wrongs, patching the knees and darning the socks of the brain and other necessary parts. It feels as though I’ve been stuck in a loop of borrowing energy on credit from my rest and repair bank, like a payday loan customer who can’t quite get ahead and out of the cycle. That bank has been calling, and it’s time to pay up.
I’m 85% beneath an overpriced (but worth it) umbrella. My calves are hot and soaking up the UV, synthesizing some vitamin D. Seems like I can imagine that reaction happening if I tune out everything else and think about it. A light, pleasant buzz just below the surface. The rest of me is cool and shaded, and bathed in ocean breezes. I’m repaying my loan. Pennies at a time, but something is better than nothing, and pennies become dimes become dollars. Maybe the more I repay, the more work my rest and repair bank can do. I make a promise to invest more in self care and rest. I’ve made that promise before, though. It’s a tough one to keep.
I hear thunder in the distance, the bellowing of catamaran horns, tourist helicopters, and the staccato admonitions from the Japanese grandmother at the umbrella nearest mine to the right. Her pleadings are louder and more disruptive than the boys’ playing. I think about this often when I’m busy micromanaging my own kids. Who is more annoying to outsiders here, me or the kids? Often, I know it’s me, but in the moment it doesn’t matter. I’m parenting, doing something, in perpetual motion, as always. It’s probably better for all if I just stopped and let them be a little wild. An innocent and unfettered kid is the best kind of wild. It is comforting, though, to watch other mothers doing this, as I lie here motionless, melting into warm sand.
It’s a luxury now to let the mind wander without distraction, to let loose the stream of consciousness that has been stalled and stunted and interrupted. I feel at times closer to my death than my birth. I wonder if that’s just what happens as we age, the quiet anxiety that comes with being unwell for too long, or a true premonition. Hard to say, but the feeling is strong enough that as I lay here I wonder if my ashes should be scattered among delightful ocean breezes. Or perhaps deep in a mountain canyon, cool and green. Whiteoak Sink in the Smokies has just the right feel. Earthy. Dank and light simultaneously; a place heavy with decomposition, where the new green life and incredible wildflower show just outpaces it. Balanced. Grow from your past.
I should go on a hike tomorrow. Balance, balance, balance. Life balance. More nature. Less stress.
Morbid thoughts for a beach holiday, but fitting lately. We’ve had quite a season of loss…family members, friends, old teachers, acquaintances. Some passed suddenly or unexpectedly, and others were a long time coming. All have been tragic in their own way, and all with lessons and reminders to live well and take nothing for granted. I’d like to say when my time is up that I packed a lot of living into it, and this drives me to keep exploring.
I doze off, then am awakened by the swallowed laugh-snorting of the couple at the first umbrella to my left. They’ve got THAT giggle. You know the one. The giggle-snort that they think-hope is quiet, but they’re not really trying. It’s conspiratorial, but loudly so. It’s a snicker that is only produced by that substance that is illegal in Hawaii unless you have a medical card. They must have something edible. I contemplate befriending them when I hear him whisper-chortle-shout, “Do you want to go upstairs?”
They giggle-scurry off to their hotel room. I fall back asleep.
I wish to be lying here naked, with the hot sand and cool breeze doing some serious skin to skin. Listen to me…skin-to-skin, like I’m talking about babies or sex, intimacy. Skin-to-sand. Skin-to-air. Skin to anything that isn’t bundled up beneath multiple layers, bracing for the latest polar vortex back home. Skin exposed and warm. I miss this in winter. Maybe I should save my pennies for a sauna.
I wish this beach didn’t smell like fried chicken.
The grandma-obaasan next to me relaxed, and the kids soon followed. There are at least 200 people on this beach, but it’s very peaceful. We have a good thing going right now, and it feels like a cooperative effort. I’m smiling, and I’m pretty sure everyone else is too. I take a deep breath and exhale, melting a little more into the sand, into the sunset. Bank up, repair team. I need you.
It’s day 3, and I’ve found my groove. I sleep in as much as the jet lag allows, have a little breakfast, take a stroll to my favorite coffee shop in Hawaii, and head off for a long walk on the beach. I’m really feeling it now, at ease and more like my old self. Part of me feels obligated to go do all of the stuff. Hike up Diamond Head, take a surfing lesson, go whale watching…do something Hawaiian to make coming all the way out here more worthwhile. But I’ve done most of that on previous trips, and I’d rather go look for whales with the kids anyway. The kids who I miss, but I push those thoughts away. The “stuff” I came here to do was relax and be an independent adult sans dependents, so I decide that I’m doing just enough as is. I go for a swim (without lifeguarding my kids) and sit on the beach (not making sure they aren’t running off too far), watching the rest of the tourists learn how to standup paddleboard and maneuver outrigger canoes. I open the book I brought, and realize a half an hour later that I’m on the same page (but not because I was refereeing an argument or kissing a boo-boo or asked to make a lunch).
This is exactly what I need. Some enterprising woman really needs to open a mommy rehab center. It would be so easy. No activities. No phones. No jobs to do. Just sit in a beautiful place and smile and laugh and chit chat and do nothing until your internal battery is charged up.
The very best and worst parts of traveling alone are the same thing. You can do anything you want, whenever you want it. But what do you want to do, and when do you want to do it? That’s a dilemma when you’ve operated largely for other people’s needs for a decade. Having hit my limit in the sun, I wander the shops; another luxury. Try that with 4 little ones. I meander. I roam. It took me until the 3rd full day to feel really mellowed out. I could really use just one more whole day like this, but beggars can’t be choosers, and tomorrow I am making the long trek home. I stop myself before I mentally start going home a whole day early. It’s that Sunday afternoon dread before Monday morning work, and it does nothing but shorten the enjoyable part of your weekend.
I push that thought off and go in search of a different mai tai to compare, and the Beach Bar at the Moana Surfrider delivers. The setting and design are perfect late afternoon chill, with Jack Johnson-esque live music and a sea view beneath a banyan tree so impressive that it’s on Hawaii’s Rare and Exceptional Trees List. Their cocktails are as top-shelf as that old tree, as is the rest of this gorgeous Westin property. This was the first hotel built in Waikiki, and it’s old school-grand in all the best ways. I head to the beach for the last Honolulu sunset of the trip, and bid the Pacific aloha.
Something is different when I wake up on this last day. The movie soundtrack in my brain has changed, modulated, moved up tempo. I take this to mean that I’m ready to get back to my family. The Kona coffee is brewing as I set about to tidy up my little apartment. This place is far too small and dumpy for an orchestra pit, but somewhere there is a conductor watching me on stage. She’s directing the pitch and yaw of the music, tweaking it up a notch every time I complete some task that will lead me out the door and to the airport and back to frigid Wisconsin. My winter coat throws some side-eye my way from the chair I’d thrown it on 4 days ago, pockets stuffed with things never needed here. Hat, scarf, gloves. I finish the dishes and the violin bows a little faster. Pack my toiletries, phone charger in my backpack, sandals in a bag in my suitcase and the music shifts ever more. Before I know it I’m at the airport, through security, and ready. My bags are a little heavier, but I do feel lighter on my feet and inside my head – all signs of a successful rehab. My task now is to keep this going at home: make time regularly to recharge, be a little healthier, stay a little happier and lighter in my head, and infuse it all into my family.
I wish I could say my flight home was as enjoyable as the trip itself, but honestly it was possibly the least comfortable flight I’ve ever taken, and that includes the time I was working and an 80 year old man threw up on me. And not a little bit. But as I sit here in my middle coach seat between two men who must have been linebackers (hi guys!), I don’t mind. I’m content, soon to be hugging my kiddos, and I have a wee tan and a suitcase full of chocolate covered macadamia nuts to share with them. Happy mamas have happy babies, and that’s why we momcation. Mahalo!