Reentry: a mom leaves, returns, and restructures family life


In mama parlance, the week following any child-free getaway is known as reentry. Every time I go away, I receive a flurry of friendly check-ins in the days after my return: "How's reentry going?" "How are the kids behaving?" "You ok?" I also send these notes to my girlfriends following their no-kids travel.

Sometimes sweet, at other times, reentry sucks.

When I first glimpse the boys after any multi-day separation, I find myself death-gripping them in loving embraces and also looking over them with some remove: do they look older? more tan? have longer hair? any missing teeth? It's funny how a relatively short time can look as if much more time has passed.

Return strategically

What looks long often feels very short, and before you know it, you are For this reason, I urge you to return home from your vacation after the kids are asleep and, for a bonus, when they will go to camp or school the next day.

This realization was thrust upon me last Sunday because it takes most of a day to get to the east coast from its western counterpart. I left California at 9am pacific time and walked into my home at 9:30pm eastern. I was tired and felt grimy. I needed food. Because of all of that and because I was still hanging on to the peaceful zen I'd acquired en vacances, I was fully aware, pretty much immediately, that I was grateful the timing had worked the way it had. 

I could settle back in, cuddle with T and Nutmeg (both fairly quiet), get some sleep and then wake with the boys, rested and ready for the reunion. Rested 6am hugs and squeals and the inevitable sock in the face by some flailing little boy limb is definitely something I can do; it is preferable to hugs, squeals and the inevitable sock when also dirty, tired, and strung out from air travel and fellow passengers.

Consider that a return might be an opportunity for a dynamic shift?

That first morning, I hugged and nuzzled and packed lunches and kissed my bigger/taller/tanner/longer-haired/teeth intact children goodbye as they left with T and headed to camp.

And then I exhaled and looked cheerfully upon the eight hours of solitude ahead. 

A carpenter arrived to do some work, I unpacked and did laundry, caught up on emails, grocery shopped and showered, all the while musing about what felt so good about being away and on my own besides the relative novelty of it.

  • I engaged with interesting, funny, inspiring not-related-to-me people for a week straight.
  • I had alone time when I needed it and stimulation and new opportunity when I needed that.
  • I learned stuff, used my brain, thought deeply.
  • I slept more than seven hours each night.
  • I took time to read and exercise and also to sit and do nothing. I felt no guilt associated with any of that.
  • I didn't do anything I didn't want to do.

On the one hand, all of that seems like Vacation 101--or, Seeing Best Friends and Attending a Neat Conference 101--but on the other hand, it doesn't seem like a laundry list of Xanadu pipe dreams (the Olivia Newton-John Xanadu, y'all, not Kublai Khan's). 

In other words, it seems like the sort of living that daily life could more closely approximate.

I sat with this a-ha wonderment all day. In the garden, in the shower, while buying toilet paper, and while transferring darks from the washer to the dryer. And I became determined, hellfire determined, to point our family dynamic (or my dynamic within the family?) toward the vacation-at-home north star.

I picked the boys up at 4:45, overjoyed to see their happy, dirty faces. They're at Calleva right now and are outside all day- fishing, kayaking, rapid swimming, rock climbing, pony riding, shooting bows and arrows, traversing ropes courses, and working at the farm. They come home filthy. Filthy!

Their ankles are ringed with dirt, toe cracks stuffed with nature's detritus, faces painted with a blend of river water, sweat, and muck. Their lunch boxes, oh lord, y'all should see and smell their lunch boxes. And I think of all that is just the sort of thing kids should do and be during the summers. I love it!

We headed to 2 Amys to resume our after-Calleva tradition of Monday dinner there.

Avoid overcompensating

Often after I return from time away, I overcompensate. I "make up" for leaving, and within a day I'm exhausted. 

Not this time. I walked slowly, I did not rush. I did not answer every question shot at me, nor did I look at every line drawn in real time. I was present and engaged but I kept some for me, not least by refusing to look out the restaurant window when they went outside, pretended to be dogs by crawling on the ground, and lifted a leg in faux-pee. I cannot encourage that, y’all.

On Tuesday, J was talking a mile a minute while simultaneously asking me to engage in 85 ways, and look and respond and see. I could feel my heart quicken under the onslaught, but instead of freaking out as the tidal wave approached, I took a deep breath and with love in my voice and eyes said, "Sweetie, I'm not going to interact like this. I'm not going to be on, on, on all the time."

He said, "Ok, Mom. Right!" because this is not the first time I've said all of that but it might be the first time he could hear how much I meant it. The tidal wave petered out.

He (more calmly) told me about camp and I told him how great my trip was, how good for me it was, what I learned and what I enjoyed. He quietly built something in Minecraft, and Ol expanded the Lego base he's been working on for two months. 

For the second day in a row, I didn't even consider going upstairs to ensure that they bathed. I said, "Sweeties, go on up and shower, and then we can have dinner and start our movie."

Wednesday and Thursday, same song third and fourth verses. I taught a class and registered for a multi-month writing class I've eyed for a while now. I worked in the garden and got a mammogram (tip to all who've not yet entered this stage of life: Don't, under any circumstance when you're in the vise-grip, look down. You do NOT need to see your breasts in that state of being.) When the boys are home, I give them a lot but I keep some for me.

Leave and Let Everyone Shine

My week away (a must for all parents who can fly the coop for a bit) and my determination to hold on to a good amount of that way of living has been wonderful for me but also, I think, for the kids. Tom is a great dad but he does not consider doing, and never has, some of the things I do in terms of parent-child interactions. There's a lot to be learned from that.

He also likes to do some things that I really don’t, like taking the kids swimming for two hours and painstakingly building light saber hilts from wood and PVC.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve let him keep the reins he took hold of while I was gone. I mean, if I don’t let someone else help drive, how can I fault them for not doing so? He has gotten up with the kids every morning, done breakfast, made coffee, and driven the boys to camp. Jack jumped on the bandwagon two days ago and packed his and Oliver’s lunches on his own accord. Excuse me, did someone steal my child and replace him with an engaged-in-household affairs doppelganger? I accept!

The thing is, T feels good when he knows he’s helping me. As well, it is meaningful for him to be equally involved when he’s home because of how the kids respond. They establish their own relationships on their own terms, not on mine.

When Jack steps up and receives truthful, thrilled praise, he beams, learns a lot about giving back and helping, and is inclined to do more.   

As I did by virtue of leaving (and let me say that a week may sound long, but it really reset everything in the best way), I also need to step back when I’m here. I need to ensnare my Take Care of Everyone in the World compulsion and toss away about 30% of it because not only does it take agency away from others but also it’s just too much to shoulder.

When the dynamic has shifted, don’t turn back!

There have been moments this week in which I or the kids have reverted into patterns I really don't want any of us to return to. Fortunately, because I am still rested and zen and they are at camp from 8am - 4:40pm (these are really good hours, y'all), I've had the reserve to both realize what's happening and alter course, back toward the vacation-at-home north star.

Quantity of time spent together really isn't as important as the quality of it. Equally true is that each of us must honor and make time for all of the facets of our lives that make our souls sing. When we starve a few, the whole is weakened.

I came back from my week away as a happier, more fulfilled mother and Tom and the boys were thriving. Here's to this being our new normal!