A couple days before my recent vacation to Mexico, I grew anxious. Not about crime or Zika, but from the guilt of it all. This was the worst kind of remorse: mother’s guilt. My husband and sons were staying home. I secretly hoped to get so sick I couldn’t travel or get a work assignment so pressing I would need to cancel my plans. No such luck.
I reluctantly packed my bags for four days. But when I got back, I was not humming Frank Sinatra. Regrets? I actually had none. In fact, the way I think about vacations will never be the same.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. My sons — 3 and 5 — are possibly the most adorable children ever born. My husband is the kind of partner Sheryl Sandberg conjures in her book Lean In. Still, this working mom needs to get away from having it all.
The seed for a family-free trip was planted a year ago when I told Mimi Segel, a producer at New England Cable News, that I’d be missing a taping because I was going on vacation in Orlando with the family. That’s not a vacation, she corrected me. “It’s really a change of venue.” She went on to point out that family vacations — especially with young kids — can be even more exhausting than staying home. She was right. At least at home, I have help in the form of preschool and child care.
Then in January, my neighbor sent out an e-mail with a simple subject line: “Girls Trip.” Before marriage or kids, I would have instantly said “Yes!” Now I have to go all John Kerry on my husband and negotiate a pact to leave him home alone with the kids. He wasn’t interested in a reciprocal boys trip. Instead, I had to give him rights to gloat for the rest of 2016 about how great a husband (and father) he is. Was it a concession I could live with? Barely.
Tiffany Gueye, my neighbor who sent the e-mail, has no need for such diplomatic wrangling. She builds an annual one-week girls trip into her household calendar; her husband takes his version with the boys. She thinks these breaks have been good for the marriage, and they’ve been doing his and her trips every year for the past decade. Hers have been primarily island getaways, like Puerto Rico or St. Thomas, with anywhere from two to eight women. Gueye, a nonprofit executive with three kids under 6, says the trips are a chance to relax without being responsible for anyone. “You can just be,” she says.
Karen Van Winkle is another evangelist for vacations without family. She has been traveling with girlfriends since she was 17, when her parents let her go on a road trip from Boston to Florida. “I was a little Goody Two-Shoes, so they trusted me,” says Van Winkle, an executive who recently became the first female president of the Harvard Club of Boston. She has been on at least 15 women-only treks since, and uses them to recharge and reconnect with her support network of friends, some of whom she has known since she was 3.
Particularly memorable was a trip to St. Kitts to celebrate her 50th birthday. The gabfest turned into soul-searching one day, and Van Winkle confided to her friends that she was unhappy in her marriage. Their advice: “This is not who you are; you are always so positive and never settle for anything.” A few months later, Van Winkle started the divorce process. That trip, she says, “truly changed the course of my life.”
A recent American Express survey indicates 11 percent of women plan to take a girlfriend getaway this summer. The travel industry has taken notice with books and guides.Travel + Leisure even does a ranking; New Orleans is America’s No. 1 city for getting away with the girls.
It goes beyond girls just wanting to have fun. Women traveling without men or families is a sign they feel entitled to take time off from caregiving, says Heather Gibson, a professor of tourism at the University of Florida who studies female travel. Many women who work maintain most of the responsibilities at home. Gibson’s research helps us understand how we can best juggle work and life. “There has to be some space in life where people get a chance to talk to one other and to feel connected,” she says.
On my trip to Mexico in May, there were only two of us — Tiffany and me. Everyone else found an excuse not to go, but that was OK. Tiffany and I sat by the pool, drank mojitos, snorkeled in the ocean, and did no cooking for anyone. Did we miss our families? Of course. We spent an enormous amount of time talking about them. When Tiffany and I came back tan and relaxed, the only regrets were from the friends we left behind.
I realize not everyone can afford to get away, let alone budget a separate vacation from their loved ones. But women need to make time for themselves. We’re so busy that sometimes it seems there’s not much to life beyond work and family. Escapes can be as simple as a road trip or a regular night out with girlfriends. Guilt be gone!Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.