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The joys and terrors of a mum left home alone



Last week an unfamiliar stillness entered our house. The house remained weirdly neat and tidy. It seemed bigger, somehow, definitely more capacious. The reason? My family had skipped town. It was just me and the silence. Not even the cat for company.

Glass of wine in backyardWhen my husband first mentioned that he might take the kids away for the first week of school holidays, I had a gut reaction. Literally. My stomach lurched dangerously before tripping over something large and hulking (my anxiety perhaps?).

'What? A holiday? Without me?' The idea seemed beyond absurd. But since I'd started a new job, and hadn't yet worked long enough to earn annual leave, the options were pretty limited. Besides, my husband was clearly in need of a break and, unlike me, he had ample leave to draw from.

'Okay,' I thought. 'Why not?' After all, the kids had had many school holidays with me so it was only fair that their father had his turn. And perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea for their dad to realise how much work was involved in entertaining a ten- and seven-year-old, which included playing referee when they tried killing each other.

Still an idea is one thing. The reality is another. On the day of their departure I covered their sad little faces with kisses. A heavy dark cloud seemed to settle on the space left behind by my husband's ute. It wasn't just that the sun had beaten a hasty retreat. For the last ten years, I'd been a mother and, before that, a wife. With them not here with me, my very identity seemed in peril. What was I without them?

My first impulse was to get busy filling in my social calendar. But something stopped me. Somehow I knew that I was just trying to stave off the inevitable: having to spend time with myself. Frankly, the thought terrified me. And with good reason, as author Helen Garner reminds us: 'A woman on her own can easily get in the habit of standing at the open fridge door ... '

Fridge or no fridge it was beyond time to rectify this, and the funny thing was that once I'd reached this conclusion I found myself defending my privacy with all the conviction of a barrister.


"Solitude is seminal in challenging the established belief that interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness." — Anthony Storr


It helped that my job kept me so busy that I couldn't wait to get home and relax. As it turned out Garner's tongue-in-cheek warning went unheeded, but I did enjoy taking my dinner plate and glass of red wine, and sitting in front of the TV with the remote control within reach. The joy of these simple pleasures was so great I was almost drunk with them. Later I would take myself to bed and read. And read. 

But novelty always comes with an expiry date. As the days wore on, I felt myself guarding my time less and less. Going for an early morning walk before work (because I could) it seemed I walked past every little milestone of my children's childhood — the childcare centre they both went to, the playground I took them to, and the river that had soothed me when as a first-time mum in constant battle with herself all I wanted to do was run away.

What struck me was how fast it had all passed and suddenly their absence swelled around me.

The day they were due to arrive home I caught myself counting down, first the hours, then the minutes. It was like being a child again and waiting for Christmas to arrive. And then the very burst of them through the door. Having them in my arms again was beyond wonderful. It was sublime.

In his best-selling book Solitude: A Return to the Self the late UK author Anthony Storr writes that 'solitude is seminal in challenging the established belief that interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness'.

It was true that rather than test my love for my family, my week of solitude merely strengthened it by reminding me of what I had. But a far more surprising outcome was that it also gave me the room — and perhaps the licence — to remember who I was.

There was no question that the break left me calmer, more relaxed and less reactionary, which thankfully still hasn't worn off (although it's being sorely tested). The house is no longer still or silent, and definitely not tidy, but strangely, it feels so much more like home.



Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, parenting



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Existing comments

Recently, I visited my daughter who leads an incredibly busy life with eight year old twin girls and a three year old boy. As I kissed her goodbye to return home, I said "You look so well and so happy and it's because you are so busy." She smiled ruefully but I saw through that.

Pam | 10 October 2017  

There is a lot of wisdom in your article Jen, because being a young mum is full time hard work. We get so caught up with attending to our children's needs we often lose sight of our own 'self-hood' which is the key and anchor point for balanced living. Solitude is necessary for the work of spirituality, and spirituality is intrinsically connected to the development of self-awareness. In an age of high anxiety and digital information overload our relationships depend upon a sound sense of connection between mother and child. And since children are born with an innate spiritual awareness, they need parents who can nurture and nourish this dimension otherwise it can be lost and then they depend upon outside stimulus for self development. Such influences as Facebook and peer group pressures can often derail one's own sense of worth.

Trish Martin | 11 October 2017  

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