“Mommy’s Leaving”: On Taking A Solo Retreat

With the start of 2019, I reflect on one of the best decisions I made last year: I left home. Stepping across the threshold into a rental on Cape Cod in late January 2018 for my first solo writing retreat, arms heavy with books and groceries, I wept…for ten minutes.

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I know why. It took me nearly six months from when my husband first suggested that I take time away to work on my book. Inspired by one of my close friends who had done the same in order to finish her book, I followed her lead. It was a cathartic release from the pressures of home. From the guilt I felt for leaving my kids and for leaving my husband alone with all the responsibilities that came with that. I thought it was selfish to go somewhere by myself. You see, I’ve been a mother for almost twelve years. I had my first child while I was writing my dissertation. That means it has been a while since I have written for an extended amount of time without having to go back home to be with my family or to be home in time to wake up to tend to my children (except for that one time I did any overnighter in my office due to a looming essay deadline). Sure, I travel for conferences and lectures. Those are not really for me. I took my second writing retreat in July; I was reminded all over again what quiet solitude brings me as a scholar and mother.

Here are my thoughts for those of you who are nervous or skeptical about saying, “Mommy’s leaving,” in order to take time for yourself away from home. What should you keep in mind if you take one of these solo retreats?

Relax: A dear friend, who knows me well, told me to make sure that I relax for the week. It hadn’t even occurred to me! I’m serious. She told me that I needed to plan to write for a certain amount of time, and then do nothing for a big part of the day. Doing nothing is hard. When you’re a working mother, there’s always too much on your plate. However, I found myself taking a long, hot bath while reading a New Yorker at one moment or sitting quietly with jazz playing while I ate my salad in another moment. When I wake my very sleepy kids up in the morning, I sometimes encourage them by saying, “It’s a beautiful day to be alive!” I said that out loud to myself one day. It is always a true statement.

Stay connected: My daughter and I had begun using Insight Timer to meditate. She can be a night owl. With guided meditation, she was out like a light when she listened intently to the voice hypnotizing her with warm tones suggesting: “Take a deep breath in…”, “Your eyelids are getting heavy” or, my favorite, “Go to sleep.” For the week, our routine consisted of my daughter and I chatting for 10 min. Next, we listened to guided meditation for 15 to 30 minutes. Then, I listen to her sleep for another 5. Finally, I would fight the sleep the voice has guided me into, get up, and go back to writing with a little more clarity for the evening.

Eat well: I stopped at Whole Foods before hopping on I-95 and bought salads, fruit, expensive nuts, olives, crackers, and goat cheese. With no children to worry about, I could buy only what wanted to consume. No waffles. No pasta (please, no pasta!).  I had wine awaiting me from my host, too. Good thing. Most of the restaurants in Wellfleet were closed for the season. Phew!

Sleep: I slept in the first morning until noon! Ok, I was up until 4 a.m. writing an essay that was due at midnight. I woke up first at my normal get-yourself-dressed-so-that-you-can-get-the-kids’-lunch-clothes-and-breakfast-ready-to-get-to-school-on-time o’clock. I struggled to get back to sleep. I replayed the same guided meditation from the night before that got my daughter to sleep. Worked like a charm! Worked again when I woke back up an hour later. Did I mention I’ve been a mother for nearly twelve years?

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Get exercise: I walked to the Wellfleet pier. I passed exactly three people on the way there (that’s including a baby in the stroller). I stopped and purchased earrings from the only store opened off-season. Thank goodness there was the market where I could pick up the last batch of warm ribs in the prepared section (I was getting sick of salads by day three).

Be present: I watched a small spider spinning a web. I took a minute to really stare at the stars from the skylight over my loft bed. I took pleasure seeing the cardinals and wrens eating suet from the feeder placed on the other side of the glass doors on the back deck. No need to rush off. I just observed. What guilt-less pleasure to just…be.

Be a mom (optional): My daughter called me two hours before our regularly scheduled time. I could tell she was having a rough evening. She was cranky. She wanted yet another snack. She didn’t want to finish her homework. I was in the middle of prepping my syllabi for classes the following week, and I felt dragged back into the life I was trying to escape so that I could focus. I realized that my husband could probably use the break himself. I spoke with her for a bit, then she handed me to her little brother. He decided that he’d read What is the Great Wall of China? to me (FYI: The Who Was book series is phenomenal). I actually learned a lot. I was even disappointed when his father said it was time for him to get off the phone. He bookmarked the page where we left off. My daughter called back about 35 minutes later to meditate. I went back to prepping my courses.

This is optional, of course, because I have had to learn that my kids can survive at home without me. If you need to completely unplug for you own sanity, do it! I only spoke to my kids before bed.

Write: No student emails. No nagging chores. No meal prep for the kids. I needed hours of thinking and free-form writing. I worked on the book. I worked on my syllabi. I had the time and space to do so. In solitude, I seized the opportunity to think and write without interruption. 

Find inspiration: I hang a Toni Morrison quote from her brilliant essay published in The Nation, “No place for Self-pity, No Room for Fear” (March 23, 2015). I place copies on the wall where I need it most: my home office, my campus office, and my bedside (so that I go to sleep knowing what my purpose is for the following morning).

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak. We write. We do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Of course, I greatly value my children, and I would do anything for them. However, I have had to learn that my writing matters, too. I write for them, my students, for the discipline of Art History. Also, I write for me. (That last point. Let that one sink in, Nikki).

So did anything go wrong?

The only snafu was that in my eagerness to write I brought way to many books! I carried too many (that I didn’t really need) into the house. The next morning, I could barely bend down because my back was in such excruciating pain. I later picked up a heating pad that was less than a mile down the road. Ahhhh, relief.

Any regrets?

Yes. I wish I had done this sooner. I needed to go away months, even years ago. I didn’t know how finding a quiet place with so few people to interact with would allow me to hear my own voice with no white noise of the daily demands. This was one of the best forms of self-care I have incorporated into my life as a working professional. I learned that to care for my voice, my body, and my spirit is critical for my own journey to find joy and fulfillment as a scholar and parent.

Sounds expensive!

Well, I am fortunate to have the resources to do this. If time or finances do not allow you days to get physically far away, spend quality alone time in easier, economical, and practical ways:

  • Take yourself out to lunch while the kids are in school (or camp during the summer). Have a smoothie or a glass of wine. Order a special dessert that you do not have to share.
  • Go for a long walk in your neighborhood.
  • Get cozy in your favorite coffee shop for a couple of hours. Better yet, find a new one with a different vibe. See if new surroundings can assist your creative process. 
  • Attend a matinee of a movie that does not have to cater to the kids’ or your partner’s tastes. 
  • Luxuriate in the bath after the kids are asleep or before they wake up! (The latter has provided me much needed peace and positive energy to start my day)
  • Take breathing breaks. Lots of apps for this. Set an alarm to remind you to do so.
  • Call your friends. I love when I can have an hour (or three) to just catch up with the folks who know me best. They let me just be me. I need that more than I recognize.

Cheers to a prosperous 2019!

May you find yourself alone and at peace.

May you find yourself alone.

May you find yourself.   

See The Grind for more of my thoughts on the work-life balance.

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