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How We Finally Got Our First Vacation—as Parents

They say when you travel with kids; it's a trip, not a vacation. So, my husband and I hadn't had an actual vacation in nearly a decade.

In theory, I am an advocate for the annual couple's getaway for parents—provided there's Mary Poppins-like childcare and enough money to pay for it or suitable relatives offering free childcare and enough money for a week at the local Motel 6. In reality, we never had any of the above. This is how our kids, Hannah, Isaac and Ben, got to be 11, 8 and 6, and we hadn't managed a vacation away from them in all of our time as parents.

I never thought this would be us. Ed and I had previously traveled all over the country and backpacked around Europe and North Africa before we had kids. And yet there I was, gazing at the love of my life across the dinner table, through the din of bickering, interrupting, goofing off children, and wondering when we would ever have quality time alone again. Six months before our 15-year wedding anniversary, the seed of our getaway sprouted in my consciousness as a necessity. It was right around the time that a couple of our friends with kids started divorcing. Our vacation-free marriage no longer seemed like something to take a twisted pride in.

Here's how the seed of our getaway took root and what it grew into:

6 Months Before

Hannah had gone to sleep away camp once and loved it. When the camp information came again in the mail, I realized our sons were old enough to attend, too. "Do you guys want to go to camp with Hannah next summer?" I said, nonchalantly. "Sure," Isaac said, followed by Ben. Ed and I exchanged conspiratorial looks and nods, and then nobody ever ran faster to a mailbox with an envelope than I did.

3 Months Before

Ed found a tiny, cheap, pink shack on the Gulf Coast for rent. It had a long dock and there was nothing to do besides hike, fish, kayak, read, swim and you know. "Rent that baby," I said. But were we really doing this, sending our babies to sleep away camp so we could selfishly have time alone? Ben was only 6. But the camp had a great reputation, and several of their friends were going. Plus, our kids always seem to be up for trying new things. So why should my mommy guilt about shipping them off so we could have couple time get in the way of their fun?

1 Day Before

Isaac asked for a Popsicle after breakfast, and Ed said no. Isaac burst into tears. "I feel sick! My throat is scratchy! I feel like I'm going to barf!" I raced to him, thermometer in hand; 98.6, every parent's favorite number.

"You're probably just nervous about going to camp," I said. A week earlier, when questioned on his feelings about leaving for camp, Isaac admitted to only slight apprehension. "I am," he said, snuggling into me. "It's totally normal to feel nervous about new things," I said, snuggling back. "I was nervous about going to sleep away camp, too." "You were?" "Of course. But I had a great time, and I bet you will, too. I have complete confidence in you." "You always say that," Isaac said. "But I do," I said, and I do. "You're a friend magnet." And he is.

Morning of Departure

We left home at 5 a.m. for the 3-hour drive. Everyone was excited in the car, including Isaac. Hannah and Isaac started a play slap fight that turned real. Ben announced that he had to pee every 20 minutes. I had that exasperated feeling and glanced over at Ed who had that exasperated look. The drop-off went smoothly. Nobody cried or even suggested we not leave. We hightailed it to the front gate, where a staff member stopped us momentarily thinking that the kayak strapped to our roof belonged to the camp. It must have been our conspiratorial smiles.

Afternoon of Departure

It was a 5-hour drive to the beach from the camp. We sang, gossiped without concern for little ears, and marveled at the quiet. Every half hour or so, one of us punctuated it with, "Man, this feels weird!" At a gas station, we ate an irresponsible lunch of Fritos and orange juice. I topped mine off with a Dove bar. I hadn't felt this wickedly reckless since college.

Evening of Departure

We went to a grocery store and realized we could get whatever we wanted! No concern for the picky palates of others. I wasn't even sure what to do because I had nearly forgotten what I liked. But soon our grocery cart was overflowing with the likes of asparagus, goat cheese, greens and beer.

Days 2-7

We woke up when our eyes opened naturally. Drank coffee in peace. Walked down and checked crab traps. Counted brown pelicans sitting on pilings. Relaxed on the sofa in the air conditioned, pink living room and read a novel. Listened to the rain. Realized I didn't care if it rained the entire time. Got online to see if there were pictures of the kids posted on the camp's website. Yes! They looked happy! Went to the beach when the sun came out. Continued reading the novel. Listened to waves crash. Looked over at Ed and said in unison, "Who's got it better?" Watched sunset on the dock. Hauled up crabs and cooked them for dinner. Clinked beers before digging in. Crabs were overcooked and awful. Laughed and ate crackers with butter and salad for dinner. Remembered why I married Ed in the first place. (He's funny! He's smart! He's nice! And I knew because I could hear him across the dinner table!)

Turns out the kids had a great time without us. A month after they got home, I began daydreaming about my next trip with Ed. Did I say trip? Certainly, I mean vacation.

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