My husband and I recently came back from a long weekend away from the kids, which we do a few times a year. The second night we were away, my 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, got on the phone and said this to me: "Mommy, when you come back from your vacation with Daddy, I would like to go away to Mexico with you. Just the girls. OK?"
I was taken aback for a multitude of reasons: Why exactly did my 5-year-old need a vacation? Was I raising an entitled child who felt like she somehow deserved Caribbean excursions? And even more curious: Why Mexico, exactly?
I kind of blew her off, but when I returned home, Charlotte pressed me again: "When are we going on our girls-only vacation, Mommy?"
This time, I took the bait. I asked her why she needed a vacation, why Mexico, and what exactly was going on inside her little brain.
Her response: "Because I want to spend some 'quality alone time' with you, too. I want to get our nails painted and swim in the pool. I want to sleep in a big bed with you. Remember when we went to Mexico before George (her baby brother) showed up? I want it to be just the girls and then Facetime the boys (my hubs and son) and show them how much fun we are having. Like when I went camping with just Daddy. I want to do that with you only not camping. And also I need a good night sleep, too, because George wakes me up at night."
My translation: "Wow, she has totally internalized the messaging about quality alone time that I give her when my husband and I sneak away; she gets that it helps bond people. Wow, she remembers going to Mexico when she was just 3 years old and I was pregnant with her brother; total core memory for her. Wow, she's feeling left out of all the fun when David and I leave her for a long weekend. And wow, I guess having a baby brother who cries a lot at night has made her sleep deprived as well."
I sat on this conversation for a few days, thinking about how I spend most of my time with my kids. I didn't realize it until Charlotte brought it up to me, but I felt a desire to spend more time with her, too. Even as I write the words, it seems easier than it actually is. For instance, how hard is to just sit down and play Candy Land with her a couple of times? It's actually really hard because her 2-year-old brother always comes by and flips the board. Add to that, the fact that I'm perpetually stuck in a multitasking vortex—a la "Let me just flip this load of laundry and then I'll help you finish the puzzle"—or worse, unfocused, glancing at my phone for work emails while I'm supposedly watching "The Little Mermaid" with her.
As I mulled all of this over, I was warming up to the idea of a girls-only vacation. I want her to know that I truly treasure her as an individual and that she doesn't always have to share my short attention span with her brother. Often, I spend a lot of time telling Charlotte to wait while I help George, encouraging her to include him in games and activities, and sadly, scolding her for leaving him out or not sharing. I want each of my kids to feel like they are heard and known separate from their sibling. And while, yes, I could easily just take Charlotte out for a special dinner or take her to a paint-your-own-pottery place while I leave George with his dad, I felt like those little dates were often just scheduled into an already jammed schedule. If we went away, I could really focus on her.
As if the universe was pushing the whole idea along, a few days into my trip research, an invitation for a work-related trip to the Dominican Republic in which I could bring one of my children popped into my inbox. OK, it's not exactly Mexico, but hey, close enough. Total score; I started packing our bags.
I'm not gonna lie; leading up to the trip, I was nervous. What the heck were we going to talk about for four days straight? Plus, the responsibility of traveling alone with a young child to a foreign country all of a sudden felt weighty to me. Still, I pushed my fears aside, packed a bunch of new coloring books and gizmos from the dollar store and waved adios to my husband and son. We were off.
When we arrived at our hotel, we were both ecstatic —palm trees, white sandy beaches, and turquoise water. We quickly shimmied into our bathing suits and hit the pool. Charlotte doggie-paddled next to me, and after we swam the length of the pool, she sidled up to me and asked me to do a star with her (her way of saying to float on her back). We held hands and floated, looking up at the bright blue sky and swaying palm trees. "Mommy, I love you," she said. I felt the stress of my endless to-do list evaporate. My worries of what I would do for three more days with my daughter dried up. My heart started expand, and I exhaled. "I love you too, sweetie."
The next few days were filled with a lot of fun and relaxation. In addition to lots of swimming, we played mini golf and hit the spa together (In my opinion, the mommy-daughter mani pedi is mandatory on a trip like this). I taught her how to swim in the ocean, floating up with a swell instead of letting it crash over you. We danced at a kid-friendly nightclub. We even got our groove on during the day during a foam party at the pool. We bounced on the trampoline and took a cooking class at the resort's awesome Kid Club. We even had a soak in the Jacuzzi on our terrace, where we played a tough game of footsie and discussed which Shopkins were our favorites. One afternoon, we just lazed on the beach, covered in sticky surf and sand, holding hands and watching the clouds drift by. "That one looks like a giraffe!" "Look, that one looks like a coconut—or a bowling ball!"
My girl squeezed my hand and nudged a little closer. We talked more about the clouds—why they look so fluffy; what it would be like to bounce on one; and what a cloud must taste like.
"Wanna build a sand castle?" asked Charlotte a few minutes later.
"More than anything in the world," I replied.
This response is exceptional. Most of the time, when my daughter asks me to play, I often say "in a minute" or "not right now, honey" or "as soon as I'm finished with X." In those moments, playing with her is the furthest thing from my mind because I'm enthralled in my writing work, my domestic duties, or chasing her brother. And to finally give myself over to play felt awesome. Making a sand castle with my daughter was at the top of my to-do list. It was like an entire year of guilt from all the "nos" and "not now" lifted from me.
I kept my phone on "airplane mode" almost the entire length of the trip. We checked in with the boys back home twice a day via Facetime, but for the most part, I only used my phone to snap photos. I was totally unplugged and totally focused on my daughter—for the first time in what seemed like forever.
At meals, she would color, and I would sometimes join in. We would talk about what she liked in school. It turns out she's doing more than "nothing," even though that's her go-to answer when I ask her what she did in school that day. I discovered she knew all the words to the Star Spangled Banner and could count to 20 in Spanish. She listened to me as I told her about some of the trips I had gone on before she was born and how much I enjoyed traveling and exploring new places.
"And now, I get to explore new places with you," I said to Charlotte.
"Yeah, we can travel all over the world. We'll be travel buddies," she replied and then offered her hand for a high five. I met it, then turned it over and gave her little fingers a smooch.
After dinner in the evenings, we would curl up in our bed and fall blissfully asleep in each other's arms, exhausted from a long day in the sun, our souls content to just be together. Snuggled up, it took me back to the warm intimacy I first experienced when she was an infant and would nurse and rock her for what seemed like days. I cherished how deeply I felt like I knew her as a baby, instinctively understanding her needs and her sounds as the months and then years progressed. But somewhere along the way, going to school and making friends, she has grown independent. In that time, I also grew—as a writer, a mother to another child, and a wife. In some ways, Charlotte and I grew apart over the past five years, which I guess is a natural part of the parent-child relationship. But just like a couple who can most certainly tend to their relationship with a regular date night but gets a serious reboot with a weekend away, I feel like I fell in love with my daughter—all over again—on this trip. Getting away alone with Charlotte reminded me that any deep relationship—including those with my children—has to be nourished if it's going to continue to bloom. Sure, a quick trip to McDonald's here and craft time at the library there can keep us connected. But creating deep, lasting memories together; to truly take the time to get to know my child's thoughts and her soul; the kind of stuff we did on our trip together; well, that's the magic stuff I'm hoping will be the glue in our relationship for years to come.