“At home, I’m holding my breath. When we get away, I can breathe.”
How six people (briefly) get away from their families
The scent of local nectarines, splayed obscenely for every passerby, sends me into a reverie, until I’m jolted out of it by the rude buzz of a text from home: “still with yr mistress?” I don’t know how long I’ve been snaking my cart through Whole Foods’ commodious aisles, but certainly long enough for my absence to be a burden on my family. Eventually and inevitably, when I stumble through our front door reeking of glycerin soaps and hauling the organic milk and tortillas we needed, plus the three additional bags of groceries that had beckoned to me from the supermarket shelves, Lisa will remind me how long she’s had our children by herself. My defense will be, as it always is, “I was running an errand, for us.” This is a lie in two parts — Whole Foods isn’t drudgery; it’s my private pied-à-terre. And the groceries might be for the family, but the time I spend at Whole Foods is entirely for me.
This is not meant to be a toast to absentee parenting. Besides, that’s more of a skill set from my parents’ generation, who so fully abdicated any child-care responsibilities that there are millions of grown Gen X kids who could reasonably claim cable television was their legal guardian. No, if anything, my wife and I are a symptom of the pendulum swinging back — parents who are embarrassingly attentive to our children’s needs. Free days spent crawling around on all fours, searching for the microscopic bullets misfired from one of my 4-year-old son’s constantly evolving Lego “shooters,” or sincerely honoring my 6-year-old daughter’s demand to know which direction I prefer the sequins on her flip shirt — “bunny’s eyes open or bunny sleeping?” Lisa and I moderate every dispute, kiss every bruise. We begin every weekend asking, “What should we do with the kids?” And end every evening, brains and bodies depleted, improvising bedtime stories about Batman just so our children can fall asleep knowing all the bad guys are locked away in Arkham Asylum. So it’s no wonder that it isn’t enough to find time for yourself; time must be stolen. That’s why I’ve learned to exploit every minute of solitude artfully, where even a blink of a moment can produce the same flood of serotonin as an unexpected snow day.
Initially, I kept it simple — by locking myself in the toilet. It’s surprisingly easy to stretch a routine urination into a bathroom staycation. If you’ve read one of my tweets or liked any Instagram photo posted since my first child was born, you’ve probably interacted with something I produced while sitting on a toilet. I found a seated position was optimal for multitasking and kept track of time by noting when my feet were falling asleep. Eventually, of course, I grew greedy, responding to lengthy work emails, burning through op-eds, and extending my bathroom breaks well beyond reasonable, into “we’re concerned about your health.” So I mixed it up — stealing an extra minute parked in front of the house, while I caught the end of a true-crime podcast, feeling a sudden urge to bake something complicated. But none of these compares to the time-sucking relief of grocery shopping.
Trips to the supermarket, once compulsory, have become a kind of bliss. And unlike my other methods of detachment, this escape benefits everyone — my family is sustained, Lisa evades a chore she detests, and I get to spend 30 to 120 minutes in mental solitude, listening to adult contemporary music while gently squeezing baguettes.
I’ve even come to understand the personalities and quirks of all our local grocers: The “Really, who pays attention to the price of a nectarine?” covert price gouging of Gelson’s. The Trader Joe’s clerks who all operate on exactly the same mystifying frequency, so much so that it wouldn’t surprise me if I walked into TJ’s one day and discovered all of the employees peacefully deceased, with a poisoned pumpkin cream Joe-Joe cookie dangling from their lifeless hands. The neighborhood health-food market that always has at least one wiry 70-year-old in jogging shorts. Any and all of those will do in a pinch, but none is perfect — because none of them is Whole Foods.
Much has been said about this chain of supermarkets, not all of it kind. For me, it’s practically a spiritual guide, showing me how close I already am to peak living, if only I’d reach out my arms and let joy tumble into my cart. One can be distracted by the presentation and curation of Whole Foods’ inventory — the dew that seems almost hand-painted on cherries, the absence of obnoxious and distracting brands — but then you’d miss the sheer volume of goods. Steam trays overstuffed with chana masala and sesame tofu. Freshly made blackened salmon fillets stacked one upon the other, endlessly replenished. Turmeric in my latte? Sure, I’ll wince through half a cup because I so love the effort. Even with the rare miss — might be time to retire that creamy raw broccoli salad? — it hardly matters because they’ve made so goddamn much. As the person responsible for most of my family’s meals, it gives me great pleasure to see mountains of food, all prepared by someone who isn’t me. Do you have any idea what repetitive torture it is to make a simple tabbouleh salad? And yet here are 50 pounds of it.
Like any noteworthy vacation, upon leaving Whole Foods I feel recharged, and not just because I was eating chocolate-covered cherries out of the bag the entire time I shopped. I hurry back to my family with souvenirs for my children (gummi rabbits and dried strawberries) and for Lisa (emergency wine). Once home, I clock Lisa’s bedraggled expression, then push past her into the kitchen to unload the groceries, thinking to myself, Wow, I’m a pretty terrible father and husband — but an excellent provider.
My mom is 90, and I’ve been caring for her for four or five years. I’m not sure why it feels so difficult. It’s not physically difficult. But I went from raising my kids and putting them first to putting my mother first, over my own health and needs. I’ve been thinking about moving her into care recently, and I think, Well, this is not that bad. But it’s emotionally difficult to watch somebody age minute by minute.
My husband and I have a camper, and during the summer, we camp every three weeks. It used to be once or twice in the summer or fall. But now, if I start talking about being overwhelmed, my husband will say, “Why don’t we go next weekend?” Sometimes we’ll go for one or two nights.
At home, I feel like I’m holding my breath all the time, and when we get away, I can breathe. I can sit in a chair and listen to the water. I live in a beautiful place. I’m sure there are birds around, but I’m so focused on other people. At home, my husband and I are never alone. In the truck, it’s just the two of us. We’re not talking about my mother’s care or my frustrations. We’re talking about us, where we’d like to see ourselves in five years.
I used to call home all the time to make sure everything is OK. Then I thought, I can’t do anything from where I am. I have to know that what I put in place is secure. I have to put it in a box and put it out of my mind.
— Debra McHugh, Salem, Oregon
When you’re a twin, there’s always going to be one person talking. And the other person has an idea. They want to talk, but I want to talk. And then your parent says, “Hold on, I’m talking to your twin.” And you have to wait. For a single child, the focus is always on them, but the mom might have another baby, then not all the attention will be on you. Being twins, that’s how it’s going to be all your life.
My twin and I do a lot of our stuff together, but sometimes it’s nice to have a break. Getting alone time can be hard. But when I find the time, I’ll squeeze myself back in our cat’s area. It’s a cat tree, with beds. There are scratching poles and a dark area where a cat can crawl in and have a nap. I’m the only one who can fit in there — just me and my tuxedo kitty, Turbo. I can sit and read or watch shows. I can draw. I can write. It’s right next to the couch, so I can reach up and grab my blanket and a pillow and rest there.
When I’m in there, my brother, Eli, doesn’t get jealous. He has his own things to do. Unless he’s trying to come talk to me and get me out, but he can’t really fit. — Sonja Dieter, Springfield, Oregon
Sometimes at school when we play together, I feel like I’m bored. I just want to play with my other friends. So once in a while, I run away and play with them. — Eli Dieter, Springfield, Oregon
Space makes a difference: the house you are in, the bedroom you have. When I was with a different family, I had the basement and a shower just for me. So when I was in my bedroom, no one could hear me when I called friends or my parents in France. I didn’t hear the kids when they woke up. I felt free. This house I am in now, all the bedrooms are on the same level. I don’t feel like I’m off work, even when I’m in my room.
The rule for au pairs is that you only work 45 hours per week, with a max of ten hours per day. But when you live with a family, they are your boss. You eat dinner with them. If I want to watch a movie, I’m with the kids. If you want to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday morning, you can’t — they come in and they’re playing.
With my first family in San Francisco, I could go in and out through the garage. They didn’t notice. They said, “In the morning, we need you at 8. You know your job.” But when I first started with my current family, they wanted me home at 10:30 every night. In the beginning, I said yes. Then two weeks after I arrived, I said, “You picked me because I’m mature. I can go out.”
I have to leave the house to take a break from the family and have privacy. When I’m off work, I like to go to the cinema, where I can watch a movie in a quiet space. Sometimes, when I’m out and see other kids crying and the parents arrive, I think, Very nice. I’m not with those kids. I can just walk away.
— Estelle Goncales, San Francisco
I entered the system at 7 or 8, and I’ve been in 54 foster homes or treatment centers by my count. You never know what the family is going to be like. They can be nice at first, but you have to keep your guard up. You’re watching for the tiniest movements to see if they’re OK.
When you’re in a foster home, you don’t have anything of yours. Everything you’re using — the towels, the stove — is theirs. I wanted something of mine. So at every foster home I’ve gone to, I’ve taken two books — books just lying around — and collected them in this bin. There were foster homes where, when I got home from school, my bags were gone and I’d go back to the Office of Children’s Services. I lost my stuff all the time. It got stolen or thrown away. But my books always seemed to travel with me.
When I read, I can put myself in a situation better than my own. Right now, I’m reading a book about a girl who can see the dead and communicate with them. She felt like she was alone, and then she found other people who stand by her. A series I read over and over is about a girl who can’t touch anyone because her touch causes extreme pain. No one accepts her, and she’s scared of herself. She’s missing out on things going on in the world.
I’ve been in the home I’m in now for two years. Little by little, I’m letting books go. I’m giving them away. I’ve chosen to stay in foster care until 21. By the time I’m 21, I’ll probably only have 20 books left.
— Jyasia Batts, Anchorage, Alaska