couple camping
(Illustration: Rudzhan Nagiev, iStock)

How to (Finally!) Take That Kid-Free Vacation

For one pandemic-worn parent, the key to staying close to her family is getting some distance

couple camping

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For our first kid-free vacation in three years, my husband and I planned a weekend in Cape Cod. Just the two of us, our neglected road bikes, and maybe some cold lobster rolls in our jersey pockets. When we actually pulled it off last spring, it felt like a second honeymoon. No responsibilities, no cheddar bunnies. We could finally catch our breath.

Like millions of parents across the country, we carried on through the pandemic as the challenges piled up. In the early days of the lockdown, I still vividly recall taking care of my COVID-infected husband, homeschooling our then four-year-old son, wiping down groceries, nursing my four-month-old daughter, and rethinking my career when The New York Times had to shelve a filed travel assignment. Then our landlord informed us he wanted to sell our home. And shortly after that, my wonderful 104-year-old grandmother died.     

A new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of those who identified as caregivers reported experiencing depression or PTSD-related symptoms due to the stressors of COVID-19. It took me a while to realize that I was a burnt out caregiver. My usual drive to exercise and play with the kids gave way to all-consuming fatigue, a shorter temper and one glass of wine too many; there came a point when I had nothing left in the tank. I called up Nanika Coor, a Brooklyn-based clinical psychologist and parenting therapist, who said the well-being of caregivers is one of the best predictors of a child’s psychological and emotional health. “Kids have the best chance for healthy development when they are raised by parents who have the internal resources to meet their needs with calm, confident consistency.” The opposite of calm, I reached out to my newly vaccinated parents and asked for help.

Here’s how to maximize your own kid-free adventure—avoiding a few rookie mistakes I made—and why it’s a surprisingly healthy choice for the entire family. 

Prepare the Kids, Reduce the Guilt

Before booking a getaway, figure out who’s watching the kids. If grandparents arent local and your regular babysitter isn’t available, turn to school friends in the same boat. Offer to take their kids for a night next time if they take yours, or consider traveling with another couple and getting a hotel with a kids club

Avoid a traumatic goodbye by giving kids substantial notice that youre hitting the road—and reminding them who they’ll be hanging out with while you’re away. As Coor cautioned, the most important thing is trusting that they can handle your absence for a few days, and not projecting your own nervous anticipation onto them. “Confidently provide your child with factual information tailored to their developmental level of understanding” she said. “Be honest about being apart without feigning excitement or putting a ‘but’ in your sentence (‘…but you’ll be with your favorite cousins and I just know you’ll have a BLAST!’).” Allow kids to share their feelings about being separated, and address whatever questions they have as they arise.

For several weeks up until the day of departure, my husband and I brought up little reminders about the trip so it didn’t come as a surprise. When we drove away and my son ran across the front yard yelling, “Bye! I love you! Have a great trip!” my initial guilt about leaving the kids had all but vanished. I remembered what Coor said about modeling good self-care in order to empower our kids to engage in self-care themselves—even during childhood. “You’re treating yourself well by resting, reconnecting with yourself and your partner, and refilling your own cup so that you can come home with plenty of reserves to refill theirs.”

Keep the Stoke High and Trip Expectations Low

After a year without childcare, three days on the Cape sounded like an unbelievable amount of time to catch up on the active outdoor lifestyle we’d been missing. Instead of just packing our campervan with road bikes, we threw in running shoes, an inflatable Alpackaraft, and a Surftech SUP board. On our way north from Connecticut, over two citrusy pints of Surfside Session at Naukabout Brewery in Mashpee, Massachusetts, we decided we didn’t need to have such an action-packed getaway simply because we could. Rather than ruin the trip by trying to do it all, I let go of plans to paddle around Washburn Island and Wellfleet and get post-SUP drinks at Truro Vineyard. 

Brooke Froelich, the co-founder of WildKind, a newly launched community for active families, and an adventure-loving mom to two, knows all about holding space for kid-free experiences and celebrating the win of an adults-only trip, whatever that entails. “A few years ago, my husband and I committed to supporting each other in spending time outside alone without the kids. Sometimes this looks like him heading out for a Saturday of singletrack on his mountain bike, and other times this looks like me heading out for a backpacking trip with my mama friends,” said Froelich. “I’ll admit, I always feel a portion of guilt when I’m heading out, but I always come home with my cup overflowing. I’m ready to pour myself back into my kids when I take care of my own needs!” 

Following nights of uninterrupted sleep by the sea in South Yarmouth and at Autocamp Cape Cod in Falmouth, the days sparkled with possibility. Riding along the Cape Cod Rail Trail and Shining Sea Bikeway, being able to shift gears and enjoy pressure-free days without juggling work, school, playdates, and sibling drama, was completely soul-nourishing. It felt like free therapy. “After over a year of 24/7 parenting, many parents have lost touch with any roles they play in life besides On-Demand Snack Maker,” said Coor. “Breaks from caregiving allow parents to recharge and attend to the aspects of their lives—outside of their children—that bring them joy.” 

The Kids Will Be Alright, but Have a Game Plan

Don’t spend the first half of your vacation looking at photos of your kids, wondering if they feel abandoned, checking the baby monitor (then calling the caregiver). They’ll be fine. My son built forts and ate too much chocolate ice cream. If I’d set expectations for the trip before we left, I would’ve been able to disconnect from parent mode earlier and connect more with my husband. Have some sort of game plan, whether that means FaceTiming one day, exchanging a few pics, or disengaging altogether. It’s important for kids to build confidence in their ability to thrive without parents around, and the long-term benefits of little bursts of independence are indisputable. 

According to a new study on autonomy-supportive parenting by the Society for Research in Child Development, kids who engage in alone time and witness their parents doing the same are more psychologically adept in stressful situations (such as a pandemic) and will be better equipped to function on their own as they get older. Autonomy-supportive parental behavior “fosters intrinsic motivation and provides the opportunity for the child’s perception of self-authorship of one’s actions…and being effective in attaining a sense of mastery.” The three-week study also found that there is a positive impact on the entire family climate, notably “reductions of parental stress and increases in parental vitality.” 

Embrace the Newfound Space and Maintain It

As with any vacation, that free-wheeling vibe fizzles once you return home, especially if it’s to a kid-centered universe. But as my husband and I discovered since our escape to the Cape, even taking a day here and there to hit pause—be it separately or together—is enough to keep the mental load light and prevent a sense of self-erasure at the service of our childrens achievement. Our five-year-old has adjusted really well to our more frequent kid-free breaks, always eager to share stories and welcome the occasional surprise goody. He’s also been on board with a more hands-off approach to parenting, enjoying the extra freedom to follow his own wild, creative pursuits, be it planting milk weed in his fairy garden or reading at his own pace. In giving everyone more space, I have greater patience with myself and my family and don’t feel compelled to meet the high standards of a performative mom culture. 

These days, as we gather around our van’s dining table, hovering over maps and national park guidebooks on our homeward trip from California to Connecticut, I’m still stoked for all the crazy, cheddar bunny-filled days on the road ahead. Which probably has something to do with that solo century ride I’m looking forward to when I get back.

Lead Illustration: Rudzhan Nagiev, iStock