For a year, I’ve had a fantasy: I check into a hotel in the late afternoon and have a hamburger sent to my room, along with three martinis. The fantasy is so vivid, I can taste the ketchup and thick slice of onion on the hamburger. I polish off the second martini, placing the empty glass down on the white tablecloth on the room-service tray. Then, with the third, I swallow the three sleeping pills I’ve brought in my overnight bag. I climb into the vast, white, empty king-size bed and sleep. There’s a “Do Not Disturb” sign affixed to the doorknob of my fantasy, and in the morning, whenever I wake up, I have a pot of coffee in my room.
Then I go home to my baby.
“What was it like when you took your first vacation without your children?” I asked my friend, Dinah Prince Daly, who has two daughters, 17 and 12, and lives in Brooklyn (being a “Manhattan mommy” is a mindset, not geographical).
“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t gone yet.”
So what did my fantasy mean? Was I Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer, and would this lead to me peering at my baby from behind a car as his father took him to the Beginnings Nursery School (another fantasy of mine—he hasn’t been accepted yet), or me falling to my knees and sobbing as he runs to me in Central Park? No, it didn’t mean that, because it was just a fantasy. I wasn’t going to do it.
I’d really wanted a baby, and I’d been through a lot to get one. I’d had an abortion during which I’d screamed, “I changed my mind!” over and over again. After that, I’d had abdominal surgery, a miscarriage, filed an application to adopt a Chinese baby, purchased and peed on every ovulation stick on the market (for one year I wouldn’t pee unless it was on something), gone to a fertility specialist and, once pregnant, been on bed rest and a program of constant non-stress tests, and had an emergency C-section due to low amniotic fluid. So I was happy to have him.
But sleep deprivation came as a shock to me. Even though I’d never happily gotten up before 11 in my entire life, I thought that when my baby cried for me at 6 a.m. or 7, or a quarter to 5, love would propel me up out of bed in a beautiful Mexican nightgown, and smiling and singing and “where-is-mommy’s-nose”-ing, I would go to him. I didn’t know that love’s propeller would sometimes take 15 minutes to fly me the three feet to his little bedroom, naked and soaked with breast milk, where it would take everything I had to croak out a curt “Hey.”
Then Christmas brought two surprises. My 13-month-old called me “Mama” for the first time (prior, he’d referred to me only as “Dada” or “Baba,” his word for milk), and my husband presented me with a gift certificate for a night alone at the Algonquin Hotel. Not exactly the Four Seasons, but a hotel with a bed in it and hamburgers and definitely martinis. For two months, I enjoyed just thinking about it tucked away with all the other unused gift certificates he’d given me for things like lingerie and driving lessons. Until, one night, I used it.
Mom Checks Into Mercer
I’m far from the only woman to want—however half-heartedly—a wee respite from my child.
Nele Husmann, 35, a financial columnist living in Greenwich Village, left her 14-month-old daughter Juno for two days. “We were visiting my husband’s sister in Leipzig, Germany, and I’d planned for a long time to go to Berlin after Christmas to meet my girlfriends,” she said. “I was going to go with my husband and Juno. But Juno was getting along so well with her cousins, I decided to leave her there with Thomas and go to Berlin by myself. The first night, we just went out for drinks and I didn’t relax at all. The second night was better, but there is so much anticipation, it wasn’t as fun as it should have been.”
“Did you have any fun?” I asked her.
“Yeeeeaaahhh,” she said, her voice filled with no. “Not that I didn’t have fun, but when I got back, Juno didn’t want to be with me for the first hour. That really hurt. She ignored me and only wanted to be with my husband. I had more fun when I traveled with her to Mexico.”
“Would you go to Berlin without her again?” I asked.
“I’d say yes!” she said, and we both laughed. A strange and nervous laugh.
Danielle Dalton, 37, a veterinarian living on the Upper West Side, went on a belated three-day honeymoon in Las Vegas with her husband of two months, leaving behind her 9-month-old daughter, Olivia. “We left on a Friday and brought the baby to my mother’s house,” she said. “She was in good hands, so I didn’t have to worry. I was all gung-ho, the plane was fine, leaving was fine, but then there was a growing feeling of missing her that was so intense—a physical feeling of missing her—and I started really annoying Pete. It was hard to get her out of my thoughts. It wasn’t like ‘Whoo, I’m in Vegas!’ We actually decided we would never leave her again and cancelled a trip to Bermuda. But now we’re going away on a business thing for six days, so I guess we lied!” Like Nele, Danielle also laughed, but with more surprised abandon. Then she got a hold of herself. “If we hadn’t gone on our honeymoon, I would have felt I’d missed out, but I didn’t expect to miss her as much as I did. It’s good to break away, though—take time to live your life. It’s a healthy thing.”
Julie Weiss, 36, mother of Jake, 5, and Noah, 4, and a graphic designer who owns her own stationery company and lives on the Upper East Side, travels alone every summer. “I leave behind not only my children, but my husband,” she said. “I waited two years because of the guilt associated with leaving your children. My first trip was to Paris and the first two days were miserable; I couldn’t eat or focus or enjoy. I was sure they’d fall down the stairs or someone would give them something they’re allergic to, and it would be my fault. But by the third day, I loved the pleasure of being away—and, more importantly, I loved the pleasure of seeing them again. There is nothing more joyous than seeing your children after you haven’t seen them for a few days. Mike thinks one of us should always be in New York, so now I love traveling by myself—I’ve been to Berlin, St. Petersburg, London. I plan every detail of their life, make a chart for the baby-sitter, book their play dates.”
She and Mike also go away together for “romantic weekends” to the Mark Hotel or the Lowell. “We take a vacation within a five-block radius of home, or for a real adventure we stay in Soho at the Mercer. It’s essential. If you have children, you have to do it. Your priorities drift away from the husband; it’s very easy to fall into this new lifestyle of just focusing on the children.”
“So do all of your friends who have children do this?” I asked.
“No—I’m the only strange person I know who travels alone and gets suites with her husband,” she said.
Alone at the Algonquin
For men, leaving is simply not an issue. Weeks after our baby was born, my husband went on business trips to Austin, to L.A., to France. He never would have dreamed of not going. “Look what I brought the baby,” he said the other day, on one of his returns from L.A. He proudly produced a bathtub rubber ducky wearing sunglasses and holding a surfboard. That rubber ducky was all he had to do to be a great father. Job well done, it screamed. And, of course, the baby loved it.
When I complain, he reminds me that his grandfather, Milton, went to the Hamptons alone to rest for a few days after each of his three children were born.
“Please, just go,” he said, literally pushing me out the door, and I wondered who this had really been a gift for, much like the lingerie and the driving lessons. The baby was taking a nap, so there was no tearful good-bye, and my husband seemed anxious to watch The Forty Year Old Virgin on Pay Per View. I’d felt gung-ho, as Danielle put it, despite a terrible dream I’d had the night before that I’d been captured in a war and placed by soldiers in semi-luxurious accommodations while awaiting certain death.
But I was nervous. Unlike Julie, I had no idea how to make any kind of a chart, and a part of me was sure that the night would end with me, my husband, our baby and our dog, all together at the Algonquin. As much as I used to love traveling alone—I’d even spent the first four days of my honeymoon in Venice solo—now it didn’t feel right. If the trip had involved getting on an airplane instead of taking a cab to West 44th Street, I might not have gone.
“‘How can they tell?’ asked Mrs. Parker, on hearing that Calvin Coolidge was dead” was the quote that met me on my door. I sat on the bed and studied the room-service menus, and then examined the window treatments to make sure the room would be completely dark in the morning. It wasn’t. I slipped the “Privacy Please” sign on the outside door handle.
I tried to enjoy it, but I felt like a man who finally has a ménage à trois and turns on the game. I wanted my gift certificate back in its drawer so I could still anticipate it.
I only finished one martini and the olives of the others. At 10:26, I took two Excedrin PM after calling a few friends to see if they would meet me in the lobby. No one would.
And then, before falling asleep, I turned on CNN. Betty Friedan had died. And I realized that there, in the Algonquin, a small part of me had died, too.
Many of the women I talked to, who had either vacationed without their children or longed to do so, begged me afterwards not to reveal their names, because they felt so guilty about it. One mother who’d gone away for six days—and had no problem telling me about it—called me to say that her husband wouldn’t let her use her name, although he’d just come home from Japan. Betty Friedan obviously had more work to do. Many women simply aren’t honest when it comes to motherhood. Women who will tell you anything about their sex lives are suddenly secretive when it comes to their feelings about their children.
They had many reasons for wanting to get away: sex, sleep, and wanting to remember who they had been before.
But you can’t take a vacation from motherhood. You’re still a mother whether you’re at the Algonquin or in Vegas, or at home making a chart for the baby-sitter. There’s no escaping it. It’s a change of state, like dying. I missed my baby so much when I woke up—his urgent, open-mouthed kiss on my cheek, the heavy feel of him in the crook of my arm. But isn’t that the point of a vacation: to make you miss your regular life? I missed him so much, and yet I sank back down in the feather pillows and called down to the front desk to ask for a late checkout.