Thursday, February 1, 2018

My First True Vacation

I've been hesitating to call my Haiti trip a vacation, because it was nothing like the images most people conjure up about relaxing and getting away. At the compound, we had intermittant water, no hot water, no air conditioning, little down time, shared rooms and spaces, had to wash clothes in the shower, and passed around a GI bug. During the day, we went on challenging, sweaty hikes, were without toilet facilities, had to eat only the water and snacks we could carry, spent hours in hot, humid and crowded rooms, talked to others constantly, and took few breaks. I also hesitate to call it a vacation as we were spending time caring for people who have very little, who live with incredible challenges every day, and their reality is my one-week of being uncomfortable.

Let's call this vacation "adventurous."
All that said...I will still call this a vacation because, for the first time since I had a child, my mind was clear. For seven days, the noise went away.

I've always thought the most challenging part of parenting is that you never get a day off. Even when I've gone on trips, I've still worried about my children, their schedules, and what I'd do if something went wrong. I never felt like I had a full brain break from being a mom.

The mental load of being a mother is constant and weighs heavy. My brain is always, unceasingly full of the noise of knowing where my kids are at all times, arranging schedules, planning meals, knowing when and what they last ate, keeping track of birthday parties and gifts and playdates and favorite foods and strong dislikes. At all hours of the day, I'm tracking grocery lists, laundry needs, piano practice, homework requirements, house issues, bill payments -- and that's not including my 3-5 hours/day spent working a job, from home, in hours wedged between answering emails, online shopping, planning trips, checking news (too often), checking social media (too much), and volunteering time for various groups. I'm exhausted at the end of most days. I can't shut it off even when I try.

But in Haiti, the noise turned off.

I knew my children were in good hands, cared for by their loving and capable father (with whom I'd left a detailed schedule). Even if something terrible had happened, there's little to nothing I could have done (I wouldn't have received a text/call until evening, and I likely couldn't have even gotten to Port Au Prince to fly back). I thought about my kids daily, but only to think how they might enjoy something I'd seen, or that I hoped they were having a good day.

Meals I was ravenous for were served here. I didn't shop, cook, nor clean. And no children complained about it.
I had no control over this trip; I had planned nothing, I knew no one in charge, and I had no responsibilities. I woke up every day to have breakfast served to me, get in a car and go on a hike arranged by others, again have dinner served to me, and stay in a room I hadn't booked. I was not responsible for any decisions.

Relieved of the mental load of parenting and planning, I focused on the present. I watched one foot go in front of the other on long and dusty hikes and engaged muscles to keep going, not fall, not tire. I looked up and fully took in the gorgeous countryside, the plants I'd never seen and the bird calls I'd never heard. I smiled and engaged with hundreds of people who came to us for a very basic need. I savored food and was incredibly grateful for it. I slept soundly, exhausted yet fulfilled, each day.

In nine years, my brain had never been so clear. It was an extraordinary feeling. Now that I'm home and all the noise has crashed back in, I am doing OK, because I finally got that break I'd been wanting for nine years. I feel restored. I can do this again. And when I can't, I'll try to remember what clarity felt like, and maybe I can grasp it back without having to trek to the middle of rural Haiti.

So for anyone else whose mind never shuts off, here's what I recommend: book a tour where others do all the planning, leave the country to a place where your phone rarely works, do something physically challenging every day, and play a role/do a task that you normally don't do. It's no tropical beach vacation or skiing with friends, but it will sure be the mental vacation you may truly need. Sign me up.

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