So, the thing is... I went to Cleveland and came home a new woman.

Recently, I was standing in our downstairs bathroom working on retexturing it and I couldn't quite reach the top of the wall. My three-year-old, Ana, was watching me. So, I turned the garbage pail upside down and stood on top of it --worried out loud that it might not hold me. Of course, it DIDN'T hold me and I crashed through. "OUCH!" I said. Ana was very concerned. "I shouldn't have stood on that, Ana. That wasn't a smart thing to do."

Ana, deadpan, and in exactly this verbiage: "I cannot allow you to hurt yourself. If you continue to put yourself in danger, I will put you in a time out."

When your words come back to haunt you, there's pretty much nothing you can do other than listen to yourself --even if your voice is coming out of a three-year-old with an attitude. I really DID need a time out.

So I went to Cleveland.

I know, I know, Cleveland wasn't MY idea of a hot vacation spot either. Especially in November. But a group of my friends from the Mothers of March 1998 Babies message board on were meeting up in Cleveland and I went. (These are the same women who sent me packages, cards, books, stickers, hand-held games, and a zillion other things during the almost twenty weeks I was on bed rest while pregnant with Jane. They sent me something almost every single day. That's a LOT of thoughtfulness directed at someone they'd never even met. I couldn't wait to say thanks in person.)

It was a Moms-only weekend so we all arrived without spouses or children. And we just had a blast! There were women from all walks of life --the stay-at-home-moms and the career women, the single parents, the Canadians and the Americans and the Texans. We all converged on Cleveland, armed with pictures and wine and we proceeded to fit about ten years worth of conversation into three days. I learned some really important lessons.

* I learned that people in Cleveland differ from Texans. For example, when the guy at the swanky restaurant urinated into a plastic plant right in front of us, I wanted to tell him that in Texas, real men urinate OUTSIDE on REAL trees. Was he born in a barn or what?

* I learned that you can take the mother away from her family but you cannot ever turn her into anything except a mom. Like when the guy at the dance club PICKED ME UP IN THE AIR and I affixed him immediately with my Serious Mom Face and sternly said “Put me down this instant!” and he did so, immediately. (And then left before I could put him in a Time Out.)

* I learned that cyberspace goes a long way toward breaking the ice and establishing the friendships between women, but the bottom line is there is no substitute for a real hug or a genuine laugh between people IN PERSON. We were a group of really different people, bound only by the common ages of our children. We've established a pretty relaxed rapport with each other in the last three-and-a-half years so our comfort level was real from the very beginning. But I believe we humans simply need TOUCH to connect. By the time we left, we were real-life friends.

* And the number one thing I learned is that, although it was hard to leave my kids (Smiley Jane is in such a Mommy phase right now) and although it was hard to justify the expense, and although travel seemed a bit dicey given the world situation, I really needed a break. I needed a vacation. I came back, after three short days, completely energized. My reserve of patience and good humor was completely restored. That’s a good way to start the holidays.

Maybe it's not just moms who need vacations. I remember when I was working at this terrible job doing a hunger study in Texas and I literally worked eighteen months straight without a day off. The project was underfunded and understaffed but I was on fire about my cause. I couldn't see that I was becoming more and more inefficient and well, MENTAL as the days went by. I bet that holds true for lots of people I know --people who work in the technology sector where it is routine for employers to expect them to work between sixty and seventy hours a week; my friends who are self-employed who have to not only find the work but then also DO it; my friends in the broadcast news business; policy makers; chefs. I don’t believe we were meant to work that way. I like the European way of recognizing that employees need a vacation every year and then simply shutting the business down to make sure that happens. But you know, the average mom works a fifteen-hour day, seven days a week, and we don't think a thing about it.

And it's so interesting to me that we moms, or at least most of the moms I know, put ourselves so far down the list in terms of priorities. And I know lots of moms who will tell you that they don't go on vacation without their families because they can't arrange childcare, or because they would miss their kids too much (or their kids would go off the deep end without them) or a whole host of other reasons. I'm not saying there's no validity to that kind of explanation. (I've certainly used something along those lines myself.) What I AM saying is that I am a much better mom when I invest a little bit of time in myself, so when I don't, I am not the only person who suffers. You've got to fill your own cup back up if you want to keep pouring it out for the people you love. I don't think I really believed that. But there is such a dramatic difference in my behavior and attitude now that I've had a little break. Jane survived without me and doesn't appear scarred for life. Ana had a terrific time with her dad and gave me a huge hug and said “I really missed you, Mom.”

Of course, she is still going through the Tormenting Threes but THIS week, I've been grinning at her and tickling, hugging and kissing her and patiently parenting her instead of snapping and getting frustrated and then hating myself for it. I got away for a few days and got to appreciate my life from the outside and I got to invest in MYSELF a bit. It made me realize that I really do treat myself as someone unworthy of my own time.

So my wish for you, as we head into this strenuous season, is that you will take some time to invest yourself. Take it and don't feel guilty about all the things you could be doing for other people. In a way, you're doing this for them, too, because everyone benefits when greeted by a relaxed and recharged YOU. Do a little something for yourself, even if it's just a long, uninterrupted walk now and again.

But if you can get away for a few days, I highly recommend Cleveland.


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(c) Barbara Cooper 2001

Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (3.5) and Jane (13 months). She lives in Austin, Texas and she's wondering if the March Moms want to meet in Hawaii next time.