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A Room of One’s Own (Finding My Voice in the Midst of Parenthood)

A week ago I said goodbye to these three and drove away from my little home in Santa Monica.

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It was weirdly easy to do, an indication, I think, of just how much I needed to get away.

I think the most startling thing for me about being a parent, from the very first day, is how little time and energy I am able to devote to myself. And ten months into the existence of my second child, I’ve been feeling it more than ever. Most days I have time to do the very bare minimum in order to maintain my life. I respond to the emails that absolutely must be responded to, I get the dishes done, the kids fed and clothed and to school or playdates, I pay bills (not always on time) and make sure I’m on top of things when it comes to my work and private practice.

But that’s it. Our bathroom needed to be cleaned like two weeks ago. Half of our houseplants have died in the last six months, we’re out of milk right now, I haven’t posted a blog here in a week, I have four unlistened to voicemails, an absurd amount of email to respond to, and I could really use an update on my toenail polish.

Not to mention needing some time to just sit and be quiet with my thoughts.

So last week, with the aid of my husband who so amazingly agreed to take on the girls so I could do this, I hit the road.

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To say it was exhilarating was an understatement.

My destination was the New Camoldi Hermitage, a Catholic monastery on a cliff in Big Sur, about five hours north of here. I first read about this place in Christina Haag’s memoir Come to the Edge, and have fantasized about going there ever since. The monastery offers silent retreats, as in meals taken in your room and a vow of silence while in residence. The thought both intimidated and utterly beguiled me.

I booked two nights, and planned three days of driving, reading, contemplation, and silence. I took with me 5 books of poetry, three boxes of old letters from three different people, two journals, and my Kindle which is filled with hundreds of books. There are some things I’ve been trying to get clear on in my life these days, and these things seemed like they might be helpful.

When I first set out I intended to drive straight up there so I could just get on with being quiet. But the moment that I was driving, windows down, sunroof open, music loud, I felt so wide open and free.

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The coast was wild and beautiful and the road stretched out in front of me and I began to stop every thirty minutes or so, pretty much each time I saw a beautiful spot. I would park and get out of the car and I would stand at the edge of the land and breathe in the ocean air and remember what it felt like to just be me.

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It had been so, so long since I’d been alone. At least alone with the knowledge that there was more alone time coming. Usually I’m alone with twenty minutes to spare, and a panicky feeling that the seconds are just bleeding out.

But not on Sunday. On Sunday, with two whole days laid out before me, I felt like I could breathe.

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I arrived at the monastery in the late afternoon. It was a two mile drive up a mountain and this bench was half way there. Of course, I stopped.

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In fact, I made a point of sitting on this bench at least twice a day for all three days. An experience I’ll probably never forget.

My room was plain, and it was perfect.

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There was a private garden beyond those windows, that looked at the sea. And there were walls so tall that I had utter privacy, standing there looking out into the distance.

Inside I unpacked all of my things, my books and boxes of letters and journals, and then I stood there, just breathing. I had no cell reception and there was no wifi. I was truly cut off, disconnected from the world I know.

It was both unnerving, and calming.

Over the next two days I spent a lot of time in that room. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Journal entries, letters, a new book idea, and more letters.

I read too. I read through all the letters I brought. I read all five of those books of poetry. I read a couple of books on my Kindle. (Man, there are a lot of hours in the day when you’re not tending to children.)

I also went for a lot of walks, all around the monastery. I wish I could tell you how good the air smelled, wish I could send some of that right through this screen and into your world.

I took this photo in the early evening on my first night, on a walk around the grounds. The moon was high up in the sky and I was thinking about my friend Julie, and something she wrote in a letter to me a long time ago.

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I took this one the next morning. I had woken to the bells ringing in the chapel and outside the fog kissed the dawn.

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I took this one later in the day, the sky a resilient kind of blue. I thought about how Vera would have insisted that it was aqua, and how much she has changed the entire scope of my life.

 

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I went for a drive on my second day and I walked on this beach for a long time. I felt wildly lonely, in a really important way.

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The truth is that I could have stayed up there for  a week, maybe even longer. On the third day when I drove down that mountain, stopping at the bench for the last time, I felt like I was only just getting started. My second night there had been hard. I felt alone, and vulnerable, all of my defenses distractions stripped away, the real voices in my head louder than ever.

I could hear myself.

I guess that’s what it was.

I could hear myself.

Some of what I heard was exactly what I expected, some of it surprising. Some of it was heartbreaking and some of it was soothing. But it took a couple of days to even just get there, making me realize how little I hear myself back here in my regular life, my life filled with text messages and Instagram, with a thousand emails a day, with my kids pulling at my pant legs and school drop-offs and pick-ups to be on time to, with not enough sleep, and more than enough of everything else.

I came home knowing that I have to find that space more often. I have to work to create that space more often. We all do, us moms and dads. Parenthood can be blindsiding. It takes over before we even realize what’s happened. But the good thing, is that those voices within, the ones we used to be able to hear more clearly, those voices never really go away.

At least mine didn’t.

And even though my time away wasn’t long enough, it was. At least for these two.

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22 comments

22 Comments

  • Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Amazing! I agree with everything you said. It’s so hard not to lose yourself in the everyday routine of life, and then when you do do something for yourself, it’s hard not to feel guilty. Hopefully more parents will take the time to be with themselves which will help them be better parents and better partners, myself included. Thank you for sharing these gorgeous pictures and your experience!

  • Michelle
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    That bench! I need to sit on that bench. I also read Christina’s book and marvelled at the idea of staying at that monestary. Maybe one day…
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and gorgeous photos.

  • Jen
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    This was beautiful and so absolutely relative to my current existence. I would love a retreat! Those pictures are gorgeous. Glad you were able to get away for a bit

  • Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Just what I need right now. Feeling the lack of solitude and lack of time alone always being needed and doing and rushing very draining and feel tired and cranky and disconnected/wanting to avoid more often than not. This would be a blissful way to recharge the soul.

  • Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Loved this line: “Parenthood can be blindsiding. It takes over before we even realize what’s happened.” So true, my friend. The trip sounds incredible in every way!

  • Sara
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It was your private moment, your get-away, but your eloquent words about how it reminded you of yourself, help to remind me that myself is still in there somewhere. I get fleeting glances of myself, when I get some headspace, and I think, ‘hey, I remember her…I really like her.’ And then someone poops or looks at the other the wrong way, and poof, she disappears again.

    Those pictures are beyond dreamy. And I’m sure the whole experience already feels like a bit of a dream, now that you’re home.

    Thank you for putting into words why it’s so important for us as parents, to get away. We’re not really getting away, we’re getting back. To ourselves. Bit by bit.

  • Melissa
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing, Claire. You jump started a lot of things in my heart. I appreciate your candor.

  • Trish
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Reading about you taking that time for yourself made me so happy. I remember when my kids were your kids ages and everyone said those words…”You have to have time for yourself…” And we would say, “Sure! And when would that be?” And there’s no time to look up. And there’s such beauty in almost every moment with these beautiful precious kids, but even a couple of hours for coffee with silence or to be with a girlfriend to groan and moan a little with, that’s a win win day!15 years later, my husband and I took a very generous offer from a friend who donated 4 days at her beach house. They knew how desperately we needed this. The kids went to their first sleepaway camp. Those days were magical! It was the reading of books, the lying on a beach chair, the sounds of the seagulls, the wind and waves crashing, the jumping in the water off my friend’s dock, the silence, the nothing! It was exactly what we needed. We did decide to go out to dinner once-but wanted to just cook simple in the beautiful blue and white kitchen that was so kindly offered to us. I felt like I became whole again. Just breathing in the fesh air, having a glass of yummy wine and silence-the good kind. So I know what you felt. It was liberating. It was essential. It was very very necessary! And it was just plain wonderful! So glad you got a little taste of that life again. I hope you get to do it again real soon!

  • jenny mack
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Wow, what a lovely opportunity. I continue to be impressed by your tenacity to go for what you need. I learn from you and am grateful for your spirited voice that rings true for so much of what I experience as well. Thanks for sharing:)

  • Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    I am one of the few people who want or have sought solitude. Australia is a great place to find it. I have been weeks alone in Tasmanian mountains. More than a month in central Western Australia without sight or sound or any evidence whatsoever there is another person on the planet. I treasure those times. Time to find what you do feel instead of what you’re supposed to feel. Time to explore wild thoughts not confined by normal the reality of just coping. Now I run a retreat in the middle of the rainforest. Often many days go by without me seeing or hearing another person or car or plane. A rare privilege on a crowded planet.
    I understand you found it a refreshing experience. I am sure Greg and the girls would appreciate a refreshed Claire. I imagine Greg also found some rewards (along with the toil), of being primary carer. You’ve got a good bloke there. Worth keeping. Sorry about the startled rabbit comments last time.

  • Amy Kennedy
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Isn’t Bug Sur magical?? We are so lucky to live in the amazing state of California! (I live in San Diego) Your girls are gorgeous, and I am so happy to have found your blog. Love your writing and your stories. Thank you for sharing!

  • Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. I am almost weeping with envy!

  • Posted April 3, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this. I went on my first “walkabout” a little over a year ago. At the time, it was a new experience and felt weird and lonely and scary. Four days all by myself in a new place. For all the reasons you mentioned, I’ve come to recognize those moments alone, whether four days or four hours, as the most important thing I can give myself and my family.

  • Jen in MN
    Posted April 3, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Claire, you so frequently and eloquently express many of the feelings I have toward parenting. It’s like reading the contents of my own harried mind (-;

    Love what you said about “alone time with the knowledge of more alone time to come.” That is a precious, precious thing. So hard to come by in these little-kid years. Yet, the days are fleeting and beautiful in many ways.

    My little beauties are about to turn 4 and 1. We are having a double birthday party for them in about a month. Life feels as though it’s just flying by. I try to grasp onto the moments when and where I can!

    Thank you, as always, for writing like you do. Every time I come to your blog, I find something relateable. Thanks for that.

  • Posted April 3, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Heavenly – I am happy for you

  • Posted April 4, 2013 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Ah, you are so right about us having to find a place of our own even in the midst of the circus that’s parenthood and life in general. After working non-stop for 11 years, I decided to take a few months off from work. (I’m glad I have a supportive employer!) Initially, I was not too sure about whether I had done the right thing — I’ve always worked and there’d be no paychecks for the months I’ll be off. But soon I realised that I needed this time. I’m following my hobbies, cooking, spending an awful lot of time with my son, going swimming and sometimes just lazing around not doing anything. Only last night I told my husband that everyone should take a short sabbatical every five years or so, just to find their feet again.

    Claire, I’m so happy that you could take three days off for yourself and do what YOU wanted to do. I hope you are able to do this some time again, soon.

  • Helene
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    One of the most beautiful things you have written.

    It’s tax time. I am raising my now 7 year old special needs grandson who just changed schools. His appointments, his tussle with a rocking chair (the chair won and a few stitches and a lot of blood later he was fine-gwamma wasn’t for days). Trying to finally study for the elusive cpa exam. And the house. Just like yours.
    I so need this trip. But I am going to print it out and carry it with me and enjoy it through the words and pictures.

  • Julie M.
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Wow. This is my first time visiting your blog and I am so glad I found it! What a beautiful post!

    This line really resonated with me: “Usually I’m alone with twenty minutes to spare, and a panicky feeling that the seconds are just bleeding out.”

    Oh my gosh I can SO relate to that. I have a beautiful two year old daughter, work full time and am currently juggling it all alone as my husband is deployed to Afghanistan. On the rare occasions that I do have some “alone” time (30 minutes to an hour here and there), it feels rushed!! I feel like I can literally hear the seconds ticking loudly in my ear. Today, for instance, i took a much needed personal day off of work and took my daughter to day care. I felt guilty about that all day…but I kept reminding myself- you need this. you need this.
    Although I did enjoy the time alone to get some cleaning, organizing and errands done…I felt like I was in a hurry all day.

    This post has totally inspired me to take a few days for just ME when my husband gets home. Thank you! Glad I found your blog!

  • Posted April 6, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Those photos! That beach! Our planet is so beautiful. The idea of two days of silence terrifies me. I tried it once, at Chapel House in Hamilton, NY, but guests took meals together and conversation was allowed at mealtimes. Just as you said, “I felt alone, and vulnerable …the real voices in my head louder than ever. … I could hear myself. … Some of it was heartbreaking and some of it was soothing.” It takes a lot of courage to strip away the distractions and pay attention to what lies within. Lovely story, lovely photos.

  • Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Wow Claire. Beautiful photos…what an amazing place!
    I have similar aged children to yours, and I have just recently started to yearn for a few days of peace. A break. Time to myself. Time to write.
    Thanks for sharing this. Very inspiring.
    x

  • jan
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Odd. I would never want to leave my kids like that. Seems selfish.

  • Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    So reassuring to hear a mother put into words my own fears about motherhood and to know it’s OK to need time to yourself. The time away sounded wonderful Claire.

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