Ben Straub

The Retreat

December 13, 2013

If you don’t have kids this will sound trite, and if you do it will sound obvious: when my children came along, my life changed.

Before that, their (late) mother and I had a sort of balance to our lives. We both spent most of our weekdays with coworkers, most of our evenings together, and at least a little time doing our own things. We both got fulfillment at work, all the attention we needed from the other person in the relationship, and some measure of third-place-ness or solitude. There was effort involved in maintaining this balance, but it really wasn’t that hard. Almost easy.

Then Will came along. This is a story as old as parenthood; suddenly the alone-time part of each day disappeared, as did most of our one-on-one time with each other. I have no regret for having him, or his sister; helping them become themselves is one of the most rewarding and emotionally intense things I’ve ever done. But their urgent needs changed the balance. His mother and I both still went to work, but evenings and weekends were swallowed up with bathing, changing, feeding, and paying attention to a baby. The first and second places were still there, but the third one was put on hold.

Fast forward to 2012. I work from home, in an office I share with my wife. The kids are 4 and 6, have their own after-school activity schedules, and need help with their homework. The first and second places have become the same thing, all of the third-place time has been swallowed up, and there’s no solitude in sight.

The balance is way off, and we’re all feeling it. All of our relationships are strained, because what little time we spend on them isn’t enough. And one of the most important relationships a human has – the relationship with oneself – is getting no time at all.

The Retreat

About a year ago, Becky came up with an idea for this. Here are the rules:

  1. Every six months, you get three nights off, in a place that isn’t home.
  2. The rest of the family leaves you alone, and you have no responsibilities to them. You make your own schedule, and do as you please.
  3. You are not allowed to feel guilty about this.

Those of you who are single will think “that sounds like every day to me,” and you’d be right. Maybe the reason this is so effective is that it gives us access to those things we miss about the time before family.

For my last retreat, I went to the Oregon coast with our dogs. Apart from a few walks on the beach, I never left the house. I enjoyed a blissful 12-hour-long hacking session, watched two action movies, and played a video game all the way through. None of these things would have been possible if I were at home, but all of them were things I had been craving. When I came back home, it was with a bigger smile, a full reserve of patience, and no temptation to escape to a bar.

This program is a rousing success. Both of us love our retreat time, and return afterward feeling much better. When I tell someone (especially a parent) about how it works, the reaction is usually something like “whoa, I wish I could do that.” To which I usually say, “You can. Your partner probably wants this too.”

It turns out the kids need this too, just not in such large doses. At school, they’re part of a group (in a software-development setting, where the optimal team size is between 5 and 9 this would be considered a large team), and at home we usually do things as a group of four. The only time they’re truly alone is when they’re asleep. So we’ve started sending them to their rooms, alone, for an hour or two every weekend. This isn’t a punishment; it’s time with your best friend. They liken it to the retreats their parents take, and joyfully build with LEGO, read books, or put on fancy shoes and dance. Our hope is that they will learn how to be comfortable with themselves, something many adults have trouble with (ourselves included).

Not Just Alone

After this program had been in effect for a while, we realized something was still missing. We spend plenty of time as a family, and we all get alone time, but each person-to-person connection needs attention and upkeep, too.

For parents, this idea has been around forever under a different name, and anyone who’s gone on a “couples weekend” can tell you how much it adds to their relationship. We’re fortunate enough to be able to make this happen pretty regularly, between my company’s support for my speaking at conferences, and the willingness of all the kids’ grandparents to spend time with them. The kids play together without our involvement, too; we make time for this just about every weekend. But until recently, the most time we spent on our individual relationships with the kids was maybe an hour at a time.

Then we started doing two-day-long one-parent-one-child retreats. There’s really no substitute for a big chunk of quality time with just one other person. I feel like my kids and I know each other better, and we all respect each other more.

All of this retreating adds up, though. Every six months I have a solo retreat, a dad-kid retreat, and likely an adults-only weekend. It feels like we’re constantly headed somewhere, and I’m not sure it would scale to more than four or five people. But we’ve found it’s worth the time, the expense, and the effort; these are our most important relationships, and we should keep them healthy.

Ben Straub lives and works in Portland building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter.