Recently, I was helping my 18-year-old daughter organize herself for her upcoming gap year abroad. It was good to have practical, administrative tasks to focus on as a distraction from acknowledging that my baby girl is old enough to leave home.
As we debated over how many pairs of underwear/T-shirts/bottles of moisturiser she needed to pack, a thought occurred to me: What if mums were able to take a gap year too? After all, a gap year is a transition period between childhood and adulthood, a chance for those fortunate enough to partake in uninterrupted self-discovery before embarking on the next demanding stage of life. By that definition, wouldn’t a parent who’d spent the past 18 years or more fully immersed in the daily grind of raising children then benefit from an interim period of self-discovery and self-evaluation to figure out what comes next?
Of course, they would!
That doesn’t mean that a gap year for a mum is actually feasible. Parenting, after all, is a lifelong commitment and it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a mother to put this role aside to focus entirely on herself the way an unencumbered recent high school graduate could. But nothing is stopping us from imagining what a gap year could look like for ourselves, right?
When presented with the question, “If you could take a gap year, how would you spend it?” none of the mums I spoke to could even wrap their heads around the concept at first. However, after letting the idea marinate for a moment (and accepting that this was an exercise in make-believe), each woman concluded that, yes, they’d absolutely love to take a gap year when the time was right.
So, when would the time be right? The general consensus was to wait until the youngest child finished high school. Which, ironically, means that a mum would be in her gap year at the same time as her youngest child.
“While I wouldn’t want to miss any age, a gap year should come when the youngest is 18. You don’t stop parenting when they are adults, but they don’t need you every day,” said mother of two Andie McClay, aka @mommy.meds on Instagram.
Ruth Kornatz, who goes by @thequestionablemom on her social media channels, said that she’d been with her now-husband since her teens, and they had a child shortly after getting married, so “I don’t think I know who I am alone and I’d take the year to discover that part of me. With that said, I don’t know if there’s ever a right age to miss a year, but definitely not when my [two-year-old] son is this young.”
Carolynn Pape (@_goaskyourdad on Instagram) replied more optimistically- and enthusiastically when asked what she would do with a gap year. “I never got to travel or experience the world before having kids. I went from high school to college to becoming a mum. So, I’d LOVE to travel if I had a year. Like grabbing a backpack and go!”
Spoken like the veteran mum of teens that she is, with the confidence that comes with knowing your kids are independent and capable.
A friend of mine noted that this is an interesting thought experiment because it requires a woman to separate out the part of herself which identifies as a mother and work out who she is without that label. My oldest has already gone off to college, and the rest of my kids are teens, and I can tell you that it’s nearly impossible for me to compartmentalise the parts of my identity. Each aspect is overlaid with what I view as my most vital role which is being a mother.
But that didn’t stop my friend from playing along and telling me about how she’d spend her year- on a tropical island, learning a little known language from the natives while painting rocks with pigments she’d mix from the island flowers and enjoying the serenity that accompanies a minimalist existence in a place with no Internet whatsoever.
My friend and mum of two Rachel Sobel, who goes by @whineandcheezits on Instagram and Twitter, said it best when she offered this hilariously sobering take on a gap year for mums: “A gap year sounds straight-up magical in theory. But all I can think about is coming off that year and walking headfirst into insurmountable loads of laundry that no one did, a kitchen full of dirty dishes and, Cheerios stuck to the sides of the sink like barnacles; that I’d have to deal with upon re-entry.”
I’ll take that as a ‘no’ from Rachel. On the other hand, the rest of us should feel free to let our imaginations run wild when planning our pretend gap years, just like we do when picturing ourselves winning the lottery because the odds of either of those things happening are pretty much the same.