I dared to leave my three young children and spend a month with strangers – and it was blissful | Saima Mir

In May this year, I left my husband and three children to spend a month in Italy with a group of people I’d never met before. It was the first time in my life I had ever done anything so self-centred.

It all began just before Christmas, when I was invited to apply for a place at a writers’ retreat. As the default parent to three boys aged 10, seven, and five, I was reluctant. I usually navigate mealtimes, school drop-off and pickup, swimming, martial arts and various musical instrument lessons. I was not sure how my husband would manage on his own.

But he seemed confident. “You’ve been talking about a writers’ retreat since we met,” he said. “You must apply. We’ll figure the rest out.”

I’ve built my career around my sons. I work when they’re at school, late at night and at weekends. Although I have chosen this life, it has been an exhausting decade. Motherhood has stripped me of everything that existed before my children. My body is unrecognisable, my face is older and my wardrobe is full of comfortable wide-leg trousers and flat shoes.

“I’m worried you’re going to have a breakdown when you get there,” said my sister the night before I left. “Especially when you realise you’ve been living in a house without wallpaper.”

I was too tired to explain that we’d been living like this because we stripped the paper just before my husband was taken ill last year, and in between starting a new job, raising kids and completing edits on my latest book, we’ve not found the time to finish redecorating.

Never mind. I kissed my sleeping family goodbye at 4am two months ago, and arrived at the airport three hours before I was due to board. I was not going to miss that flight. Once on the plane, I put my headphones on and instantly fell asleep. The exhaustion of life has fixed many of my anxieties, including my fear of flying.

Safely collected in Bologna, and being driven to the villa, I felt the demands of adulting drop from my shoulders. From here on I did not have to worry about anyone but me.

As we drove up the winding mountains of the Apennines I felt my mind grow still. The car pulled up between the villa and the artists’ studios, and the cool blue of the pool against the various greens of the valleys came into view. I promised myself I would not waste a moment of the next month.

In that villa in the small town of Lugara I was reunited with my old self, and I found her to be a better version of the woman I once knew.

My mind now clear, I was able to complete sentences and tasks at a speed I’d never worked at before. My productivity was a revelation. I had judged myself harshly for my inability to complete tasks swiftly since having children, but it turns out motherhood has honed my abilities and raised my work ethic. I just hadn’t had enough help.

I’d walk into the kitchen in the morning to be handed chopped fruit and homemade granola. At lunch there were Tuscan tomato soups, and dinner was followed by puddings such as ricotta drizzled in chestnut honey and roasted walnuts.

So much of my life had been taken up with catering to other people’s needs that to not have to worry about my own was bliss. No one demanded snacks, interrupted calls, or called out to have their bum wiped. I felt totally free to be myself.

So, when I returned home last month, I committed to changing the way I live. I left the house early the next day instead of making breakfast and getting the boys dressed, without a thought for how my husband would entertain them.

In the evening, rather than heading straight home after an event, I decided to stay until 6 o’clock. And in the middle of the week, I stayed late at my own book launch – I don’t think I’ve had a party for myself since 1984! As my new self I didn’t feel guilty, I felt I deserved it.

My change in attitude has reverberated across the whole ecosystem of my home. A family trip to Legoland revealed my husband and I have switched roles. He seems to be the default parent now – and what a joy it was, just swanning around while he packed, organised and handled the boys. I have seen my children grow in confidence, and turn to their father for things rather than to me. I hope they’ve learned the importance of balance, as I have, by putting myself first.

  • Saima Mir is a freelance journalist and author of the 2021 novel The Khan

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