I spent last weekend in Bristol by myself after weeks fantasizing about my escape. Escape from what? I’m not sure – Family life? Motherhood? Midlife? Myself? Probably all of those things.
I turn 42 this weekend and it can’t be a coincidence that I’ve been feeling increasingly restless, reflective, unsettled.
I set my sights on Bristol because I wanted to spend some time in a big city. And I wanted to be on my own – I guess I just wanted to experience not having to live by anyone else’s agenda for a couple of days. Motherhood feels so suffocating sometimes. Especially when school days are filled with work and chores and there’s no time or energy left for me.
Does that sound really selfish? Maybe it is. I often feel a lot more selfish than I ever did before having children. But I guess that’s because I didn’t need permission to do what I wanted to do back then. I could just do it.
Escape to the city
So Bristol it was. I posted about my imaginary escape fantasy on Instagram and Facebook. Many other women posted their own escape dreams in response. It reminded me of a passage in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, where she describes how her mum would dream of leaving her dad every spring as she gave their apartment a thorough spring clean.
I guess these fantasies are a safe way to get through the mundanity of adulting.
But then I went and booked it. I made it real.
I could write a travel post about how pretty Clifton Village is – where the best stationary and book shops are in Bristol; where to go and eat. I could write about the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition I went to, or about the beautiful basement flat I stayed in.
But instead, I want to write about what I got from my time away. Because my Bristol escape wasn’t at all how I imagined it was going to be.
1) Journeys distort perspective
My train journey from Cornwall to Bristol was perfect. I sat alone at the window. The hours stretching out in front of me like the countryside on the other side of the glass.
I worked on my laptop and remembered doing this on my weekly commute from Cornwall to London as a PhD student. It set the tone for the waves of nostalgia and muffled ‘what ifs’ that followed me around all weekend.
I arrived into Bristol with an hour to kill and decided to walk to my Airbnb in Clifton Village. I set Google Maps to my weekend address, popped one earbud in and let Siri guide me through the city. Past roadworks, across busy roads, over bridges, around bodies of water I didn’t recognise or know the names of.
Some parts of town felt familiar and intensified the nostalgia I had felt on the train. I crossed a large Georgian square and knew instinctively that the buildings around me were barristers’ chambers. I remembered a similar, grand square in Leeds, where I would wander as a teenager, bright-eyed and reverent, convinced I would be a barrister working in one of those buildings one day.
I passed the Student Union and felt envy and longing for those simpler days (which they weren’t).
Other parts of the city felt grim and edgy, reminding me of how different I had become. The huddle of men outside a pub, ruddy-faced and rocking back and forth on the balls of their feet, compelled me to cross the road, eyes down. A Northern City lass, London matured, made vulnerable by motherhood and Cornish village life.
As the city’s roads became steeper, I began to regret having walked. I sweated up Constitution Hill with my laptop bag on my back and wheelie case in tow – tugging over intermittent cobblestones. I finally emerged in Clifton Village – which reminded me of Stoke Newington and Bath and Bloomsbury all rolled into one – home of my little weekend bolthole.
But that long walk around the periphery of the city set up my experience of the city for the rest of the weekend. I never did find the heart of Bristol City Centre. I clung to that first route like a scent trail. It was only when I got the bus back to the train station on Sunday that I saw the huge shopping precinct that I must have skirted around three or four times.
It made me think about perspective. If I hadn’t driven through that part of Bristol on the bus, I think I would have forever believed that the city didn’t have a centre at all.
2) Busyness is an addiction
I went away for a break from the busyness of family life. But I found it very hard to switch off. And I realised that I’m on – all the time. Really, this feels fairly obvious when I look at what I do at home day-to-day – full-time mum/writer. Where’s the downtime?
But I don’t think I can blame it on the amount of ‘stuff’ I have to do. Busyness masks where my energy is going. Remove all of that family work, and I was still left with a restless feeling of needing to do – to achieve – all the time, that I couldn’t quite shake off during my brief time away.
This feeling wasn’t helped by my vague intention ‘to write’ at the weekend. I’m still not sure whether I used writing as my justification for needing to get away from motherhood for a couple of days or whether it really was something that I wanted to do. In any case, it fed into this busy-all-the-time energy which I’d like to change now I’m home.
It’s made me realise that I need to try to switch off a lot more in the evenings. I’m trying to be more present for my children and husband when they’re around. To work more intentionally when I’m on my own so that work doesn’t have to keep spilling into family time. To give myself more of a break and stop breaking my own balls.
Next time I go (and I think there will be a next time, perhaps in the autumn or next year) I’ll also be kinder to myself about what I want to achieve. A weekend is a very short time. Especially when there’s so much settling and acclimatising to be done. I definitely tried to do too much.
3) I am my family and they are me
I realised that getting away from motherhood is pretty much impossible. I had dreamed of a weekend of ‘me time’ but my head was full of them.
It didn’t help that my Airbnb was in the basement of a family home. I could hear the young family upstairs, pottering about, mirroring what I would have been doing were I at home.
I heard a child’s cry and didn’t get that adrenaline rush I usually get when I’m not sure if it’s one of mine calling out. Because I knew my own children were hundreds of miles away, so there was no point listening hard. The call wasn’t for me. And that hurt.
And, of course, walking around the city on my own felt unsettling. Seeing groups of friends chatting, hearing children’s voices, glimpsing couples holding hands. I felt the familiar ache of gap-year-Paris in my bones. And I guess that’s half what I wanted to feel and half not.
4) I went away to come home again
Because really, I went away to come home again. I escaped my family to return to them. It wasn’t really about the trip. It was about how I wanted to feel afterwards.
I can’t stop being the mother I am. Because I am them and they are me. Take away their presence, their things, their needs, and there’s a huge gaping hole for the strong wind to blow through. And it really was a windy weekend. That wind howled and cut through to my bones.
Had I gone away with a friend, or signed up to some intensive activity for the weekend, or been at a conference or something, I might not have felt this so acutely. But there, on my own, there was nowhere to get away from the feeling.
And I realise that I wanted to feel all of this. To miss everyone and remember what I have by forcing myself to feel its absence.
I went away to come home again. And that feeling was absolutely worth it.