Photo: iStock/Kaan Sezer
The following is excerpted with permission from Send Me Into the Woods Alone: Essays on Motherhood by Erin Pepler (Invisible Publishing, 2022).
The joyful chaos of a family home is something I dreamed of, and it remains the place I’m happiest and most at ease. There’s nothing better than puttering around my kitchen while the kids make plasticine animals at the table and my husband wanders in and out of the backyard, commenting on the state of the grass. It’s always too dry, a little long, a bit patchy here and there; my husband thinks about the yard more in one afternoon than I have in my entire life. In many ways, domesticity is heaven. It’s comfort and warmth and habit, a place of acceptance and abiding love. Home is where the heart is, and my family is what fills my heart.
That said, I regularly fantasize about running off into the woods alone.
I don’t want to disappear forever—I’m not looking to shave my head, change my name, and charter a sailboat to whisk me away. I just need a break, not from any one person or thing, but from life, along with the demands of motherhood and marriage and being an adult in the world.
Oh, to sit quietly in a place where no one can find me and demand a glass of apple juice. Somewhere I don’t have to feign interest in our lawn’s hydration levels. Where there are no bills in the mailbox and silence doesn’t mean a room in my house is being destroyed by those very children I love so much. A place with no email, no telephone, and no external expectations. Where I exist, but for no one else.
So into the woods I go, deep in the corners of my mind. There, I find a small, charming cabin that is somehow both abandoned and impressively clean, furnished with a comfortable bed and endless shelves of books. There are no spiders. There is a wood-burning fireplace. Magically, there is a coffee maker and my favourite pottery mug. Outside, a thick blanket of trees with wildflowers scattered below. Maybe a lake. There are no clocks. Most importantly, there are no other people.
I read and sleep and soak in the wondrous freedom to do nothing. Sit with my thoughts, or don’t think at all. Rest with my back against a tree, drinking in rich solitude unlike anything I’ve felt in years. Sketching plants and writing poems despite not being particularly skilled at either of those things. Doing them anyway. Watching the sun rise and set against the horizon, nothing else for miles but peaceful, open space. I’d cry at some point, but not out of sadness—just a few elegant, therapeutic tears to signify how good seclusion feels, the kind of gentle tears a young actor cries upon winning an award—heartfelt, touching, but not enough to ruin her makeup.
It doesn’t matter what the cabin looks like, and it doesn’t matter that it’s not real. What matters is the feelings: the freedom and the nothingness. The space and quiet. Gratitude. The blissful absence of decision-making. I crave it, like so many of us do, though its pull ebbs and flows with the stress of my everyday life.
But even my fantasies are rigorous in their demands. For this scenario to truly please me, it needs to be more robust. There must be specific details in place to mollify my anxiety and remove any burden of guilt. My family isn’t gone and does not miss me; they’re safe and happy, knowing I’ll be right back. I’ve stepped away, but I’ll soon walk through our front door again. The freedom isn’t in walking away from a life I don’t want—I want my life so, so much—it’s in pausing it.
My happiness in this fantasy is contingent on the guarantee that I’ll wrap my arms around my children again; I’ll go back home and feign interest in the grass and wipe the kitchen counters in my usual slow, rhythmic motion. I’ll make school lunches and toss another load of towels in the laundry while going over a grocery list in my head. And I’ll be content doing these tasks, because they’re all a part of a greater picture: a life of chaos and love that wouldn’t trade for anything. My family is my bliss.
And yet it’s so goddamn normal to need to escape sometimes. We all need a cabin in the woods to head to—both literally and figuratively.
Mothers are flooded with constant needs—from their kids, their partners, their work, the world around them, and, waving meekly in the background, their own basic requirements. Motherhood is a constant juggling act of invisible tasks and emotional labour that knows no bounds. When I walk across a room, I’m asked to stop to get someone a glass of apple juice, even as I’m reading the mail, deciding what to make for dinner, and mentally planning our next dentist visit… Until I step on a Lego and yelp in pain.
When I sit down and look at my phone for a minute while my kids play happily nearby, I feel like a terrible mom. How dare I look at my phone when my beautiful children are right there? (They’re always right there.) As Good Moms, we’ve been trained to feel bad when we’re not actively engaging with our kids—but oh, how we’re always actively engaged. I engage all the damn time, from the moment my eyes open until the second I collapse into bed at night. I am every tired, busy, loving mom. How could I not crave respite? If I were a machine, I’d break down from the relentless drive of it all. Sometimes I do. And so, when I can, I sit quietly for a moment and dream of the woods.
Sometimes I go there for real. Not exactly as I dream it, of course—I don’t have access to a magical secret cabin that’s clean, empty, and well-stocked with coffee and books—but I do what I can to create little escapes. Sometimes it’s a weekend away with friends; other times it’s a conference that is decidedly not a vacation, and yet, because it provides a break from caretaking and family life, it sort of is. I’ve made room for genuine breaks when I need them, however brief or close to home they may be. This is the product of being the mother of slightly older children, and also of having hit a wall several years ago. My kids need love and care, but it doesn’t always have to come from me. They have another parent, other people who love them. I can skip bedtime, sneak off to a coffee shop by myself on a Sunday afternoon, go to a concert, or leave them with a grandparent for the day. I can sleep in on the weekend. I’m not a bad mother if I do things for myself. I’ve always known this but, for whatever reason, chose to ignore it for too long. I was always there, always on, always mothering—until finally, I allowed myself to step back for a moment. When the world didn’t end, I did it again. These days, I feel only moderately guilty about creating this space for myself—and honestly, when it comes to self-care, that’s good enough for me. I need to mother myself too.
Escape, then come back. Walk away, but not too far. Love your family hard, but don’t forget to make space to love yourself. It took me so long to learn this, but now I’m here to say to you that it’s okay. Take an ounce of time for yourself—in fact, take more—and know that everything is going to be just fine when you come back.