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Cara McDonough Headshot

What I Realized When I 'Stepped Away' From My Children

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As far as proximity goes, "close" doesn't even begin to cover it when it comes to the physical relationship I maintain with my two young children.

I'm sure many mothers out there know exactly what I'm talking about. They crawl beneath my legs -- creating an impromptu "tunnel" -- as they play, and shamelessly rub runny noses on my shirt during hugs. I use their miniature spoons to test if meals have cooled before that first bite, wipe faces smeared with ice cream and struggle to breathe as both pile their bodies on top of mine while my husband reads bedtime stories.

But, on an airplane ride recently, I realized the importance of loosening the sometimes-fierce grip I maintain when it comes to all things domestic.

There are obvious reasons to develop a little distance from motherhood often cited by modern women, myself included. It's good to let childcare providers, family and, of course, our spouses, take the reins so that we can get out of the house and maintain full- or part-time jobs -- or just get away from it all every now and then.

What I'm talking about, however, is taking a brief (or extended) respite from your parental duties right then and there, while they're happening; to abandon the role of first responder and watch someone else do the job. The view, I've found, is amazing.

Before this particularly enlightening flight, one leg of a trip home to Connecticut after visiting friends in New Orleans, my husband I debated the seating options. With three seats on each side of the plane, we could divide and conquer, or one parent could sacrifice him- or herself for the other.

My husband offered to do just that, sitting with both children while I took the seat across the aisle.

Although the idea of sitting all by myself on an airplane was beyond tempting, I first rejected his kind gesture, making vague excuses: Our son would whine for me, and our daughter would question the disappearance of the "girl time" we'd bonded over on the way down.

But I decided, after my husband assured me that he didn't mind, that I was being criminally insane, and I settled in across from them and opened my book.

All was quiet after takeoff, and when I carefully glanced at my family, avoiding eye contact with the children -- especially my little boy, who clings longingly to me in ways my daughter never did -- I saw how deftly my husband was controlling the often-daunting situation that is flying with children.

The kids were watching a show on his iPad. It seemed they'd forgotten about my presence. I was sure if they'd remembered, there would be instant demands for snacks or questions about the duration of the trip.

I watched my husband talk to the kids about our vacation. I watched them making jokes together, noticing details about my children I never do when, busy and near-sighted, I am ensconced in my normal care-taking role.

It wasn't just behavioral things -- like my daughter's polite concern for her little brother, or my son's ability to be completely still for a good 20-minute stretch -- but physical things too, like her adorable nose and his furrowed brow while analyzing an engaging cartoon.

These are details I've noticed before, certainly, but the observations are fleeting, and being just far enough away from my family for an extended period gave me the chance to happily ruminate on them. I love my children, of course, but they can be an endless source of physical and mental demands. With flight safety rules demanding I not move needlessly about the cabin, I was forced to stay put and recognize that without me they were... just fine.

And that my husband was fine, too. I decided that taking these breaks at home, when I -- like many women -- am all too apt to say, "It's OK, I'll do it," regarding any and all domestic tasks, would be beneficial for more reasons than the ones we normally discuss when analyzing parenting trends.

I like having a break. I like seeing my husband care for our children in his own way. But what I really like, I learned, is catching a glimpse of my little family through an innocent bystander's eyes.

Every once in a while, we moms need to step aside and see our families functioning from a nearby vantage point. Stay on the couch finishing coffee while your husband performs the morning routine duties. Skip bedtime and listen in at the top of the stairs.

It's one thing to reflect on the unconditional love we feel for our children upon collapsing into bed at day's end, sleepily moaning that, "They are so tiring, but so wonderful."

It's quite another to observe the beauty of what you've created with a clear mind and a bit of distance.

I'm pretty sure that the opposing view is just as important. I want my children to know that I am always there for them, but also that I am capable of calm moments dedicated to my own well-being.

After a while, my seatmate and I got to talking. She asked me if I was enjoying my "vacation," sitting all by myself, and I told her that I was. "My children are so cute from over here," I remarked. "Just being a few feet away makes everything look so different."

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