After 28 years of marriage, during which she supported her husband through graduate school, raised two sons and worked as a writer, Cheryl Jarvis decided she could squelch her dream of escape from the daily rigors of family care-taking no longer.
In 1996, the St. Louis-based freelance journalist, then 48, departed (with her husband's blessing) for a long-awaited sabbatical. She stayed first in a cedar shake A-frame cottage at a writers colony in Whidbey Island, Wash. It was the first time she had lived alone in nearly 30 years.
Jarvis writes about visiting the writer's colony bathhouse in the late afternoon: "As I lie back in a Victorian claw-footed tub, steeped in Epsom salts and surrounded by scented candles, I realize I haven't indulged in a bath in 20 years. A 10-minute shower was all I had time for."
Jarvis spent three months away, including a stay at a rural Wyoming writers retreat and one at a Montana ranch guest house. Upon her return, Jarvis was inspired to write "The Marriage Sabbatical" (Perseus Books, 2001), which asks the radical question: What happens when married women take some time and space away?
The answers are told through the solo journeys of 55 women: all educated, middle- to upper-middle class and ranging in age from 29 to 74. All were married or in a committed relationship for five to more than 50 years.
For centuries, Jarvis writes, women have sought refuge from the demands of marriage and motherhood. In the Middle Ages, wealthy married women stayed in convents. In Victorian times, illness or "hysteria" was a way for women to secure time for themselves.
The women interviewed by Jarvis had partners who understood that part of fostering closeness means giving one's mate freedom as well as support. And, emphasizes Jarvis, no woman left her husband in the emotional sense.
Rather, these women wanted to immerse themselves in an experience--whether hiking the Appalachian trail, as one women did following the death of a child, driving across the country, the dream of another woman, or joining the Peace Corps for two years, as one 50-year-old did.
Partners in marriage, a union often described as "hard work," writes Jarvis, stand to benefit from sabbaticals just as university professors and business executives do. The sabbaticals ranged in length from one month to several years, the majority lasting from one month to three. Jarvis concedes that men, too, need a sabbatical from familial duties.
"But men have always had permission," says Jarvis, who adds that military leave, business trips and adventure excursions can all be considered sabbaticals in which men have indulged. "That is why I specifically addressed the book to women. It isn't that women need a sabbatical more, but they need the permission to do it. It is harder for women to leave relationships in their lives because they usually have so many people dependent upon them."
The marriage sabbatical is not for everyone. "For some people, there is no need for a marriage sabbatical because the marital role is not deprecating to their self-esteem nor are they failing to actualize themselves," said Ronald Podell, a clinical psychiatrist with a practice in Century City. "Ideally, you should really pursue those things that help you maintain a sense of self in marriage. There is a bias in the marriage sabbatical that somehow your marriage is stopping you from actualizing yourself."
But for women who take care of everyone else's needs first, a room of one's own, a place of solitude, a retreat somewhere unexplored, may be the answer. "I know that for me, I am so wired to take care of everyone else and I have been so socialized into care-taking that it was the first time since college that I had just focused on myself," said Jarvis. "It was amazing to me that when I went away, how enormously guilty I felt." This, even though Jarvis' children were adults, her psychologist husband (a bona fide feminist) and her work, flexible.
Despite the guilt that many of them felt, the women returned to their husbands and families from their trips grateful for the support, strengthened, inspired, with renewed trust in their marriages and filled with a generosity of spirit to give of themselves out of renewed love. Many women said that they learned about self-reliance, resiliency and the deeper workings of the self. They rediscovered what they valued about their families. Perhaps most important, Jarvis said, she and many of the women returned with something more. "I came back with a commitment to honor my own needs."
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.