Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Mamas on the Loose

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I had things to do, so many things. I had to write this column, finish a book proposal, edit two reviews and write another. The Easter Bunny required provisions and the daily tasks called -- the groceries, meals, homework, laundry. I also needed to hire a moving company, buy a house on the other side of the world, and figure out how to ship our cat across three continents. We're moving back to Canada in June; I've a lot to arrange, kitty included.
I did none of these things. I skipped town.

Okay, I took a two-day vacation. A friend -- one of my few North American friends here in Cape Town -- picked me up one morning after we'd deposited our respective kids at school. She had the iPod plugged into the car stereo, and in the trunk, a bag of snacks, flip-flops and a beach blanket. I reminded my husband when to collect the boys, waved good-bye and headed south. We'd be gone just 36 hours, but for me, even one night away from home and kids seemed a daring, Thelma-and-Louise-style escape.

My eldest son will be eight this year, the twins are now six, and I can count on one hand the nights I've spent away. Mothers who travel for business, share custody or have extended family nearby, mothers who are a bit more... relaxed, might think this insane. It's not that I'm indispensable; my husband is willing and able to run the show, and I do crave respite now and then. It's more that I feel adrift without my boys. I don't need them glued to my side every second, but I do like them close by, every day. Insane? In love? Hard to tell sometimes.

A pressing to-do list, ingrained maternal angst, plain old routine. By the time these reasons-not-to-go eddied through my mind, we'd bypassed Cape Town city center and begun to switchback up the mountains on the south side. Just three roads connect the continent with the true cape, a skinny finger of land that juts into the south Atlantic. We chose the middle route, a mountain pass. At the high-point, we pulled off the road and did what vacationers do: admired the view.

The natural beauty of the Cape Peninsula rivals any place on the planet. We stood on rocky outcrops amidst shrubs and flowers of the fynbos (Afrikaans for fine bush) ecosystem. Fynbos is best known for the protea's spectacular globe-like flowers, but the diversity of plant life on the cape, thousands of different species, is found nowhere else in the world. From our viewpoint, over the tips of these only-here flowers and far below, we glimpsed the turquoise sea and whitecaps lap a ten-mile stretch of yellow sand.

We mamas had a plan though, one more stop before our destination. We savored the beauty and hit the road. On the far side of the pass, a short meander down the coast, we entered the conservation community of Scarborough, an idyllic enclave surrounded on three sides by national park and the fourth by ocean. You'll find only one small restaurant in Scarborough, no shops, no concrete parking lots, no gas stations. People come here for peace -- and the beach. We parked at the end of a lane, next to seaside cottages, and strolled through a field toward the water. We had company.

"Is that a dog?" my friend asked. A grayish figure, about the size of a German shepherd, lumbered down the path in our direction.

"A baboon," we said at the same time.

A male baboon with husky shoulders and a Neanderthal-like brow continued his approach. The cape is baboon habitat. People who live in Scarborough and surrounding communities tell of baboons on their roofs, in their cars and raiding their kitchens. The monkeys can be destructive and dangerous, especially as further development encroaches on their territory, but the one facing us looked quite laid back. We'd left our snacks in the car; nothing to eat here. He politely detoured off the path and let us pass.

"I should bring the boys here," I said as we left the field and baboon behind, kicked off our sandals and wandered onto the sand. Scarborough beach is pristine: waist-high dunes; delicate purple shells; waves curled into perfect surfing tubes.

"Yep, the boys would love it here...." How many times did I mention my kids as I sat on that magnificent beach? I could not help seeing through their eyes too. Thomas would be in the sea by now, Jon thrilled by the lack of smelly kelp beds, Alex running....

Slightly sunburned and hungry, we returned to the car and crisscrossed the peninsula with Sarah McLachlan on the iPod and dried mango to tide us over until lunch. We arrived at Boulders Beach, on the warmer, calmer side of the cape, in early afternoon. Boulders is famous, not just for the massive rocks scattered on the sand but for the creatures who mate on them. Penguins. Like fynbos plants, African or "jackass" penguins live only on the southern coast of this continent and Boulders is home to a breeding colony. These flightless (and adorable) birds hop along the beach, sun themselves on rocks, and plunge into the water with swimming tourists.

We checked into our home for the night, two whitewashed cottages overlooking the ocean. Grapevines, fennel, and potted herbs shaded the front terrace. We pulled up Adirondack chairs, made a lunch of crackers and olive tapenade and opened a bottle of wine. A little early for wine, perhaps -- the boys would be just leaving school -- but this was vacation and we had no more plans for the day.

And what do two mothers on holiday talk about all afternoon? The kids, of course. At least we began with kids, how brilliant they are, and how exhausting and funny and trying. We sent text messages to our husbands to check on things back home. With the lengthening shadows (and diminishing wine), we eased into more philosophical topics: that we both came to motherhood late in our thirties and it changed our notions of family; the discord, still, between career and parenting; that we wound up raising kids so far from our own homes.

Soon the beach emptied of daytime visitors and the moon rose over the water. We sat -- still in our Adirondack chairs -- with the gentle swell of the sea, the moonshadows of giant boulders, and the penguins. One little bird -- a mother, I like to think -- waddled up to the garden, found a cozy notch in the bushes, and tucked herself in. Every half hour or so, she'd haul herself out again and set off apace as if she'd remembered an urgent chore. After four or five steps, she'd pause, seem to shrug her tiny flippers, and waddle back to her den.

Maybe she too had children elsewhere, on the beach or a nearby rock, and felt that reflex to check on them, a maternal compulsion to ensure all is well. Maybe she too had a mental list of tasks. But no, she reminded us with every return to her hideout, for now we'll relax. Tomorrow, we'll catch up with the kids and the lists. This evening, here in this small corner of the world -- with its peculiar plants, baboons and austral birds -- this is just for us mamas.


Katherine J. Barrett is a former senior editor for Literary Mama and  current editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine. A mother to three young boys, Katherine recently returned to Canada after four years in South Africa. She is the author of the Literary Mama columns Mother City Mama and Of This Fantastic Peach. Katherine holds a PhD in Botany and Ethics and has previously taught at the University of British Columbia.

Katherine lives in Nova Scotia with her family.


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I love this! You have captured the stunning little experience in so few words brilliantly! Shhhhhhhh....if too many mamas get ahold of our secret place, I'll not get another booking for years! xx
Don't worry -- details available only upon request! I have, however, posted some photos: http://katherinejbarrett.com/2012/04/mamas-on-the-loose-in-photos/
are cute boys still working there?
As a Capetonian now living in Canada I related to your story. Both the mom aspect and the Cape Town aspect. I lived near Fish Hoek on the Cape Peninsula. Boulders, sun, sea, baboons...!
What a beautiful, beautiful column. THank you for writing it. And thank you for inspiring me to think about somehow taking a mama's day off....
Nice article Katherine. More Mamas should go on the loose occasionally the way you did.
Katherine, This piece is so beautiful it made me ache! So many breathtaking lines to choose from, but this one in particular got me right in the heart/rib place where I used to hold my boy close when he was small: It's more that I feel adrift without my boys. I don't need them glued to my side every second, but I do like them close by, every day. Insane? In love? Hard to tell sometimes. Thank you thank you thank you. I will reread this lovely writing again and again. Marilyn
Wonderful! I think Literary Mama should have a column or feature called Mamas on the Loose, with guest writers writing about themselves away from mothering. As our children get older, we need to reestablish our mojo away from them. The articles should show how moms with older kids have done this, how ones in the middle are juggling it, and prepare a path for those with wee little ones.
Simply brilliant.
Wow,I would loved to have experienced these 4 years like you have. You can never get these kinds of experiences just by visiting a country. The pictures looked exactly how I imagined them from your writing. So beautiful as usual.
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