Vacation Guilt

by kelly

How do Americans do it?” asked the stunned Australian. He had zinc oxide and a twisted-up look of absolute bafflement on his face, as we spoke on a remote Fijian shore. I’d seen that expression before, on German, Swiss and British travelers. It was the kind of amazement that might greet someone who had survived six months at sea in a rowboat.

The feat he was referring to is how Americans manage to live with the stingiest vacations in the industrialized world — 8.1 days after a year on the job, 10.2 days after three years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Aussie, who took every minute of his five weeks off each year — four of them guaranteed by law — just couldn’t fathom a ration of only one or two weeks of freedom a year. “I’d have to check myself into the loony bin,” he declared.

Well, welcome to the cuckoo’s nest, mate, otherwise known as the United States. In this country, vacations are not only microscopic; they’re also shrinking faster than revenues on a corporate restatement.

I have seen similar looks from Germans and Austrians. Looks of pure bafflement and even disgust, when they hear about our tiny national notion of vacation time.

But for better or worse, I am the product of American culture. My words from last year are still ringing in my ears. I took ten weeks of maternity leave last year when Emma was born. I felt very fortunate to have ten weeks off (and paid, at that). Lots of women in this country have no such luxury. Maternity time is often unpaid, and limited to¬†six-weeks (if their company is even large enough to be subject to relatively recent six-week federal and/or state requirement). My company’s policy is that a new parent can take up to twelve weeks off, but the last two weeks are unpaid.

I took the ten. But all the other new mothers in my office last year took twelve (or more). I remember telling anyone who would listen that I was taking only ten because (1) I wanted to take less than the maximum to show goodwill toward my employer, and (2) (here’s the clincher) so that I could take a “guilt free” week of vacation the following year. Oh yes, I had said. “Guilt free.”

Well, that long anticipated week (really 8 days) of vacation is nearly upon me. It’s the first time Paul and I will have had this much time alone, away from home, since our simple Wisconsin-cabin honeymoon (which began seven years prior to our vacation departure date).

But sadly, it’s not yet been feeling guilt-free, although I suspect this may change once I’m at sea in the international waters off the coastline of the 49th state. Or heck. Once I’m on the way to the Milwaukee airport, even.

I spent several wee hours awake last night – anxious about all the deadlines, the uncompleted projects, the client e-mails wanting, wanting. Every client wants something. And they want it now. At the same time that ten other clients want something now.

I know that it will be healthy to just escape from it all for a while. But the poor cats will be boarded. And will Emma miss us while she’s while her three local grandparents divide up the childcare duties over the week? Will they know how to soothe her back to sleep at 1:30 and maybe 3:30a.m., while I’m sleeping soundly, all night through, for seven nights in a row?

Well, hmmmpphhh – let the clients want. They’ll still be there when I return. And Emma and the cats and I will have a wonderful reunion (followed by a one-year birthday party!) when we return.

I suppose that if George W. Bush can take a 9-day vacation (which is short, for him) while the Middle East slides further into wars and more wars,¬†then Milwaukee will be alright without me around for eight short days….

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