In the beginning, the idea was simply to have dinner together. Carole Eagle and her three girlfriends had been students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, where they’d all had part-time jobs as waitresses at a nearby tavern. When they got married, they attended one another’s weddings. And they all still lived in New Jersey. So it seemed like a happy idea to meet at a centrally located restaurant every couple of months and keep up with the changes in their increasingly busy lives.
But minor complications arose. “We wanted to have some wine with dinner, and that meant we couldn’t drive. So we had to stretch it to overnight,” Eagle recalls, a bit mischievously. “Our husbands agreed.”
The four began holding their reunions in suite-style hotels, so they’d have a living room to lounge in. “We’d have dinner, get into our PJs, and eat junk food,” Eagle says. “We just talked and laughed and told remember-when stories. It was a slumber party!”
When Eagle and her husband and two sons moved to Raleigh, NC, in 1994, no one wanted to give up these cherished overnights. So the Jerseyans drove south, Eagle flew north, and they met at a hotel near Washington, DC. By now, the getaway had expanded to several nights, the better to fit in a museum or two, a little shopping, a nice long lunch.
In the years since, the four friends have managed to gather at least once or twice a year under similar circumstances. “It’s a complete goof-off,” says Eagle, 39, who runs a small embroidery business with her husband. The Eagles take family vacations, too, and once in a great while, Carole and her husband, Robert, even manage a weekend alone. But the time she spends with Anne Marie, Jean, and Lori is different: “You have no responsibilities. That’s the biggest thing, the freedom. The major decision is where to eat dinner each night.”
IN LIVES FILLED TO OVERFLOWING WITH the demands of children, jobs, husbands, and homes, many of us feel like we don’t even have time for the neighborly kaffeeklatsches our mothers enjoyed, much less a weekend getaway. But making time for pals–real time–isn’t just an indulgence. Experts say that intimate friendships can help women increase their sense of self-worth. “Having a friend who understands, and for whom you can reciprocate that understanding, can enhance growth and well-being,” says Nancy Genero, associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. More men are involved with child care these days, as well–which means dad can often be enlisted to mind the home front while mom’s away. That change has helped to make women-only vacations possible. “It was not done in a previous generation, at least not in my family,” says Bette Bohlinger, 63, who with her husband ran a family-owned dress shop in Billings, MT, while raising six children. “But I think women have a better feeling about themselves now. We deserve this treat too.” A couple of years ago, she and her three working-mom daughters spent two heavenly days at the Chico Hot Springs resort in southwestern Montana. They celebrated her eldest’s new master’s degree, hiked the foothills, did a bit of window-shopping in nearby Livingston, and talked into the night. Meanwhile, the daughters’ seven kids, ages 10 through 19, were at home with their dads. “It’s not a tradition,” Bohlinger says, “but maybe it will become one.”
JUST AS MEN HAVE ALWAYS MADE TIME FOR hunting or fishing excursions with their pals, women are discovering the pleasures of getting away with their friends. Often, the attraction is the freedom of being, even briefly, off the clock. As any mom who’s gone on vacation with her family can attest, women don’t leave their responsibilities behind when the location changes. Who packs? Who remembers to stop the newspaper delivery? Who arranges care for the family beagle? And who reminds everybody to use sunscreen?
When Debbie Whicker, 36, a preschool teacher in Fayetteviile, AR, takes family vacations with her husband and three boys (ages 12, 10, and 6), a fine time is had by all–but sometimes Whicker still feels she’s on the job. “You tend to stay within the same parameters you occupy at home–you’re cooking meals, taking care,” she says. “You have attachments, and they’re good attachments, but you’re not free.”
The vacations she’s had with her sisters and friends feel different. Take the week she spent with her youngest sister, Robin, a research biologist stationed in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The sisters walked along an uninhabited beach for 12 hours at a stretch, carrying food and water in backpacks; they checked sea-turtle nesting sites and counted eggs. “What made it special was being able to share part of my sister’s life, unencumbered by my wonderful kids and my wonderful husband,” says Whicker, whose understanding mother-in-law had volunteered to help keep things running at home while she was away.
IN OTHER CASES, THE TRIP ARISES FROM AN interest–or a fantasy–that friends share, but spouses don’t. A committed hiker and canoeist in Portland, OR, Gwen Dickson, 37, was at a party when a group of women she knew–including her best chum and maid of honor, Sharon–started talking about a trek through the Himalayas. Impulsively, Dickson piped up that she’d like to go.
“I’d always wanted to see the Himalayas–to go someplace extremely foreign to me,” she says. But her husband is “not an outdoor person.” Besides, as a self-employed legal stenographer, Dickson had the flexibility to spend four weeks in Nepal; her husband, a food exporter, couldn’t take that kind of time off from his business. “I thought, `If I’m ever going to go, I want to do it with this group.'”
The five women hiked together weekly through the summer to build stamina, and met in one another’s homes to discuss equipment and hear previous trekkers share their experiences. In October 1997, they flew to Katmandu, met their guides and porters, and set off. Their 17-day trek began through evergreen forests, ascended into mountain meadows, then continued past the tree line along rocky paths. They hiked five to eight hours a day, spent cold nights in tents and sleeping bags, and celebrated their senior member’s fiftieth birthday with balloons and a spice cake at 11,500 feet. At a small village called Sing Gompa, they watched a full moon rise over the snowy peaks. “You just stare,” says Dickson. “It was gorgeous.”
Dickson returned home just before Thanksgiving and now remembers her trek as “an accomplishment. I feel wonderful for having done it.” And the opportunity to be with women friends “was a great feeling…. We were able to talk about just everything.”
OTHER WOMEN THRIVE ON LESS STRENUOUS vacations with friends and kids, an arrangement that provides adult companionship and help with child-care chores. Lisa Verhovek spends several weeks each summer at a Cape Cod cottage owned by her father-in-law. Her husband, a newspaper reporter, usually joins the family for about half the time. It’s an idyllic setting, but without the normal complement of nursery schools, baby-sitters, and play dates, she finds that keeping her kids entertained can be exhausting.
Seven summers ago, Verhovek invited two girlfriends to bring their children and join her for five days. They spent long afternoons at the beach, where the four kids played in tidal pools and built sand castles. The women pitched in with cooking and storyreading–and still had time left to enjoy one another’s company once the children were in bed. “We were all at home moms then, and had spent a lot of time together on play dates,” recalls Verhovek. “But being away from the routine–paying bills, answering phones–really let our friendship grow to new levels.” She’s taken similar husband-free excursions since–as well as a few minus spouse and kids.
BEYOND FUN AND FRIENDSHIP, AN ALL-women getaway can sometimes provide real comfort.
“When women spend time together, they nurture each other,” says Genero.
That was the case for the Bohlinger women when they gathered at Chico Hot Springs: Their applause for daughter Jeanne Cox’s new master’s degree was mixed with empathetic back pats. Cox, 44, had also just finalized a divorce after 18 years of marriage and moved to a new home with her three sons. “It “was a hard year, a lot of stress,” she acknowledges. “I’d been so busy trying to take care of my kids and my job. It was relaxing to spend time with people who accept you no matter what.”
Often the setting doesn’t matter much. Whicker remembers a visit with her older sister, Carrie, who lived near San Francisco. The two drove an hour to a Marin County hotel they’d seen advertised in a newspaper, hoping for “some quiet time to be together and discuss things.” The place turned out to be “kind of seedy.” The pool was dry. But so what? “It added to the adventure,” Whicker says. Undaunted, they window-shopped, bought themselves a nice meal, and talked about their childhoods, their daily lives, their futures. “It was lovely,” she recalls.
Even a short getaway can yield benefits. A couple of years ago, Whicker and five friends hit the road to Tulsa, for a mini-vacation that included a two-hour drive punctuated by singing along with the radio, an afternoon of scouring discount and consignment stores, a high-spirited dinner at a Japanese restaurant, and a night in a shared hotel room. There was a round of card games before everyone turned in; the next day they drove back to Fayetteville.
That’s where the bonus came in. “That trip really endeared us to our spouses,” Whicker says. Her husband was weary from ferrying three boys to the park, playing endless games, and otherwise filling in; the other husbands were similarly worn down by the rigors of filling their wives’ shoes. “By the time we got back,” Whicker says, “we were much appreciated.” Which is one reason they’re planning to do it again, soon.