Jo Stanley: The joys of leaving family behind and travelling solo

At 20, I had so little belief in myself that I couldn't imagine surviving without the safety net of home.
At 20, I had so little belief in myself that I couldn't imagine surviving without the safety net of home. Photo: Mauro Grigollo/Stocksy

I am deeply resentful of the way millennials travel. I was 25 before I even left Australia. I never had a gap year working in a pub in London, getting fat on lager and curries. Nor did I backpack around the world, meeting handsome and slightly dangerous men named Carlos or Sven. 

I finished school, went to uni, got my first job, met my husband, got married, accumulated debt and committed to my career, all between 18 and 28 years old. I was always too responsible, or broke, to explore the world.

The next minute I'm 44 and I've never travelled on my own in my life. And I've never stopped banging on about what I've missed out on. So much so, my husband got heartily sick of me and insisted I go. Overseas. No husband. No kid. 

I was near hysterical with excitement. Don't get me wrong. I love holidaying with my family. But, even if we're in a tropical paradise (although we're usually in a caravan in western Victoria), I never stop being a wife and mother. Which, as all wives and mothers know, means you never really get a break. You are always responsible – for dinner or sunscreen or not breaking souvenirs in the Big Koala.

This, though, was my holiday and I planned to go to London. I only had seven days on the ground, so it was the gap week of a lifetime. 

But then anxiety kicked in. A low-lying but constant sense of dread. I almost cancelled the trip. I realised I had lied to myself my whole adult life. 

If I really wanted to travel when I was young and irresponsible, I could have taken leave. I could have partied less, cut back on grunge CDs and flannel shirts, and saved the cash. Being completely honest, I had never travelled because I was too scared.

At 20, I had so little belief in myself that I couldn't imagine surviving without the safety net of home. And 20 years later, I know I'd be okay on a practical basis – that's what credit cards are for. But a little part of me still feels as though I can't exist on my own, which is why I have built a chaotic life of mothering and marriage and work, all of which I love, but feel I can't do without to the point where now I'm co-dependent. It is as exhausting and burdensome as dragging around over-packed carry-on luggage. 

I was so ashamed of my fear. I felt pathetic and ungrateful. But I'd already paid for my trip, so I pushed through and went. And it was – mostly – great. I was devastatingly homesick. I considered coming home early. Mother guilt weighed me down, which is ridiculous because my daughter is so addicted to her iPad I could walk in the house after three years and she would look up from the screen only long enough to say, "Oh, hi Mum, what's for dinner?" 


But after a day or two, I allowed myself to enjoy the weightlessness of strolling through a city, from impulse to impulse, without baggage. Curiosity and gratitude led me. 

The French have a word for a person who seeks insight through strolling and observing – flâneur – and I flaneured the crap out of London. Down laneways, in and out of markets, through cemeteries, all while feeling completely in the moment. It required putting the phone away, and looking upward and outward. It was mindfulness on foot – the conscious noticing of everything and everyone, including my own connection to it all.

At the end of a week, I realised two things. First, being on your own isn't the same as being lonely. And I don't need a full schedule and network of dependants to validate me. 

Second, my life is bloody great, and I couldn't wait to get back to it. Even on those days when the best I can say is the cat spewed on the floorboards instead of the carpet, I am so lucky to have this life and all its exhausting, messy chaos. 

So I returned, determined to flaneur my way through life, even if it is only to school pick-up and down a supermarket aisle. And thankful to my very safe husband, Darren, for making me go and learn how to do so.