The wriggle room I needed - and you probably do too

Plenty of fun to be had inside and outside during the winter school holidays.
Plenty of fun to be had inside and outside during the winter school holidays. Photo: Getty Images

The email arrives in my inbox at 1.27am and I don't see it. I may work across all the days of the week but I try not to be awake at 1.27am.

It contains important news – at least from the point of view of an employee. I guess it's from human resources and it says I've accumulated 35 days of leave. Which is all very well but it won't take me long to get to 40 days and then there will be hell to pay. The next email will probably say something along the lines of: "Don't darken our doorstep for two weeks from today." And I hate being told what to do.

This one is filled with positive suggestions: "You should talk to your supervisor and make a plan to reduce your annual leave."

Australians don't take annual leave, but we should.
Australians don't take annual leave, but we should. Photo: Stocksy

Right.

I'm not alone in my hoarding of holidays. For some ridiculous reason, Australians don't take annual leave. According to figures from Roy Morgan Research, I'm just like one-quarter of the Australian working population because I have more than five weeks of leave up my sleeve. On average, Australians have 21 days of leave waiting to be taken.

This is completely insane. I love holidays of all kinds, how can I possibly have seven weeks of leave?

It wasn't always like this for me. When my kids were at school, I would nearly always be in holiday arrears, never enough leave to go around their 12 weeks away from the classroom. The thought of the school holidays would send me into a panic about how to balance giving the kids a break from institutional life with the fact that I had six weeks holiday a year (and that was a luxury compared with the majority of the population, which gets four weeks annual leave a year).

Maybe that's what it was like for you last Friday, when your kids had their last day of school for a couple of weeks. I remember those Fridays when we could all have a break; everyone would just breathe out at once. For the kids at least, the next 17 days (including pupil-free days) would be days when they could lie around in their pyjamas, eat food which didn't necessarily work in a lunchbox; and ignore the clock. On some days, it was like that for their parents too -  a patchwork of annual leave, flexdays, friends with kids the same age who'd take the kids and then you would have their kids; and relatives.

There is lots to be positive about structure and organisation and order. It helps families run as they manage school and work and life and activities  - but there is nothing more lovely than being able to wriggle out of that for a few weeks at a time. And that's exactly why the email from human resources was useful. It reminded me that I need wriggle room.

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When your kids leave school, you get the chance to have holidays when no-one else is. The beaches are not filled with school kids. The cafes are not filled with teenagers. The movies are not filled with people trying to avoid talking to each other for a few hours. But for me it doesn't actually feel like a holiday without all those kids. So, about a week after the email, we took off for a week at the same time as what pretty much felt like the entire universe. And we were all on a road trip on the Pacific Highway at the same time, stuck in a giant traffic jam between Coffs Harbour and Brisbane (yep, Queensland is truly beautiful one day and imperfect the next).

But it felt pleasurable for all kinds of reasons. I can now eat beetroot curry or quinoa/amaranth/kale salad or some other kind of human Drano without having to endure mockery by my own children. And other people's crying kids? I don't have to respond to them, to worry about how to make them feel better or to stop their sobbing. Their parents are just as gormless as we were. Please note: "Stop that crying now" didn't work 30 years ago and it doesn't work now. God knows what does.

But the reason to take school holidays even when you don't need to?

The bush and the beach are mostly filled with people for whom time is – briefly – their own and disposable. Holidaymakers can hang around the markets for as long as their feet can stand it; have breakfast after a walk along the beach – or before. Eat cake before lunch, and after. They are full-time, non-stop, untrammelled and happy. So happy.

Since the kids left home, my holidays have mainly been the kind which are as organised as my worklife, maybe more so. Passports, plane travel, meals booked months in advance. But the roadtrip up the coast is a blissful reminder that not everything has to be planned or even can be. In the past week, I've seen a swamp wallaby bounding on Tallow Beach and a pod of whales swim up to me in a boat (my god). I've sung along - badly - with a busker on the main street of Mullumbimby and walked 20 kilometres through bush with lyrebirds and tiny little wrens.

And with tiny little kids and their parents who are free as birds, just for two weeks. And for all that, I'll feel better on Monday.

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