Ever close your eyes and imagine another life, free of commitments, aggravations…and maybe your own family? Janelle Brown unpacks the escapist fantasies we devour in books but rarely talk about out loud.

By Janelle Brown
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My daughter has been sent home with lice, again. My workday cut short, I am laboriously combing nits from her hair when I hear the distinct sound of our geriatric Lab vomiting on the (white, of course) rug upstairs. My 4-year-old is upset because he wants me to play Chutes and Ladders with him, but I can’t (see: lice), which is probably why he’s screaming “I’m mad at you, Mommy!” at the top of his lungs. I’m looking down the barrel at hours of laundry and vacuuming of mattresses and the administration of chicken nuggets, culminating in the bedtime reading of Curious George Rides a Bike for the 132nd time this week.

My husband has a work dinner, won’t be home until late. Which is patently unfair.

It’s at this moment that I look at the front door and fantasize about walking out of it and never coming back. Just…disappearing. I imagine the peace and solitude of an airplane seat, the expansion I will feel as the autonomous individual I once knew as Janelle Brown finally has room to stretch out and assert herself again. As I sit there, my hands sticky with lice spray, I can pinpoint the exact location of the stone cottage in which I will live (Lucca, Tuscany), the shade of the sundress I will wear (cobalt blue), the number of books I will magically find the time to read each week (four). Untethered from all commitments, I will finally be the free spirit I always believed I had the potential to be but have somehow fallen terribly short of actually being.

Yeah, you can probably tell I’ve had this fantasy before.

Do I feel guilty about thoughts like these? Of course I do. I don’t actually want to abandon my husband and children. It seems a betrayal to believe—even momentarily—that in order to maximize me, I need to negate them. And yet this fantasy creeps in anyway. My disappearing dreams are a kind of release valve, an emotional escape hatch that transports me into possibility, even if I don’t plan to act on it.

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I would feel even guiltier if I felt alone in my fantasies. But a recent, completely nonscientific survey of women I know—single and married, mothers and childless—resulted in an inbox jammed with elaborate escape scenarios.

  • “I have decorated my fantasy cottage by the sea,” one journalist and mom confided. “It is on a breezy hill with a path down to the ocean, and it has only me in it.”
  • “I think about just spontaneously walking out the door someday,” said a stay-at-home mom of two. “What would I need to have in my pockets to start over?”
  • “I just want to get one of those Hitlist app tix to Paris and rent an apartment on top of Montmartre, drink a ton of champagne, sleep with a random guy who doesn’t speak English, and get away from my life,” another friend told me.
  • “When I was growing up, my mother used to say, without irony, “One of these days I’m going to go out for bread and not come back.” Now I find myself thinking the exact same thing,” confessed a friend who works at a nonprofit.
  • “I’ve imagined faking my own death,” a writer friend said. (She’s married to a rock star.)

I think of these secret confessions when I’m uploading the latest snapshots of my smiling family to social media: my children with smeary ice cream faces, my husband peering over a Sazerac, my #blessed life. It seems blasphemous to confess that I ever imagine fleeing this life. What if people think I’m unappreciative, or callous, or unloving? What if they peg me as a Bad Mom who is actually contemplating walking out on her kids?

Abandoning your children is among the worst conceivable maternal sins. Yet almost every mother I know—and not one among us wouldn’t throw herself in front of a speeding train for her kids—occasionally harbors a vision of life without them. Motherhood may be a joy, but it’s also a form of self-abnegation.

I look back at my earlier life and wonder at the things I just did: the solo backpacking trip across Thailand, the impromptu meals out, the hours for reading, museums, shopping. The possibility of provocative interactions with interesting strangers. The ability to write without interruption. I once believed my whole life would be like this, that “a family” would somehow slot right in.

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Instead, life seems to come with an ever-growing set of restrictions. The trappings of adulthood that you aspire to—a career, a home, a partner, kids, pets—also happen to cut back on your freedom. “All the things we strive for can make us feel shackled: There’s no way out,” explains my friend Kate Hewitt, a therapist. “The only place for it is fantasy. It’s a very important and vital emotional outlet.”

I tore through Gone Girl (twice) and experienced a strange pang of titillated longing—not the “woman frames her husband for a fake murder” part but the “woman deftly sheds her life” part. Dark thoughts, yes. But normal, if you judge by how many other women devoured that book…and Wild; Eat Pray Love; Leave Me; Where’d You Go, Bernadette; and TV’s The Leftovers and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend all stories of women who went rogue.

These urges shouldn’t be a thought crime. Nor should they be interpreted as an ominous signal that you need to leave your marriage. My friend Courtney calls her dreams “a space for creative problem-solving”: When she finds herself imagining fleeing to a hidden pied-à-terre in New York City, she takes it as a sign that she’s in need of time alone and plans a solo vacation. Another friend, Sara, turns her occasional desire to flee into a kind of KonMari purging exercise. As she puts it, “Realizing what you wouldn’t regret leaving behind makes you ask yourself, ‘Why aren’t you getting rid of those things now?’”

I use my own runaway thoughts as an opportunity for creative expression. My latest novel, Watch Me Disappear, was intended as a story about a nice girl who dreams that her dead mother is still alive. What it ended up being, without my quite intending it, was a suspense about a maybe-not-so-nice mother who hikes off into the sunset. My cottage in Lucca may always be a pipe dream, but as a writer, I can go there—experience what it feels like to be another person”and come back, consequence-free, to my own life.

Because where I want to be, once the lice is combed out and the vomit wiped up, is exactly where I am: children scrubbed and pink in my lap, the dog snoring at our feet, my husband flying through the door with news from his day. Curious George becomes not quite so tedious when two small, warm bodies are snuggled into mine. I may be shackled to this life, with all of its dizzying highs and lows, and yet I could not possibly live without my captors.

About The Author

Janelle Brown is the author of three novels, including the new release Watch Me Disappear. She lives in Los Angeles.

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