can't tear myself away

Over at Momalom, Jen recently posted about her struggle to carve out time and space for herself in her home when she is constantly being pulled in so many directions. If any mom can’t relate to that feeling, they’re either kidding themselves or some kind of robot. The reality of a mother’s life is that we always feel the pull of the “shoulds”, always feel like we could (or again should) be doing more, always wonder if their pull toward things not related to hearth and home are “right” or too “selfish” or if they should feel guilty.

(I suspect fathers also feel the pull of “shoulds” and guilt, but surrounding different things, and that it manifests itself in very different ways).

Here’s part of the comment I left in response to Jen’s post:

“Logically I do not feel guilty over wanting my own time and space. Logically. But I’ll make plans to escape the house for a few hours to sit quietly in the library and read, or poke around a store or whatever it is, and then when the time comes to leave I find myself dragging my feet. I’ll rinse off the dishes sitting in the sink or change the baby’s diaper or any number of little tasks that my husband, standing there waiting for me to leave, could easily do.”

I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon thinking about my comment and Jen’s post, and wondering why I do that to myself. That ubiquitous mommy guilt? I think that’s part of it, but it’s more complicated than that. There’s also the fact that I’m the parent that’s “on” at pretty much all times, which is why I go to bed thinking about what I’ll pack my son for lunch in the morning and wake up wondering if my other son knows where his shoes are. It’s not necessarily “guilt”, because I think of guilt as something we feel bad because we can’t, or won’t, or don’t want to do. And being “on” for my kids actually is something I want to do. Unfortunately, the fact that I do it willingly doesn’t mean I never run into a conflict.

This topic is weighing heavy on my mind as I prepare to attend the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference in New York City this April.

Without children.

Likely, most of you aren’t exactly gasping in horror at the thought of leaving a 13-month-old toddler with her daddy while Mom goes on a business trip. Most 13-month-olds aren’t still nursing to begin with, most have had some experience with separation, and business travel is a fact of life for many moms starting far sooner than toddlerhood. But let me tell you, this is one very big deal to me. First of all, just out of chance, I’ve only been away from Clara for more than 4 hours a handful of times. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just that wow, the first year of her life went by really fast and it didn’t occur to me to get away more. Second, I’ve never left a nursing baby even overnight until they were closer to two than one. The very idea of getting on an airplane without my barely-walking baby girl initially gave me heart palpitations.

I’ve attended many a conference for business and pleasure since becoming a mother. I’ve done BlogHer three times, once with a baby in a sling, and once with a toddler just across town (I spent the night at my first BlogHer, and was away from then-18-month-old Owen just 20 hours, and even that felt like a big whopping deal). I’ve schlepped my husband along to business conferences where he’s spent days walking around New York City or Chicago with a baby in a stroller and meeting up with me for feedings. He doesn’t mind it, and I have never minded being somewhat “split” in my focus by having a child along for the ride. I see it as a nice balance of business, pleasure and family.

But this year is different. We just bought a house, and my conference budget is seriously strained…and several nights in New York City will not be cheap. Bringing Jon and Clara along would mean the trip would cost at least double what it would if I went alone. And we’d have to figure out arrangements for the other kids, which disrupts their lives. And while I could have opted just to stay home, there are several career-related reasons I think it’s important for me to go this year.

So about a month ago I floated the idea of just going. Taking a pump, leaving Clara with her doting daddy and four big brothers, boarding the plane, and going. At first, it seemed like a crazy idea. Leave? The Baby? I Can’t Do That!!

But then a small, quiet voice in the recesses of my brain said “And why not, exactly?”

And I thought of all those other mothers who travel for business with wee babies and haul along their pumps and everybody’s just fine. I thought of the times I’ve left my toddlers, albeit slightly older toddlers, overnight when they were still nursing, and again, everything was just fine. Could it be that I was perhaps making a bigger deal out of this than I had to?

In a moment of decisiveness, the plans were made. The plane tickets are purchased, the room reserved. Done. And then I proceeded with all kinds of freaking out. What if the plane crashes and I leave Clara motherless? (Well, I suppose if the plane crashes I’d really rather she wasn’t on it…) What if she wants me at night? (Chances are good that she will, but she is also attached to Daddy, and he’s good at getting her back to sleep). What if she starves? (Not likely.) What if we get stuck on the tarmac for hours and my pump is in the luggage section and my boobs explode? (I’ll carry it on). What if I get mugged? (What does that have to do with anything?)

Could it be that freaking out over all these issues is just another way of stalling—like the last-minute cleaning and changing I do before I go out, but on a larger scale? Could it be that this really isn’t about her…it’s about me?

I think so.

I like being around my kids (most of the time…) and struggle with wanting to be here and yet not here, with them, and yet alone. I wish I could put them on “pause” while I go off and enjoy myself or shrink them down and tuck them in a pocket so I could cart them along. Leaving them isn’t easy for me. If I had the baby along, I’d have somebody to mother. But without anyone to parent, I’m a little lost.

I wish I could do everything at once. But motherhood has taught me that unfortunate rule of being human: I can’t. For better or worse, choices have to be made. The reality is, as nicely as my job as a writer melds with my life as a mom, I am a working mother and sometimes I have to act like one.

What’s the answer? Unfortunately, I’m finding, there isn’t an easy one. To modify a popular self –help saying, you feel the ambivalence and do it anyway. So I’m kissing the boys goodbye, handing Clara over to her very capable father, and getting on that plane next month. It’ll be weird just walking out of a hotel room without first attending to some little detail of mothering—a diaper, a shoelace, a brushing of small teeth—but I know that once I’m over the weirdness, I’m going to enjoy it. Most likely, I won’t crash or explode, and a few days later I’ll be back and everything will go back to normal.

Maybe it’s time I get over myself a little: as much as I like to think I’m the grand mastermind of my family’s destiny, and as much as I really am needed, the fact is that everybody can survive with out me for a few days. If they had to, they could survive without me, period.

Maybe that last thought is the one I relish the least.

Still, one day they’ll all have to get by without me, eh? And one day, I’ll have to figure out a way to get by without them…without being needed and wanted, without the built-in purpose and direction having kids gives me.

I’ll look at my trip as practice. And work on leaving the house without so many “stalls” next time around.

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