Wednesday morning, I left for Nashville. Almost-three-year-old Clara took my leaving in stride.
“I don’t want you to go, Mommy,” she’d said the night before.
“I know, but I won’t be gone long.”
“Oh! You come back soon?” she asked in hopeful voice, snuggling up to me.
“Yes, very soon. I always come back,” I reminded her.
“Okay!” she chirped, then turned back to Blue’s Clues. When I walked out the door in the morning, she waved in my direction with a cheerful “Bye mama!”
Owen? Not quite so stoic. It was his 100th day of Kindergarten celebration, so I planned to volunteer at his classroom party just before hitting the road.
You might think that would help ease the sting of our separation, but it didn’t work out that way. Usually I leave for trips really early in the morning, when the kids are too groggy to do much more than give me a kiss from bed. Or I leave after seeing them off to the bus, when they’re distracted by the day to come and not really thinking much about where Mom is going. This time, however, the break was more pronounced, with my leaving his class – and the state! – at the same time.
When it was time for me to go, Owen’s face fell and his eyes filled with tears. I led him out to the hallway, where he buried his face in my waist and took a few gulping sobs. I rubbed his back and murmured comforting words. I remembered what it was like to be six years old and to feel like you’ll die if you’re separated from your mother.
I also remembered what it was like to be six years old and crying because I didn’t get a balloon at the circus. And what it was like to be six years old and go from tears over a perceived injustice to happily playing in a matter of ten seconds. My heart was heavy with sadness for my littlest boy, but I also knew that it would pass, that he would be distracted, that he would be all right – and so would I. So I wiped his tears, gave him a hug…and then turned around and walked away.
Leaving my kids behind when I go out of town isn’t easy. Once I get to where I’m going, I’m totally fine – so distracted myself by learning or working or having fun that I can manage to put missing them on hold for a few days. But the actual leaving part can be so, so hard. I come up with a dozen last-minute things I have to do to mother them: cooking extra meals, washing all the clothes in the house, making sure the toothbrushes are sitting out on the counter so nobody forgets to use them. I imagine the kids missing me at night, my missing some important milestone or event. I picture something horrible happening to me while I’m gone as karmic payback for the unmotherly act of leaving.
And yet I leave.
I leave because I need to feel creative, inspired, appreciated, adult. I leave because I want to have fun, to have some space, to have some time to think. But also, I leave because I believe it’s good for my kids. They’re learning to be resilient. They’re learning to deal with disappointment and struggle and a little bit of heartache. They’ve learned that Dad can cook, clean and do laundry…and that Mom always comes back.
It hurts to make your child sad, and yet, it can’t always be avoided. It’s scary to separate, but part of raising kids well is facilitating a slow, gradual separation so that one day they’ll be able to live their own lives confidently – which is made easier later by little practice runs along the way.
When our kids are sad to see us go – and when we’re reluctant to leave – it’s a testament to us as mothers. They wouldn’t care if we didn’t make them feel safe, loved, and cared-for. We wouldn’t care if we didn’t feel indispensable.
So it’s okay to feel reluctant. It’s also okay for them to feel sad.
And it’s okay for us to go.
I emailed Owen’s teacher earlier today, asking if he’d had a hard week at school after his sad start on Wednesday. “He’s totally himself! Just fine,” she wrote back. I felt better, but really wasn’t surprised. Once I was out of sight, distracted by the activity around him, he put my leaving out of his mind and carried on. I know he misses me, but he’s carrying on. I feel good about that. I feel good about my break. And I feel good about being the Mom who misses, who is missed, but who goes…and always comes back.
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