Traveler, Writer, or Mother?
By Rachel Pieh Jones
This is so weird. I’m at the airport and I have my purse and my carry-on. I don’t have a stroller. I’m holding one passport and one ticket. I don’t have a diaper bag or breast milk stains on my shirt. I don’t have to make multiple trips to the bathroom with a different little person in town each time and when I do go, I am the only person in the stall. I don’t get to board early. I’m going to Italy and I’m going alone.
I actually haven’t carried a stroller, diaper bag, or stained shirt through an airport in years. My kids are sixteen, sixteen, and ten. But I did it often enough, as an expatriate, that the memories of toddlers throwing jet-lagged temper tantrums in the Chicago O’Hare airport remain vivid. I remember holding wailing babies in my arms while planes landed and we were prohibited from moving about the cabin and I could feel eye daggers piercing my back as all the other passengers wished they had packed earplugs. I remember trying to squeeze twins, carry-ons, two tiny backpacks, and pregnant me into a bathroom stall.
I remember flying alone with all three kids and seeing that our seat assignment left the 5-year old twins in one row with my baby and I behind them. The third person to sit in my row was an elderly Somali man with a beard hennaed orange, which meant he had been on the Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, which meant he was relatively devout. I remember feeling nervous that, this being Ramadan, he wouldn’t want to sit close to a non-Muslim woman or suffer through the baby’s racket on this thirteen-hour flight, less than half of our total journey. I remember how he and the baby bonded immediately. He fed her his food, since he was fasting. He held her and played with her, tickled her and read to her, and I fell asleep, hazily convinced he was an angel.
I remember the time we landed over Minneapolis in the summer and the baby was asleep in my lap and the twins were coming later, with my husband. There was no crying and there was no onslaught of questions about whether or not Grandma and Grandpa would meet us, with balloons or candy or stuffed bears. There was the baby breathing warm into my stomach. There was the exhaustion of thirty-plus hours of travel. There was the green, the miraculous, never-ending green of a Minnesota summer, broken only by lakes and golden farmland. The colors and the peace overwhelmed me and I started to cry. I hadn’t been here for two years by that point. Our life, home, work was in Africa but so much of my love was in Minnesota. And now, with so few distractions, I felt what I had stuffed behind crying babies and arguing toddlers all those other arrival times.
It was a kind of loss, but also a gain. I had given up this beautiful place filled with memories and family and a contented familiarity. I gained a desert world of constant challenge and a barrage of experiences I barely understood. I gave up safe and comfortable. I gained courage and faith, the kind that has been stripped bare of all support structures and that continues, sometimes to my surprise, to refuse to break.
I’d felt this before, but the shock of modern air travel and the quickness with which we are forced to shed one life and enter another, wildly different one, hits with predictable timing upon landing. I just hadn’t been able to process the feeling or give into the emotion when kids clamored for attention, or for the window seat.
I prefer to travel with my whole family. We enjoy traveling together and it is hard to imagine seeing Italy without my teens, tween, and husband to share it. But I’m not here as a tourist or a returnee, I’m here to work. To conduct some interviews, do research, experience a certain region with my own nose, eyes, toes, and ears. My project requires deep reflection, moments of solitude. I can’t get that with my family.
This part of me, this writer part, feels separate from the mother part. Like I said, this is so weird. Also? It’s fun. I feel guilty. What are my husband and kids doing right now? I’m sure they are fine but they aren’t on their way to Italy. They are in Djibouti where it is 118 degrees and the dust blows with stinging ferocity until it catches between teeth and turns eyelids into sandpaper.
I don’t quite know what to do with all my time, all my thoughts. I haven’t trained myself to be focused for long periods, I’ve trained myself to have quick bursts of writing or thinking in between meal times and homework sessions and family soccer games. I am about to board the plane for Italy, via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I feel afraid. Less than a week ago, suicide bombers killed over 40 people and injured nearly 200 at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey. I have been to that airport. But I’m not afraid of terrorism, well okay a little bit, but that isn’t what I’m mostly conscious of in this moment.
I used to dread the exhaustion of international travel with little children and the jet lag and the worry over documents and timing and catching flights and staying hydrated and questions like: what currency do we use in this airport?
This time, I’m afraid of being alone with my mind. I don’t know what lies in there. I don’t know what will surface, like the surprise of tears upon landing in Minnesota all those years ago. Who am I without being attached to three children and a husband?
It is terrifying. What if I fail? What if I have left my family for two weeks and all I end up with is a roll of belly fat from gelato, pizza, and wine? What if no one will answer my questions?
This has never happened before, going all in for this dream of capturing words and lives and stories on paper. I shake off the guilt and the fear. My family wants this for me, too. They made the choice for me to leave, too. While I am fully a writer in this moment, I am also fully a member of my family. They are with me, championing me, cheering for me. I don’t have to choose between mother or writer. The work, strength, and creativity required for one informs the other.
The call to board the plane comes and I stand, sling my grownup purse, with no diapers in sight, over my shoulder. I grab my one passport. I’m a mom and I’m traveling. Alone.
Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.