Learning to shed extra baggage is a mother’s dilemma.
My career involves frequent travel and often for extended periods, making me vulnerable to self-doubt and guilt. I questioned about my role as a parent. Was I a good mother? A good enough mother? Was my babysitter the best available? Did my husband resent the extra work at home while I was away?
With every trip, I packed and hauled along extra baggage. Shouldered every mile, along with my duffels, totes, and briefcase, I dragged this heavy load of doubt and reproach. The quiet claws of uncertainty became a constant part of my planning, packing, and leave-taking for years. The pain of separation and concern about my family’s well-being clouded the joy of taking off for those new worlds I was supposed to be exploring.
When Often my flights left early in the morning. I would tiptoe into my children’s bedroom to say my silent goodbyes while they were still fast asleep, inhaling the familiar fragrance of shampoo in their silken hair, nuzzling my nose into their soft, warm necks, and running my fingers over their downy cheeks. Then I would burst into tears on the way to the airport.
The intensity of my goodbyes varied with every trip. I learned that leaving a sick child or being absent for more than one weekend took the heaviest emotional toll. I suffered one of my worst bouts of guilt when my daughters were three and six years old and I went to Morocco for seventeen days on business—the longest I had ever been away from home. But, it was that very trip that ultimately freed me and put my life back into perspective.
For weeks before my departure for North Africa I took extra precautions to keep every microbe away from my children. Compulsively I spent every free moment playing with them. I made endless lists and schedules for my husband and the babysitter, stocked the cupboards and refrigerator to overflowing, and filled “goodie bags” with simple, gift-wrapped treats to be opened each day I was away. But even my best efforts didn’t alleviate my guilt.
Although the pain of separation faded slowly with the excitement of experiencing Africa, I still felt stabs of guilt each day. To comfort myself and stay emotionally connected to home I carried pictures of my family with me everywhere and enthusiastically shared them with waitresses, guides, and travel companions. I safety-pinned my favorite snapshots to the canvas walls of my tent when camping in the Sahara Desert. One day I pulled them out of my backpack to share with a nomadic Bedouin woman and her newborn baby as she boiled water for tea over a wood fire. Together we smiled and cooed over her child and my pictures.
In Marrakech, I placed a framed picture of my daughters on the bedside table in my hotel room, as had become my custom. For years I had performed the same nesting ritual in every hotel, in every city: I would throw open the curtains for light, mess up the covers on the bed, and ceremoniously place framed snapshots of my children and husband all over the room. Perched on the nightstand, inches from my head, the smiles of my daughters would soothe me as I fell asleep.
I thought of them constantly, and shopping for treasures to take home filled the small amount of free time I had on my first day in the city. In the bustling, colorful alleys of the medina I bargained for tiny embroidered slippers with turned-up toes, leather camels, and exotic dolls. Finally, exhausted from the noonday heat, I returned to the oasis of my hotel room, eager for a few minutes of silence and a cool shower. But, when I unlocked the door I immediately smelled flowers. In a moment I saw them. There, around the picture of my children, fragrant roses had been arranged, transforming the bedside table into a beautiful altar with offerings. But from whom? This touching but mysterious ritual continued for two days. Magically, fresh flowers kept appearing to adorn my children’s smiles.
On my last day in Morocco I returned to the hotel late in the afternoon. As I stepped out of the elevator, I heard a rustling in the hall. A short woman with flashing brown eyes and a charcoal-colored bun quickly pushed aside her maid’s cart and hurried to greet me. She had obviously been waiting for this moment. Motioning me closer with her keys, she unlocked my door. As I followed her into the room I was once again struck by the sweet smell of flowers. The new offerings were red, white, and pink carnations.
The woman led me to the bedside table where she lovingly lifted the picture of my daughters to her chest and held it tightly. Then she raised the frame to her lips and kissed each girl’s photo. I pointed to the flowers, bowed my head, and tried to express my thanks with my hands pressed together in the universal gesture of prayer. Smiling, the woman then pulled a crumpled photograph of her own family from her apron pocket. I took it, admired her four children, then held the picture to my chest and embraced it as she had, gently kissing each child. I reached out to touch her arm in appreciation, and she hugged me closely. As we stood embracing in silent female communion, tears filled my eyes and my throat choked closed with emotion.
Using only gestures and our eyes and smiles, we told each other about our children, and I felt blessed and quietly at peace. This was the true reward of travel: not the places visited but the people who have touched my life. This compassionate Muslim woman reminded me once again that mothers all over the world work, outside the home, and are thus separated from their children by that work. It is not a choice for most of them, or for most of us. And we are not bad mothers because of it.
In that brief moment of sharing family pictures in a strange city so far from home, I realized that nothing has ever made me as happy or as sad as Motherhood. And that nothing has ever been quite as hard, as intense, or as satisfying.
Occasionally in my travels I experience something that forever alters my life, that brings me back a changed person. So it was in a quiet room in Marrakech. Despite my homesickness, a generous Moroccan mother helped me replace guilt with gratitude forever.
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