My mom has always wanted to visit India and asked if she could take me with, not as in “Ill pack you in my suitcase” but proper the two of us off to India. I said “Hell yeah” or something to that effect. We would be away for 19 days, leaving at the end of October. Tickets were booked and journey mapped out in March this year. Life continued as per normal post booking and then the departure date got closer and closer as is the pattern of time. The longest I have been away from my children before was 8 days and that time I pretty much merrily skipped away from the family unit with a wave and an air of “love ye see ye later.” I relished the thought of having time to myself. This time felt very different. It took me by surprise that the impending separation from my boys for 19 days was filling me with anxious dread. I got all weepy just looking at them and thinking about saying goodbye. Anyway, I pulled myself together somewhat and said an anticipated weepy goodbye when the time came and boarded that flight and had an incredible visit to incredible India with my incredible mom. We all survived (in spite of my various neurotic pre-travel thoughts of death and maiming).
My boys were by no means thrilled that I was leaving and asked me not to go a few times. They had some real concerns about homework and basic survival stuff like food but on the whole they were ok. My children are 6 and 9 years old. They are able to articulate their thoughts, feelings and desires well. They are very good at articulating their desires! Leaving very young children for prolonged periods is a different kettle of fish and not something that I am discussing here. As I work in the mornings mostly, I am chief in charge of the children by day. Knowing that I was finding it hard to leave for myself, recognising my husband’s and children’s very real concerns, these are some of the things that I think we all found useful to help us navigate the time while I was away.
Tell it like it is
It would have been pretty hard-core if my boys had asked the night before departure –‘what’s up with the bags?’ due to a lack of knowledge about me leaving. In reality we started talking about me going away a few months ago. As parents we sometimes think we are protecting our children from difficult issues by not telling them. Thing is children are way more perceptive than we give them credit for. Their sleuth like tendencies coupled with their wild imaginations can take them to all kinds of conclusions, which left unchecked can leave them feeling very confused and sometimes frightened. Actually letting them know what’s going on allows them the time to feel the difficult feelings that may come up and express their concerns and anxieties. It also allows us the time to help manage these difficulties so that we can problem solve together with them and help them to feel safe and secure when the actual separation comes. Sometimes departures happen unexpectedly and we cannot always prepare for everything but when we can it helps children deal with those unexpected times.
Tell their people
Before I left, I let my children’s schools know that I was going away. I wanted to make sure that they too were in the picture, they knew who to call if there was a problem and would keep an extra eye out for my boys. They appreciated being kept in the loop. My boys knew that their teachers knew that I was away. Both lovely teachers checked in on them and let me know how they were when I got back. I knew they had them covered and that my boys were being held in a safe way while I was holding a cocktail elsewhere.
I’ve done some organised stuff in my time but I don’t think I have ever really produced anything as organised or even vaguely anal as the recent production of the-going-away-calendar, affectionately known as ‘The Document’. It had a column for each child and their daily activities and how they would get from A to B, complete with the name of the person doing the A to B transportation in a nice bright blue; the what to pack the night before column; a column for our domestic worker so that she would know when the children would be at home (with an implied vibe of when to panic because they have not returned); and the bonus – what they will be eating for supper that night –column. They were left to their own devices on weekends. It was a work of art but the kind of work you don’t really want to show anyone because you are way too embarrassed to be exposing this controlling side when you have been trying to go with a more laissez faire kind of image. Despite wanting to hide, I pressed send and the calendar went out to all involved in making the calendar come to life. At the end of the day the calendar was declared a success. I was able to read it to the boys and let them know what was going to happen, my husband really appreciated The Document and the clarity that it gave, he continues to speak of it fondly. It allowed us to keep things as familiar as we could during a time of change and the children felt safe knowing what the plan was each day.
Counting the days
Kids do not have a good sense of time. This is not too surprising and can work both to our and their advantage at different times. The “You have two more minutes to …” gets bandied about quite loosely by me and can equate to anything from 60 seconds to around 15 minutes. When we explain that we are going away for a certain amount of time, this doesn’t make any real sense in their minds. Children really respond well to a graphic depiction of time that reflects the number of days that we will be away. They are able to cross off the days which gives a real sense of satisfaction knowing that another day is down and you can see when mom or dad are coming home. This is a lovely daily ritual that helps children gain a sense of perspective and time is not left as this confusingly endless thing like those vague two minutes…
The Nice Guy and the Support Team
My husband is pretty cool. He encouraged me to take extra time away to be with my mom in India (let’s try not read too much into him being happy for me being away longer…). He changed his work schedule so that he could do some of the afternoon stuff with the kids which he doesn’t normally do and he actually really liked the novelty factor and change of pace for the time I was away. I am fortunate to have a supportive partner in the mix (public declaration!). Whether you have a supportive partner or not or you are doing this parenting journey single style- a support network is tantamount to survival. We all need some help at some point with our children, we can never do it all. We need to be able to turn to other moms and dads when we need help. The key is asking. Most people are really happy to help out when they can and will say if they can’t. Asking for help, sometimes gets us talking to each other and growing a sense of understanding and community amongst us moms and dads. I really value the sense of community that I feel in knowing that there are a bunch of fabulous people who I can rely on both in my day to day life and when jetting off to faraway lands.
In the years of old, going far away meant not having contact with those at home for lengthy periods. No more. Wi-Fi allowed me to put in a call almost every day while I was away to check if anyone wanted to touch base. My older son often got stuck in for a fat chat and wanted me to regale him with detailed stories about Colonialism, Maharajahs, Cricket and general Indian history (making me feel like I must concentrate harder when the guide speaks or at the very least take notes). In response to, “Do you want to talk to mom?” my younger son would sometimes politely respond with a “No thanks.” I needed to respect and respond to their needs and the space that they were in. Sometimes that was hard. Of course I wanted to chat to them both and hear how they were but speaking on the phone is often difficult for kids and they may be in the middle of doing what they are doing and may just find it hard to chat to us while we are away and we need to let them know that that’s ok.
Glitches in the system
While the mom’s away life with children continues and an attitude of ‘expect the unexpected’ is probably a good one to have generally as shit does happen like tantrums, medical conundrums, disappointments and being left at school. We cannot control for everything. It is useful to make things safe where we can so that the unexpected can be handled as needed because the base is strong.
After the Party
We were those people at the airport on my return. My boys came running at full pace on first glimpse of me into my arms and we held each other tight tight tight! Now I’m back in town and we are all finding our way back. My husband and I generally dance a bit of a complicated dance when either of us returns from being away. Juggling appreciation, resentment, joy and exhaustion can make for an interesting rhythm. At one particularly tricky step in our return dance, my husband remarked to me as the kids were falling apart “They get like this around this time of day” leaving me feeling like an au pairs new on the job (but not a very shy one as I managed a probably unhelpful facetious retort). Truth is I must hold onto the reality that he held down the fort while I went exploring the forts and he has to hold onto the fact that I’m the resident mom returning and finding my way back into our home. We are a work in progress! It’s great to be home.