My friend Heidi is mama to a toddler and travels the world doing original research for her doctoral thesis in anthropology, while teaching and presenting around this country too. To say she’s leaning in is an understatement.
I’m so proud of her and in awe of her courage — one trip involved several days’ travel on a boat to an island, where said boat does not return for a month. We’ve talked many times about how she made the decision to continue her research after baby was born, how she and her husband make it work, and how she feels about it, personally and professionally. I’m so glad she is willing to share her story with us. — Jen
Mama’s on a big adventure: Four ways we make it work
by Heidi Bauer-Clapp
In the last year, I have spent more than 90 days away from home, making trips for professional reasons to Chicago, Austin, the Netherlands, the UK, Barcelona, Cape Town, and the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Next week I leave again, heading back to Cape Town and St. Helena for two months. I consider myself lucky to make these trips, but there is a catch — each time, I leave behind my husband and almost-three-year-old son.
Nearly every parent needs (or wants) to be away from their children once in a while. But when we talk about these separations there seems to be a tendency to minimize the positives and highlight the challenges and — especially for moms — focus on the guilt. This has certainly been my experience; when talking about my own trips I initially felt vulnerable and defensive, always ready with an explanation of why this was a good choice for my family.
I eventually realized that, like any choice in parenting, you will find those who support you and those who think you are making the worst choice possible. I use disposable diapers, raise my child vegetarian, and let him eat sugar once in a while, and I no longer care what others think of those choices. Each action represents a decision my husband and I made in the best interest of our child, within the context of our family situation.
1. It’s all in the attitude.
Before my first extended trip I decided I didn’t want to talk to my son about how sad I was to be leaving him and how sorry I was that I wouldn’t see him every day. At the time he was only two, but I didn’t want to set up a pattern where somewhere down the road he would think “well, if she’s so sad about going why is she leaving me?” Instead, I decided to say I was going on a “Big Adventure.” I talked about my Big Adventure for at least a month before I left, describing with excitement how I would take a plane and a boat and see lots of new people and places. I also said that I would miss him very much but I would be so happy when I got home and could tell him all about my adventure.
I wasn’t sure how much his little toddler-mind was absorbing, but it actually helped me be less nervous about the experience. I have surprised myself by being braver and more adaptive that I thought I was capable of being. And my son has surprised me by responding more positively than I could have imagined. When I returned from that first trip my son grabbed my unpacked suitcase and pulled it around the house while holding his toy airplane aloft and shouting “I’m going on a big adventure, like mama!”
This spring I was lucky enough to have my mom bring him to join me for two weeks in the UK. He was a great traveler and still talks excitedly about seeing Big Ben and riding on a red double-decker bus during his Big Adventure.
2. Think of what my child can learn from my actions.
I was very timid as a kid, and more than anything, I want my son to be less afraid of failure and more excited about experiencing new things. I can wish for that as much as I want, but if I can’t show him how to do that I know it will be less likely to come true. So when I thought about traveling to amazing new places, I realized I had the opportunity to show instead of just tell (see item #1 for a hint on how this has worked out).
3. Stay connected.
Skype and (expensive) international calls and texts have been lifesavers, of course, but my husband and I also each keep a journal when I’m away. He writes to me each night, and while it doesn’t replace our daily conversations over dinner it does allow him to capture the little moments I miss each day or vent a little if he had a challenging parenting day. I write to my son, mostly describing what I’m doing or seeing, but also including advice or things I’ve learned about myself. I view it as a way to hit on #2 more directly — for example, I can talk about what scared me during my travels, and how I got through the situation.
I also leave little gifts, averaging two things a week. Generally these are things my son would get anyway, such as bubbles or fruit strips, but I also include things I made (a cape and butterfly wings are on tap for my next trip) or other special things I know he will love. My husband controls when he gets them and what he gets, so there isn’t the disappointment of opening sidewalk chalk in the middle of a thunder storm. (They serve the dual purpose of providing my husband with an arsenal of distractions/pick-me-ups, should he need them.) I’m not there to see him open these, but thinking about him playing with these things I’ve chosen fosters a sense of closeness I cherish when I’m gone.
Finally, and most importantly . . .
4. Think of what I get out of this.
Aside from the professional benefits, the easy answer is that I’ve had some amazing experiences — I sat in on a session at the House of Lords, climbed Jacob’s Ladder, toured Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, and saw Anne Frank’s diary. With each trip I also grow more confident in my ability to adapt to new situations (a huge leap for me, considering the timid child I was).
Heidi presenting a guest lecture a few hours after disembarking on the remote island of St. Helena.
I also remember what it’s like to be a person with an identity beyond “mama” and I think I’ve become a better parent as a result. This goes beyond renewed appreciation for each moment and cherishing the little things — those things you’re expected to say after you’ve been away from your kids. Rather, I’m reminded that my identity has many facets, and when I feel happier and more confident in other facets, my parenting benefits as well.
It’s not easy. A few minutes before leaving on one trip I picked up my son’s favorite stuffed animal to put back in his crib and unexpectedly burst out sobbing. I’m generally grumpy every Saturday morning I’m away, since that is pancake and pjs time in our house.
I also recognize that this works for my family in large part because of my amazing son and husband. My son is easy-going and flexible (and, perhaps most importantly, there’s only one of him). And my husband loves spending extra time with our son and has never made me feel guilty about our arrangement. Quite simply, my husband is the best. Our partnership is happier and stronger than I ever could have imagined.
We also know I won’t have these professional obligations over the long-term — this isn’t an arrangement we could keep up for years on end, but for now it’s manageable. So in the meantime, I’ll talk with more conviction about these choices, focusing on the positives as much as, if not more so, than the challenges. Big Adventures await!
Editor’s Note: I asked Heidi to describe her PhD research. Here’s what she said: “I am researching how we, in the present, remember violent or painful aspects of the past. The recent controversy over the opening of the 9/11 museum is not an isolated incident, and I think we still have a lot to learn about how we commemorate past violence with sincerity and respect.” Keep on leaning in Heidi. You are amazing. — Jen