On travelling without children

I recently made a 6-week research trip through the UK without my children. Here’s a post I wrote before I left, which originally appeared at Mamamia.

I have an amazing job. Amaaaazing. In a couple of weeks, they are sending me overseas for six weeks to advance a project I’m working on. I will be travelling through Scotland and England, spending my days researching and writing on things I’m passionate about. Dream come true?

Well, not exactly. You see, I have two primary-school-aged children who can’t come with me. They will be back here in Australia with their dad and his partner, safe and loved and in their routines as much as possible. I will see them on Skype, daily I hope. Back when I planned the trip, six weeks felt like it would be a cinch. I even wondered if I should have gone for two months. But now, looking down the barrel at the airport goodbye, I just feel sick.

The airport reunion. They hit my embrace so hard they nearly knocked me over.

The warring impulses inside me keep me awake at night. First, of course, is the guilt. Blinding guilt. What am I doing, leaving my babies? I can feel their umbilical cords again, pulling on my insides. Should I change to a less fulfilling project that requires no overseas travel, even if it harms my career? Should I take a less exciting job while they are at school? How selfish of me to want to advance my career, expand my mind, actualise my self. But then there’s the other impulse: the airy joy that I will be free and out in the world, growing and blossoming and feeling the value of my work. I love work. I always have. Good work seems to me one of the most important experiences a human can have. Travelling and working on this project makes me want to cry with excitement.

I haven’t asked the children what they want. Deciding on the future of my career is way too much responsibility to place on a child, and I know what they’d say anyway: a big, long “no” like the ones I get when I try to send them to school on rainy days or make them eat cauliflower. Instead, I’ve said that we will be apart, that we will miss each other and be sad, but that we will survive it and be back together soon enough.

The opinions of others also hold their sway, and I’ve heard them all. From “half your luck ” to “it’s work, you have to go” to “can’t you shorten the trip a little?” to the muttered “I suppose, if you must” (usually delivered with faint disapproving frown). I have also felt these opinions myself, sometimes all of them in the space of a few minutes.

The problem is, there are too few role models to call on. We understand that men go away for business; I saw my own father go away for work numerous times. But I’m desperate to meet women who have to go away for business. Desperate for a mother to tell me what to expect, what a reasonable time away might be, how my children might react, how to deal with the haters.

Sometimes, when I’m churning through all this at three in the morning (great preparation for the jet lag that awaits me at the other end), I have a fantasy. In it, my daughter is a grown woman with children of her own. She is offered a six-week opportunity overseas for work; it is exciting, career building, but she knows her children will miss her terribly.

And then I imagine she doesn’t even ask for my advice. Because she already knows it’s okay.