Postcards From An Older Mom

What do you do when you realize you’ve spent most of your life searching for exactly what you have now?

For the last six weeks, I’ve been on the road with my baby daughter, Charlotte, who will be five months old in early August. Babies, it turns out, travel with about 10 times their weight and size in stuff. Diapers and wipes; a soft, fold-out “mattress” to spread out on a restroom changing table or on the ground, the floor, one’s lap; clothes (including multiple changes of clothes for inevitable accidents from either end of the baby); distracting toys; blankets to have a bit of privacy during breastfeeding sessions and for overly air-conditioned planes; bottles for feedings (formula or pumped breast milk); the double electric breast pump with its tubes, attachments, and the all important hands-free corset that allows someone (me) to pump and work at the same time.

This is not a piece bemoaning how hard it is, how exhausting it is, to have a relatively newborn person in your care as a way of thinly masking the fact that you’re enjoying every moment of it. I am, unabashedly, and yes, at times in a haze of exhaustion, loving every minute of it. I made the choice to bring Charlotte with me in order to share my love of travel with her, my most precious passenger.

I traveled for a great deal of my 20s and into my early 30s, all over the world, and in a very disorganized—and often dangerous—fashion. I was a relief worker, a misguided lover, a student traveler making the most use of all possible discounts, and sometimes just a disenchanted writer trying to be an academic, who on a whim decided to go to Iceland for the weekend and put it on a credit card.

I loved those journeys. The freedom of the one bag, the adventure of being outside my comfort zone, meeting people I might never meet again, or might (briefly) fall in love with, or might know for the rest of my life, learning or fumbling through a different language, hitchhiking without fear, strolling a new city in the early morning or late at night.

I was not a careful packer or a picky eater. I didn’t keep a journal, but spent hours absorbing experience: images, food, smells, and faces. I could tolerate any manner of dirty transit vehicle (although the raw sewage running down the aisle of the Dublin-London bus was a stretch), gross hostel shower, or leering stranger at an abandoned bus stop in the middle of a Parisian night.

Much of the time I traveled alone, although I always coordinated my itinerary to meet up with a friend in a city, a town, in a train station, sometimes in their home. I have a lifetime of experiences I wouldn’t trade for the fat savings account I do not have. Not once, during that time in my life, did I feel homesick.

So when I packed a bag this June, pumped a week’s worth of milk, stacked it in date-labeled bags in my parents’ freezer, and boarded a plane to Mexico for a week-long teaching gig, just me, a single bag, and my breast pump, I expected to get on the plane and feel a wonderful freedom. I’d immediately order a drink! I would not be changing a diaper on my lap! I would send romantic email letters from 30,000 feet! I would finally have long, uninterrupted hours to work on my novel! I’d be 22 all over again! Cue up my musical faves from the ’90s—Hootie and the Blowfish, Pearl Jam, Sinead O’Connor, and Tribe Called Quest!—and I was ready to rock.

As soon as I set foot in the Denver airport, I felt disorientated and unsettled, and this anxious feeling continued through the first insomnia-soaked days of teaching in Queretaro. I was surrounded by bright and motivated students. I was living in a cute boutique hotel, teaching classes in a mansion stacked with antiques and more clocks than you could count, in the off hours wandering the cobblestone streets of this colonial town where men sang sad morning songs in cathedral doorways, skinny dogs wandered the streets, and if you sat at the open air café in the morning, you were gifted with a parade of young boys wearing red and black uniforms, headed to school. I ate nearly every meal with three of my favorite writers, three of my favorite people. Why couldn’t I relax, enjoy myself, and remember what it was like to be focused on writing and teaching, and not worried about when and how I was going to next unsheath my breasts for a feeding?

At night, without a baby snuggled up on one side, her father on the other, I remained sleepless. I was agitated, trying to figure out who I was when I wasn’t a mother, a partner, in a house I love, in a life I love. I was, for the first time in my life, homesick.

I was going to be 40 the following week, and I felt suddenly inevitable, like I didn’t know who I was enough to keep working toward the person I wanted to be. I was pumping every two hours in order to keep up my milk supply (often in full view of my beloved friends, who were very tolerant), dumping milk into the toilet.

Adventure wasn’t enriching me, it was alienating me from myself in some tangible way. I kept thinking what am I doing here, when my love and my baby are so far away? Answer, of course, was making a living. By the end of the week, I had finished an essay, relaxed more fully into the nights, learned to stretch out in the bed. But I continued to feel slightly unmoored, slightly off. I did write those love letters home, to my love; and in my mind, to my baby.

When I returned from Mexico, on the day of my 40th birthday, I felt agitated. At first it was just about being older, literally middle-aged, but eventually I realized that again, I felt inevitable, but in the best way. I was finally tied to a life I had never expected, a “notched” feeling I had been searching for during all those years of traveling, but without knowing it.

I realized, much later that night after one of the best birthdays of my life, that I didn’t want to feel 23, but 40. And I felt homefixed, the opposite of homesick, a feeling both different from and also related to that of single person travel. Freedom, possibility, awareness. A love of the world and a readiness to be open to whatever fell into it.

It was the best feeling in the world.

Role Reboot regular contributor, Emily Rapp, is a professor in the University of Cailfornia-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program and the author, most recently, of The Still Point of the Turning World.

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