Until a few weeks ago, I’d never made more than a weekend trip away from my children. In my mind I added up the times my husband had been away for meetings, conferences, and teaching field trips. Some day, I thought, I’ll cash in the time owed me and take my dream vacation -- bird-watching in Arizona. Then early this year I got an interesting email. My father, a beetle expert, had been invited to be an instructor on a field entomology course (something he’s done many times over the years) in Arizona, but he’d turned down the invitation, saying that he didn’t think he could handle physically the rustic accommodations or the travel over rough roads. On recent field courses my dad, who’s now 75, found it difficult to be comfortable or to keep up with students. The course instructor emailed me to ask me what I thought of my dad’s abilities — could he handle the trip this year and would I persuade him to join them? A little envious, I mentioned jokingly that it was too bad I couldn’t come along and look after him. I could drive us in our own comfortable rental car so he wouldn’t have to crowd into the student vans. Somehow this wish turned into an invitation for me to join the course too, and with support from my husband, friends, and in-laws I left my family for 11 days.
Despite my excitement about the trip, I was apprehensive about a number of things (I tend to be a worrier anyway). For the past five-plus years my primary identity has been as a mother. Even when I’m not with my kids, I’m very often hanging out with friends who have kids. So with my family hundreds of miles away, who would I be? And could I really stand to leave them?
My second worry seemed silly, but even though I live near a university and see students everyday, I was intimidated to be around 20-somethings again. In the time that’s passed since I last taught undergraduates I’m now realistically old enough to be their parent. After all, when my own mother was my age I was a junior in college. How would they see me and would I be able to relate in a meaningful way? I’ve taught field courses before, and they’re an exciting but intense kind of teaching since there’s little privacy and down time — instructors and students often work, travel, eat, relax, and sometimes sleep (in the same dorm, that is) together. And after so many years away from teaching I also felt rusty. Much of the information that was once at my fingertips has disappeared from disuse, and I’ve let children’s schedules and other minutiae of day-to-day life take over. Although I tried to study and prepare for the trip, I was headed to an area where I’d never been (I used to do research in rain forests; deserts are way out of my league) and had little information about what expectations there’d be of me once we were underway. However, my father’s and my participation in the course were as volunteers, and we had to cover some of our own expenses. Somehow that took a bit of the pressure off, and I allowed myself to have some confidence in my abilities and just wing it.
Finally I couldn’t help but think about my dad and my role as a daughter. When I last saw him 6 months ago he wasn’t getting around very well. Of course, that had been in the winter, and we were all a little too house bound, over-fed, and under-stimulated. I didn’t know how my father would handle the desert heat, the cactus spines, the hiking, or the long drives in the car between sites. Of course, I’m sure he worried about me too!
As it ended up, I actually was able to relax and have one of the best experiences of my life. I stopped navel-gazing and analyzing what my role would be, and I just was. Every chance I got I went for bird-watching walks. I hunted for bugs, oohing and aahing alongside the students over carpenter bees, giant tarantula wasps and metallic ground beetles. And I helped out where I could with designing experiments or advising students’ projects. Mostly I had fun interacting with everyone and was reminded of how energizing it is to be around students. Although this was a somewhat self-selected group — they knew they’d spend their days collecting insects and roughing it a little — I was still amazed by their interest and enthusiasm. Some of the students were exceptional natural historians and keen observers, showing me things I’d never seen before. Their enthusiasm was contagious and filled me with a sense that they would go on to do great things in their years to come. I absorbed vicariously the excitement of new beginnings and opportunities awaiting them post-undergrad. I’m now eager and less anxious about getting back to teaching. In fact, an opportunity for my own field course has just surfaced for next year, but I’ll write more on that as plans progress.
And how did I do away from my kids? Well, I missed them terribly on the few occasions we spoke by a weak, two-bar cell phone connection, and I realized that it was easier on all of us just to send an email once in a while. They sounded so little and far away, and my heart ached to be with them. But most of the time I was surprised and a little embarrassed that I didn’t miss them constantly! How easy it was to just be myself and not someone’s mother. I focused on what was around me, showered when I wanted, woke up early to bird-watch when I wanted, and ate whatever was available for dinner with no worries of kids’ meals. However, on my return home, I practically sprinted from the plane and was euphoric to be back with my family as wife, mother, and renewed me.
All in all it was a fabulous time, but the best part was the chance to share it with my father. The course organizer, an old family friend, summed things up best when he offered to have me join them. His view was that my father and I both want to look after each other: Dad wanted me to have the chance to get back into teaching and to see a place I’d always wanted to visit; I wanted to make sure that my father was comfortable and help him practice what he loves — teaching and outdoor adventures. By looking out for each other’s interests, we gave each other the opportunity for a wonderful experience together. I think I did pretty well as a daughter and didn’t hover over my father or worry about him too much. (He didn’t remember to shake out his bedding to look for scorpions like I wished he would, but then fortunately the only one we saw in the bunk-houses was a dead one I brought home to my son.) On the last day of our trip, my dad and I pulled into the “Desert Carwash” to remove all evidence of our little white rental car’s extensive dusty off-road travels, which were probably in violation of our rental agreement. As we drove off into the sunset on the highway to Tucson, the classical radio station we’d found was playing César Franck’s sonata for violin and piano, a soundtrack from my childhood since my father, also a pianist, played this piece often with his chamber music ensemble. The juxtaposition of the nostalgic music, the magnificent roadside scenery aglow in the fading sunlight, and the shared memories from our trip and of my childhood were too much for words, but I’m pretty sure we were both on the same wavelength and reliving our experiences. Now for my next vacation, I wonder where my mother might want to go?