I have a photo of me in Ray Bans and a bright green bikini top, climbing sandstone rocks on a beach in Costa Rica. I’m smiling, teeth white against my dark skin. On the back of the photo, these words in my handwriting: March 1996, for Dee, so you’ll know what your mama was up to six months after you were born.
Rosa from work snapped the shot. She and Kevin and I were on a two-week trip to Central America. Guatemala and El Salvador the first week, weekend at Manuel Antonio, and the second week in San José. Rosa and Kevin went on to Honduras and Panamá, while I flew back home to be with my baby.
It’s a long story, how I ended up in Central America when Dee was only six months old. Suffice to say that it had to do with a grant proposal I submitted on behalf of the university I worked for when I was pregnant. The proposal was funded, and I had to follow through with the trip or risk losing the money.
As with most international travel, it was Hell getting mentally prepared. A jet plane crashed in the region weeks before I left, killing everyone on board. All I could think was, I’m going to die and never see my baby grow up. Of course, once I got there I was pulled into the color and smells and sounds. I loved it.
Between appointments, I had to run to my hotel room and power on my little battery-operated breast pump. Waoo-waoo-waoo-waoo, it went, like a sick cow, for twenty minutes. I sat on the bed with my blouse unbuttoned and tried not to worry about whether I’d dry up by the time I got home.
Later, walking past indigenous women sitting on the sidewalk, infants in bundles on their backs or in their arms, I pictured my watery milk running down the sink and wished I could pick up a baby and feed it.
“Ew, that’s disgusting!” Rosa said when I told her what I wanted to do.
That trip, Dee refused to take the bottle. Typical conversation those first days I called home:
Has she taken it yet?
Nope, just spits it out.
My God, what are you gonna do?
Everyone says she’ll take it when she gets hungry enough.
Have you tried other nipples?
Yeah, went through four new ones today.
It’s alright. She’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Click.
Everyone was wrong. Dee never took the bottle. No other options left, Jim finally introduced rice cereal.
I was thinking about that trip yesterday. The postcards I’d sent from Vietnam had just arrived, and I remembered how before I left for Central America I prepared a postcard a day for Jim to read to Dee. I didn’t actually send them; I left them for him to show her, a new one each day.
I went on a lot of trips while both my babies were young. I left the university when Dee was about a year old; new job yet one thing remained the same—still plenty of travel.
I remember sending baggies of frozen breast milk over dry ice for Em when I took a week-long training course in Eugene, Oregon. I became expert at pumping in mothers’ rooms at work and in airports. Life revolved around finding the best place and time to run my little machine.
I pumped milk in the Portland airport. I used the private kiddy bathroom, which had a plug so I could use electric. After 15 minutes, someone jiggled the door and it turned out to be a cleaning woman. At first she scolded me for using the kiddy bathroom; apparently a woman had complained about not having access to the changing table. But when I explained that I was pumping and that I appreciated the privacy, she seemed to understand.
I’m coming home with something for everyone: Em’s milk, a watch with a floating dinosaur for Dee, a Nike fleece sweatshirt for Jim.
Before we had kids, Jim and I made the decision that one of us would stay home full-time to take care of them. We both came from families where a parent stayed home, and we wanted to do the same thing for our kids if we could afford it. Which we could, barely at first. Jim got the role of stay-at-home Dad, and I got to pursue my dream of working in a job where I could travel.
But it wasn’t easy being away from my children. All the time I was on the road, I wondered if they would grow up and resent my being gone. Yet when I was home I was a present parent, more so, I imagined, than dads in my same situation. Bone tired, I took over the moment I got home. Evenings and weekends were always mine.
My girls are both old enough now that I can see they’ve not been damaged. On the contrary, they are bold and adventurous from spending formative years with a parent who let them walk on roofs versus one with a fear of heights. They love being outdoors, think nothing of catching snakes and frogs, and are up for long hikes.
They also want to get to know this world. “Take me to Vietnam,” they tell me. I promise them that I will. Hopefully next summer.
They’re in for a wild experience.