When my first child was just an infant, I had the urge to run away. Just get away. Do those exotic things I used to do. Like sleep. Shower on a regular basis. Finish a sentence.
So I did.
My husband and I cashed in some credit card points and snuck off for a quick weekend in Vegas while my parents watched our baby.
It. Was. Miserable.
I missed my child with such primal intensity I couldn’t focus on anything else. The gourmet meals, whimsical shows, even the free cocktails were lost on me. Ironically, I still couldn’t have an adult conversation because my mind wandered constantly to panicked thoughts of, What’s my son doing right now? Is my mom remembering to put him to sleep on his back? Is she using the car seat correctly? What if he refuses the bottle? Or forgets about me?
It was a terrible experience. And I vowed to never, ever do it again.
Fast-forward to the present day. I have two sons now, both in middle school. I still miss them desperately when we’re apart, though we’re hardly ever apart. And now it’s them abandoning me for summer camp or school trips.
Until the phone call.
On Sept. 1, 2019, I got one of those phone calls that shook my world forever. My little sister was diagnosed with multiple brain tumors and was in the ICU awaiting the first of three craniotomies. I couldn’t breathe. I had to go to her.
In one month’s time, I spent 19 days with my sister, two states away from my husband and children.
Of course, I didn’t want to leave my guys. I still remembered how hard — no, how excruciating — it was the first time I left.
But I went. And what happened next surprised me.
They encouraged me to go.
Even though it completely disrupted their lives, my husband and kids told me to go. They knew how important it was. They hated seeing my anguish from being 319 miles away from my sister in need.
My husband saw the bigger picture, too. We were demonstrating to our sons how it looks to put family first and care for one another. We can only hope they’ll do the same for each other in the future.
My crew assured me they would figure out the details in my absence. Then they gave me hugs and shooed me off.
My guys spectacularly rose to the occasion.
My husband immediately put the kids in charge of their own lunches, and my oldest stepped in to help make my youngest’s sandwiches. They worked out a school pick-up/drop-off schedule and managed the extracurriculars with only one flub ... which taught my youngest to always keep his phone charged and turned on.
My 14-year-old started doing laundry. (Be still, my beating heart.)
The dog proved to be the only one not on board. But a puppy sitter helped. A minor price to pay, for sure.
I asked the kids to FaceTime me every night before bed, which they did faithfully, even when Dad was busy taking after-hours work calls. Seeing my babies’ sweet faces and chatting with them about school and friends was a welcome relief when I was knee-deep in medical advocacy, power-of-attorney paperwork, medication details, therapy protocols and keeping the family informed.
Our nightly chats also helped quiet my yearning to rush back home to be with my children.
I realized I don’t give my crew enough credit.
It would have never occurred to me to have my 14-year-old do laundry. But why not?
I hate to use the word “coddle,” but there was probably some of that going on before all this. Or maybe it’s just the everyday habits we fall into. Now it’s clear, however, that just because I’ve always made the meals and done the laundry doesn’t mean those obligations should forever occupy my chore list. Not a bad lesson.
And after returning home, I found my family appreciates me more.
“I hate to use the word 'coddle,' but there was probably some of that going on before all this. ... Now it’s clear, however, that just because I’ve always made the meals and done the laundry doesn’t mean those obligations should forever occupy my chore list.”
Recently, my oldest thanked me for washing all the sheets (and unmaking, then remaking, all the beds). Have you ever been thanked for doing laundry? I sure hadn’t.
The little things I do for them — the Rice Krispies treats that magically appear in the car after school, the new socks that show up just as their old ones get holey, their favorite fishy crackers snuck into their lunchboxes — they notice these a whole lot more since my absence.
And the benefits continue.
Today, months later, I wake up to my son’s footsteps as he heads to the kitchen to pop in an Eggo and pour his juice. This didn’t use to be the case. I made breakfast, packed lunches and orchestrated dinner. Every day and night.
But not now.
My youngest, 11, is an early riser. And a YouTube fan. His deal with his dad while I was gone was that if he made his own breakfast and got dressed and ready for school on his own, he could use any extra time in the morning to watch YouTube. And he still does it today! It’s a huge win because it means I’m not hassling him to get moving all morning.
Not everything worked out so well.
My husband set the expectation that the boys would be in bed at 9 o’clock sharp every school night. No exceptions. And they stuck to it ... with him. With me, not so much. And it’s frustrating sometimes, because I know they’re perfectly capable but choose to stall and give me grief; I get requests for one more snack and vague excuses about water bottles that need refilling. But I also get stolen moments for hugs and cuddles and their reflections about what happened during the day and thoughts about the day to come. So my complaints ring halfhearted at best.
Do I want to leave them again?
But now I know I can.
In fact, my sister has another surgery and possible radiation treatments on the horizon, so it’s very likely I will leave again.
It’s hard, but I know they will be OK. And so will I. In fact, I must concede, on occasion leaving my family might even be a good thing.
Jacqueline Miller is the lone female in a house full of guys. She travels freakishly light and can balance two kids on her Dutch bicycle. Her recent articles appear in Today’s Parent and The Christian Science Monitor. Follow her at boogersabroad.com and facebook.com/boogersabroad.