As I stood in line to board an 8 p.m. flight to Amsterdam, my stomach spit bile and my pulse beat through my wrist. It was the first weekend of summer, and the other passengers appeared energetic, unbothered by the 45-minute delay.
It’s just excitement, I said, gaslighting myself. A muted voice from the pit of my stomach spoke: Maybe you don’t want to be an ocean away from your kid for six nights. Maybe you should have booked an overnight in midtown!
“Shut up. I can do this,” I whispered aloud. No one raised an eyebrow at this self-talk, which was one of a million reasons I loved New York City. My phone read 8:45, and I wondered how many times my son had escaped his bed, desperate for water or feigning an emergency poop. With a twinge of vertigo, I scanned my boarding pass and trekked down the ramp.
Growing up, I didn’t dream of marriage or motherhood. All I wanted was to be a rich lady who lived in a big city. I wanted to have cool friends and write for magazines. This long-held fantasy about adulthood had made parenting jarring, surprisingly wonderful and, as my therapist would say, “very evocative.”
Despite my son being 3, I still struggled to accept my identity as a mother. More than anything I wanted to be a woman who could board a plane, fly to another country and enjoy a week alone — which is why I had been planning this trip for about six months, to unplug from the constant monotony of parenting.
Even before my son arrived, I was obsessed with not falling into the black hole of motherhood.
I worked hard at maintaining pre-baby hobbies and harshly judged parents who only talked about sleep schedules. I vowed to never ask a nonparent if they wanted to see a picture of my kid.
My compulsion to distance myself from “just being a mom” was so intense that for 16 months I hardly mentioned my new baby to my best friend.
“Wow, I had no idea you felt like this,” she said as we picnicked in Prospect Park. Over a block of cheese and bottle of rose wine, I’d slipped up and confessed how much I enjoyed parenting and how the love I felt for my son was more intense than any other I’d experienced.
Examining her shocked face, I realized I didn’t want someone so close to me to not have a sense of the enormity of this new addition in my life. For the first time, I wanted to stop compartmentalizing, but I feared that a merge would shrink my life and I’d become nothing more than a snack dispenser and ass wiper.
I’d seen the way our society mistreats and devalues mothers. Even as a teen I knew my friend’s moms were overstressed and underappreciated, lacking space for themselves.
On the plane, I vowed to make it across the Atlantic, swinging my suitcase like a kettlebell into the overhead bin. The bag landed with a loud thud. I stood on my tiptoes and yanked it down.
“Do you need help?” a tall blond man, probably Dutch, asked me.
“I’m good. Thanks,” I said, again sliding my luggage back into the bin. This time I intended to sit in my seat, but the best I could do was hover. Back in the aisle, I reextracted my bag. I felt the woman behind me scrutinizing my anxiety fox trot. Pulling the bag into the seat, I watched a family of four, a woman with a cranky baby and a thrilled couple walk down the aisle.
“OK, just put your bag away, sit down and buckle up,” I whispered to myself. Again, I hoisted the suitcase above my head, but I still couldn’t land my body in the seat. With the plane at near capacity, the sound of overhead bins being slammed shut by flight attendants increased.
“I’m not breathing well,” I said aloud to no one, feeling the blood drain from my face. Then I noticed a woman sound asleep beneath a leopard print blanket, eye mask in place and mouth agape. Her serenity, juxtaposed with my sense of doom and possible vomiting, prompted me to finally start walking off the plane.
A front-of-house flight attendant stopped me.
“I have to get off the plane,” I said in a cadence usually reserved for requesting extra ice. “I can’t go to Amsterdam.”
“What do you mean you can’t go?” she asked. Her confused face folded, causing her nose and lips to almost touch.
“It’s a long story, but I’m supposed to be taking a week for myself, away from my toddler,” I replied. “But now I just want to be home, putting him to bed.”
She locked eyes with the flight attendant across the aisle.
“The good news is 31A is now available,” I said, my wet palm slipping off the suitcase handle.
Why am I so stupid? Why did I think I wanted to this? As I mentally berated myself, the flight attendant’s face remained compressed. Most of first class stared at me, sipping their already filled beverages. Who wants to leave their kid for a luxurious five-day getaway alone? Me! I do! Or I thought I did, which was why I planned this trip.
“Did you check a bag?” the flight attendant asked. Her eyes connected with her counterpart as if she were about to call for backup.
“I didn’t,” I said. And with that magic phrase, her face released and a rehearsed smile returned.
“Well then, no problem. Let the gate guard know so he can reissue the ticket.”
Modern psychology asserts that being grossly out of touch with your desires means you haven’t integrated yourself. This lack of integration can cause a variety of stressors from general distress, poor decision-making and feelings of detachment — all symptoms I’d experienced since my son was born.
This separation of self had been tolerable. But now, crying in the back of an overpriced cab, unsure if my hotel would give me a full refund, I realized a convergence was due. I didn’t want to keep parts of myself so isolated that I could plan for a trip that I didn’t want to go on. I wanted people close to me to understand this part of my life.
As the cab slugged along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I dispatched phone calls to my wife, mom and best friend. Everyone said they were proud of me for listening to my gut, but I still felt disoriented.
Why was admitting that motherhood was a defining characteristic of my personality so hard? Why wouldn’t I want to be partially defined by a human who had made me softer and kinder, if perhaps not as good looking? (See: under-eye bags, gray hairs and a general look of exhaustion.)
With years of therapy, I’d integrated far more traumatic identities: lesbian, assault survivor, a girl raised with the mixed messages of the late ’90s. (Girl power and thinness above all. Save your virginity for marriage, but wear these low-rise jeans!) If I could accept those labels, why was this positive experience such a challenge?
When I arrived home, my wife had set the table with a bag of salad and leftover mac and cheese. “Are you OK?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. I just deboarded a loading airplane,” I said. I went into my kid’s room to watch him sleep, surrounded by a zoo of plush animals.
“Actually, I’m good,” I decided. “I have never been happier to not be somewhere else.”
It was time to finally acknowledge that becoming a parent had changed me, and that was OK. Part of me felt disappointed for not being the woman I thought I was supposed to be, but mostly I was annoyed that it took deboarding an international flight and wasting $340 dollars in hotel fees for me to accept my identity as a mother.
In that moment, this meant being a woman who wanted to spend her week off exactly where she was ― at home with her kid.