By the time you read this, I'll be back home after the first real vacation my husband and I have taken without kids since we got married six years ago. When we left, I envisioned distant beaches, exotic drinks, and plenty of suntan lotion. We had that. We also spent part of our trip freaking out about our kids' safety once we realized that they were directly in the path of the storm of the century and we had no way to get back to them. Nothing special, just the usual romantic getaway.
It started innocently. My husband had a chance to travel for work. We decided to extend his trip into an adult-only holiday. Or, as I referred to it, our escape. I know, I know. Parenthood is not a prison, it's a privilege. (And if it is a prison, my teenage stepson would probably argue that my husband and I aren't inmates, we're wardens at Leavenworth.) We love our kids. Still, I don't think it's unreasonable to want a break once every six years. In the fine balance of kids, work, friends and family, our relationship often takes a backseat to everyone else's needs. We were not going to let this chance pass us by.
We arranged to have my parents take care of Little Dude, and my stepson asked to crash with his friend's family. A friend agreed to watch the dog. We had everything planned perfectly.
Even my pangs about leaving for a week weren't enough to derail us. My son's initial excitement to spend time with his grandparents, their cat, fishpond and tractor gave way to wobbly lips and occasional tears when he realized that being with them meant he wouldn't be with us. He played the mommy guilt card -- "Mommy, I'll be scared without you. I'll miss you. Will you think about me every day?" Little did he know.
His misgivings triggered my own. I was going to miss Little Dude -- more than a little. I confided in my husband. He just smiled when I confessed my concerns. This was not news to him. I find it annoying when he knows me better than I know myself. It takes all the drama out of my emotional world.
My friend Anne, a mother, yoga instructor and occasional sage, gave me some perspective to help me get on the plane. She said the ability to leave your kids is like a muscle. It starts off flabby and weak. Popeye without the spinach. You have to work it until it gets strong enough for heavy lifting. It takes practice, she said. She has biceps to kill for and doesn't freak out when she has to leave her kids to go out of town on business trips, so it's possible she is onto something.
I liked her theory. I'm not over-attached to my son; I'm just a weakling who hasn't been hitting the weights. It wasn't that I was leaving Little Dude for too long; I haven't left him often enough. I needed to be more like my friend Brooke who shortly after her first child was born went on a trip to Paris with her husband. At the time I thought she was nuts, but now I see that she understood long before I did that parenting is a long-term obligation and the sooner she trained her "it's OK to spend time apart" muscle, the better. Give me a few weekends in the mountains, some island hopping and an urban adventure or two and I'll be in the best shape of my life.
I relied on all this to keep a smile on my face when I waved goodbye to the kids. Once they were gone, as Psychic Husband anticipated, I broke down. Eventually, I let him reassure me that everything would be fine.
None of us, however, anticipated that we'd be trapped in a foreign country while our kids rode out Frankenstorm. That requires a whole different kind of strength.
We first realized something was brewing a few days before our scheduled return to the U.S. when our local power company emailed an alert to expect power outages if Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey. At first, I wasn't concerned. There were the delicious cocktails to enjoy and I was in training. I needed to be prepared for the day when Little Dude goes to summer camp and my stepson goes to college. Besides, our kids were in good hands and hurricanes often turn out to sea.
Except this one didn't. We spent two anxious days and nights watching CNN, monitoring satellites on weather sites, emailing the generous folks keeping our kids for updates and trying desperately to rearrange our flights to get home. I had a mini-freak-out at the airport. There is no more helpless feeling than being thousands of miles away while a monster storm heads straight toward your children.
By some magic of meteorology, the storm did a hook around our little town. A few downed trees and power outages comprise the bulk of the damage. Our kids, our house and our sanity (for the most part) are all safe and sound. We were lucky. We made a donation to the Red Cross for those who weren't.
Through crackling phone lines we heard both boys' voices. My stepson and his friend spent an afternoon clearing fallen tree limbs from the yard, while Little Dude tagged along, disappointed that the power didn't go out so he could use his spelunking headlight. They sent pictures and video, and everyone assured us that they were fine. And they are. I'm learning to breathe again.
For now, I'm OK being a weakling where my kids are concerned. It's hard to imagine letting them out of my sight. We can take family vacations forever. I've toyed with encouraging them to go to the local community college and live at home, while I make their favorite meals and do their laundry. I'm suddenly less enamored with independence and healthy boundaries.
It's too bad. I really did enjoy those tropical drinks. Maybe I can start working out again next year.