In the two years since my daughter was born, I've gone away overnight only twice: once for a weekend yoga and writing retreat when she was nine months old and, more recently, for a weekend writing conference. Both times, I insisted my husband text me proof-of-life photos throughout the weekend. These photos made my heart blossom with a painful sort of love, and also made me feel guilty about all the things I was missing.
Still, in these small stretches of time I allowed myself, it was easier to be away from my daughter than I liked to admit. I learned a lot while I was away. I connected with other people who really got what I was doing. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I was so busy focusing on my career, I didn't have the time to miss anybody.
On the last day of this most recent conference, my father-in-law texted me in a picture of my daughter. She was wearing a bathing suit and a baseball cap and her hair was wet from the pool and she was digging into a giant bin of toys and she had the biggest smile on her face. "Emily after the pool playing with toys and tent AND waiting for Mommy to come home," my father-in-law texted.
"That is a lie," I wrote back. "She obviously doesn't miss me at all."
But when I returned home later that night, five hours later, I could hear her voice as I approached the front door.
"Mommy!" she shouted. "MOMmy! MOMMY!" I opened the door, draped in suitcase and tote bags and purse, and she threw herself into my arms.
And then she didn't stop talking.
"Is it just me, or is she now stringing entire sentences together?" I asked, amazed that she seemed to have developed so much in only three days.
I watched her, limbs long, bangs hanging into her eyes. Had she grown in the past three days, too?
"And she's started to learn how to swim!" said my mother-in-law.
Giving myself permission to do something for myself and for my career can be a bittersweet thing, as can giving myself permission to focus solely on my daughter.
Another sign of her growing older. Another way she'd changed. Another thing she'd learned. All without me.
I became a full-time freelancer nine years ago, with the intention that, someday, it would allow me to simultaneously work and raise my daughter. Of course, these things are not so simple. When you try to do two things at once, you end up doing neither of them as well as you would have liked.
When my daughter was born, she immediately became the most important thing in my life. Okay, I thought to myself. I guess this is just what I do now. I guess the whole writing this just isn't going to happen.
But two months in, I was back at it. And nine months in, I was at that writing retreat and I was starting a book and I was taking on more work than I ever had before. And I soon learned that being a work-at-home-mom was a constant lesson in guilt: Guilt over the attention you're not paying to either your child or your work.
Giving myself permission to do something for myself and for my career can be a bittersweet thing, as can giving myself permission to focus solely on my daughter. In the latter case, I begin to feel that I am moving in slow motion, letting opportunities pass me by. In the former case, I feel that I am missing so much.
But I guess that's because being a mother is also about learning to let go. Learning to release control. Learning to nurture the various parts of yourself while removing your grasp on the things that no longer serve you.
These are hard lessons to learn when you're as much of a control freak as I am. Still, I always knew none of this would be easy. But it is worth it.