Parenting is full of difficult decisions; every fork in the road seems like it could have life-altering consequences — from pacifier use to after-school activities and beyond, the pressure is real.
I’ve fretted over a lot of those choices, and feel relatively confident that I’ve made the right ones when I witness the young men my sons are becoming, with only occasional moments of crippling self-doubt these days, which is just part and parcel of parenting.
Recently, though, I faced my biggest difficult decision: I was offered an amazing job opportunity that included travel, the ability to help people who need it the most and the kind of salary and benefits package that I have never enjoyed as an independent contractor. There was one caveat though (isn’t there always when it comes to having it all?) — I’d be away from home for six months.
My excitement grew as the recruiter explained the job to me, and then at the last minute she rushed out the forced relocation part and I deflated. My sons are 11 and 14, and we are our own little pack of people. We are our own version of the Three Musketeers, our own favorite audience, our own source of comfort, our own tribe of adventure seekers.
I know they’d be well cared for with their father, but they wouldn’t be with me. And I wouldn’t be with them. And we belonged together.
I got mixed reactions from friends and family, some imbued with a sense of judgment and a reminder that I also have a job as a mother — a job I’ve done extraordinarily well and continue to do, a role that is the actual catalyst for me to take such a risk (because the work I will be doing is neither easy nor glamorous), a role that requires me to provide for them and creates a desire to give them everything and more.
Others praised my courage and urged me to go, mentioning that if I was a father I wouldn’t be getting the same sideways glances, pointing out that if I was deploying as military instead of a government employee I’d be applauded as a person and parent.
After much late night agonizing, I decided to ask my sons what they thought, one at a time. My 14-year-old said he would miss me but that six months wasn’t long in the era of Facetime and airplanes, but added that my 11-year-old may not take it well. I knew that, and decided if he so much as flinched I’d turn it down.
When I explained the situation to my youngest, he smiled big and said, “You have to go! This is an amazing opportunity,” he went on to list all of the ways it would be good for our little family.
“But I’d miss you so much,” I said. “I don’t know that I could do it.”
“I’ll miss you too, but I’m so proud of you and I’d be disappointed if you didn’t at least try,” was his response. It’s the most meaningful thing anyone’s ever said to me. And every morning thereafter he came into my room and crawled into my bed and said, “I’m so proud of you and so excited for you.”
The kids sent me off with a red plastic dinosaur named Gerald so he could share my adventures. Gerald and I explored Washington, D.C., alone together, and I’ve got to say, it’s hard to be scared when you have your own dinosaur. I’ve Facetimed my children from the Washington Monument, the Capitol building, The Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. I’ve shared photos of Gerald with a self portrait of Van Gogh and a T-Rex skeleton and various other landmarks. They crowd around the phone and fight about who is taking up too much screen and say, “I want to see too! Mom, make him let me.”
They eagerly guess where I might be assigned next and put in requests for souvenirs or photos of Gerald with local attractions. They video call every night and make sure I talk to the dog and each of the cats and show them that their dinosaur is still on the nightstand, awaiting our next adventure.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a mother, but has also given me the gift of knowing that distance doesn’t alter our sense of adventure, impact our bond or affect my ability as a parent — they still share their hopes and dreams and fears and stresses, and I share mine. We’ve just added a Stegosaurus to our little team of love.
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Ashley McCann editorializes the messes and mayhem of motherhood as a columnist and blogger. Named to Ignite Social Media’s “100 Women Bloggers You Should Read,” her candid humor and frank advice puts a fresh spin on modern family life.
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