“You’re such a good mom,” she whispered, not wanting to wake the baby.
I shook my head disagreeing.
My mom wrapped her arms around me and kissed my cheek. “Remember this is a season. It’s hard, and it gets easier.”
I nodded, knowing she was right, but the tears forming in the corner of my eyes told a different story. My three-year-old daughter whined from the couch because her third episode of Curious George had ended and the newborn in my arms started fussing again. I swayed back and forth trying to shush my son. One side of my gray nursing tank was unfastened and a large wet spot had already formed on the other.
She reached for her red suitcase and walked toward the door. The goodbyes never get easier. I stood in the doorway with my son in my arms and a lump in my throat, as my mom hopped into the white shuttle that would take her back to the airport and then over 2,000 miles away.
I didn’t know how much I needed my mom until I became one.
Eight years ago, when I announced I wanted to take a year off from my stable teaching job in California to teach English in Guatemala, my parents were supportive but cautious. When I called home months later to tell them I was dating someone, they were happy and very curious.
“His name is Gerber,” I announced, letting the G make a breathy H sound and the R’s roll softly.
My Dad tried to repeat his name, but it felt foreign.
“Just think about hair and bear.” I told them, remembering the way my now husband introduces himself to English-speaking people for the first time.
A year later over a spotty Skype connection, I showed them the sparkly ring on my finger. They celebrated with me and maybe silently wondered if this meant I was staying longer than originally planned? At Christmas four years ago, when my husband and I proudly shared our 12-week sonogram, I wonder if my mom simultaneously rejoiced and mourned not being closer to her future grandchildren who would a live a world away.
I was somewhat oblivious, too caught up in the excitement of a new baby and the adventure of life abroad to anticipate how much I would miss my mom. It’s impossible to know the delights and doubts of motherhood before you become one.
I didn’t know the first time my daughter had a fever, I would want my mom’s reassurance that she was going to be ok. I had no idea after a long morning of tantrums and tears how often I would long to call my mom and ask, “Can you take the kids for the afternoon?” There was no way to anticipate the ache of accepting that apart from FaceTime, my kids would only get to see their grandparents once or twice a year.
There are unseen costs to the privilege of choosing where you live.
I chose to live far from family, but it wasn’t until I became a mom that I felt those costs more deeply.
On one of our trips back to California, I mentioned to a good friend how nice it must be to live near her parents. We sat in her backyard as our girls played on the grass and the sun warmed our legs. Her parents live three miles away. She sipped her glass of lemonade and tilted her head to one side, as if to acknowledge the tension. “Well, living far from family might be hard, but so is living close to family, and feeling far away.”
I guess distance and feelings are not necessarily intertwined.
On the wall above my daughter’s bed is a world map hung just low enough she can reach it when standing on her pink pillow. At bedtime, she likes to point at random countries and ask the name of each one. One night she points toward Southeast Asia.
“Mama, what’s this one?”
I squint while looking at the map, feeling unsure of my world geography, “Umm, that’s Malaysia.”
“Woah, that’s weally far away!” she exclaims.
“It is,” I tell her.
She plops down onto my lap, “But I don’t want to go far away from you.”
She nuzzles her head onto the soft part of my shoulder and I inhale the sweet smell of the back of her neck. “You don’t have to go far away sweetie,” I assure her.
But in my heart, I know as she gets older this sentiment might change.
Years ago I started a list in the yellow notes app on my phone called, Things to Remember When Parenting Adult-Kids. I included things I saw my mom do with me and my siblings as we went through college and young adulthood. Things like: Ask, don’t assume they’ll spend summers or holidays at home. Reload their Starbucks card just because. Show them you’re proud of them. Accept their choices, even when different than you expected.
Most of how I mother I have learned from my mom. She tells me these tiny humans eventually grow into big people, and the daily demands will feel different. The questions change from, “Why do they need me for everything?” to “Will they need me for anything?” The kids who I rock to sleep each night will eventually go to bed on their own. And the little girl who right now doesn’t want to go far away, may one day end up moving a world away.
I wiped my own tears with the back of my hand as I watched the white shuttle drive away. My mom waved from the window.
My mom took time off work and flew to Guatemala for 10 days to hold and rock her new grandson. She brought gifts to spoil my daughter. She cooked meals to store in our freezer and she washed a sink-full of dishes multiple times a day.
But more than that, she showed up to take care of me. She made me tea each evening, she refilled my water bottle when I sat down to nurse, and she gave me permission to take a nap.
I walked back to the couch and unlatched the other side of my gray nursing tank. My daughter snuggled up next to me as I nursed my three week-old son. Curious George and the man with the yellow hat danced on the TV in front of us. While I sat there, with my two kids taking up every inch of my lap, I pulled out my phone to add one more item to my list:
If they live far away one day, show up.
Guest post written by Michelle Acker Perez. She is originally from California, but now calls Guatemala home. She works with a non-profit organization while also trying to raise two bilingual and bicultural kids. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Scary Mommy, and IncultureParent. She likes her coffee iced, her chocolate dark and if packing 50 lbs suitcases were an Olympic sport, she might just win. Michelle writes about motherhood, marriage and life in between two cultures and countries on her blog and documents daily life abroad on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
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