As our nine-month-old crawled around his bedroom floor in his monkey costume, I frantically tried to troubleshoot my Skype app. How could I forget my user name! I had maybe 15 minutes before the baby hit the wall of exhaustion and a video chat would become impossible. But I was stubborn. I would not let my husband miss this night entirely. Eventually, from his job site in Salt Lake City, where he worked for one or two weeks each month, we connected and Jeremy watched the grainy feed of his son’s first Halloween back home in Pennsylvania.
After the call ended and the baby was asleep, the quiet house witnessed my solitary pattering, gathering lunches, packing bags, and prepping for the next day. I missed the sound of my husband’s accompanying meal prep. I missed him dancing around me in our small kitchen, the feel of his hand at my lower back as he squeezed between me and the open fridge door to reach for another Tupperware container for his snacks.
When my weary body settled into my empty bed that night, I closed my eyes and thought, I’m so glad we’re moving. I miss him.
At my younger sister’s high school graduation the following spring, I sat on the unwelcoming metal stadium bleachers reminiscing about my adolescence as my sibling was getting ready to launch into her own life. Through the fog of June heat and the thud of audience members clunking down the stands, I heard her principal close a speech with the following:
“A ship is safest when it is docked close to shore. But it wasn’t built for that. And neither are you.”
As his advice for this group of new adults rang across the football field, my thoughts turned to the risks I’ve taken since I was a new high school graduate facing the open ocean.
I applied to a study abroad program on a whim in my sophomore year—it sounded interesting and I was sick of reading about adventure and not living it. Forced to chart my own path in a foreign country, I found my voice and discovered what truly inspires me. I swore I’d never allow myself to be tied down by the ordinary again.
I met Jeremy the following year, exactly two days before he deployed to Iraq, and though nothing about his immediate future was predictable, I took a chance on him. Even living in a war zone, he made time for me like no college boy safely moored in America ever had.
Sitting on those bleachers, my thoughts eventually turned to our relocation to Salt Lake City that year. Like this recent move, the times I’ve felt most alive, most connected to my own growing family were all periods of uncertainty and improvisation, mildly dangerous and wildly exciting. These challenges knit our lives together tightly as we widened our own horizons.
“What if you guys came with me?” Jeremy asked one September, when the expansion of his role for this construction project was first proposed. If he accepted, he’d be working on-site in Salt Lake City for four or five months straight. He’d be there permanently, and we’d be staying behind. His company would pay for him to fly home two weekends each month.
Or, the baby and I could go along for the ride.
I knew what we’d be getting ourselves into with an extended absence--Jeremy had traveled for weeks at a time for this project for more than a year already. In practical terms, I had a handle on the solo daily routine, and staying behind made sense. Staying meant that our son could continue at his familiar daycare and see his regular pediatrician. It meant that I’d stay at my job and the two of us would see family and friends regularly. He and I would remain securely tied to the dock.
I felt obligated to do the safe thing—I was a mother, after all, and mothers keep their babies safe. Yet the longer I thought about what I probably should do, the clearer it became that my heart pled for rebellion. I was drowning under the strain of the daycare-work-dinner-bedtime marathon, the weekends always on the go in a futile effort to make up for the family time we lost out on during the week; the errands, the chores.
If we stayed behind, Jeremy would be watching his son grow over the internet and I’d be lonely and miserable for 26 out of 30 days each month. I could handle being home without my husband, but I didn’t want to. We’d been doing what we needed to stay afloat, but I wanted more. It was time to shake off the barnacles and live.
“Well, I’d have to quit my job,” I started.
“Yeah.” We paused. He didn’t want to ask me to quit. I didn’t want to admit that I wanted to go so badly I didn’t care if it cost me my job.
“It isn’t my dream job, you know,” I said. I felt him nod beside me. “We wouldn’t have to wake up alone anymore.”
“You’ll love it out there. You’ve got to see these mountains.”
Jeremy moved in early October. The baby and I followed after Thanksgiving.
In the days before our flight, I let my imagination soar. We had no friends or family in SLC—much as we would miss them, we would be starting fresh. We could be whoever we wanted to be there. We would have endless time together, just the three of us, to selfishly do only the things we really wanted to do with our time. My company countered my two weeks’ notice with an offer to work remotely as a contractor, so I got to keep my job, without the commute or prescribed work hours.
In making this decision, I was stubbornly proud of us: Here was proof of the freedom we had promised ourselves we would not lose as we built our family. Here was a gutsy acceptance of the challenge to be the captains of our daily lives once again.
Of course, the reality of our venture in Salt Lake City was sharper than the picture I painted in my daydreams. We were far from the safety of our home port, and oh, the seas were choppy. For weeks, our son refused to nap. We’d moved on almost no notice, so we didn’t have any childcare lined up and I burned the midnight oil every day to get my work done after he went to bed. Jeremy worked double shifts. The only time our weary bodies had together was a two- or three-hour blip of early morning sleep.
None of this was what I had signed up for.
Instead of thriving in the freedom of our new, urban anonymity, I found myself crying in my mother-in-law’s arms in the security line at Baltimore-Washington International airport after our trip home for the holidays. I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing our families for months and I didn’t think I could do this any longer. Who am I? I wondered. I thought I was strong, independent, adventurous, but now I just felt incapable and irresponsible.
I had lost myself just as completely as I’d lost my sense of our family’s place in the world. I was adrift in possibility and drowning in unfamiliarity. Back in Utah, the coat I wore in the airport held the smell of my mother-in-law’s perfume for days and brought on a battering wave of homesickness every time I slipped it on over my shoulders to walk the dog through the beautiful snowy city evenings.
A few weeks into the new year, though, the sea calmed and we adjusted. I stopped beating myself up for not knowing how to spend all day, every day with my own toddler and figured it out. We started walking the dog three times a day--through snow, sleet, and one-year-old tantrums. I found a barre studio with childcare and scheduled playtime for the two of us every week. Jeremy’s schedule settled into a four-day workweek and we took mini-vacations to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, then San Francisco and Phoenix.
In open desert skies and soaring mountains, we found the freedom and adventure for which we’d yearned. We found peace and space where frenzied obligation had stood.
We moved back to Pennsylvania in April and as soon as we were settled back into normalcy, I started getting antsy. So, I planned hikes in the mountains and weekend getaways to New York City and Pittsburgh for our anniversary and birthdays. We protected time for weekend mornings at the trampoline park and weeknight evenings at the splash pad, just the three of us.
I started dreaming of what a family of four would look like.
An instinctive pull towards the next adventure is the way our family grows and learns, together. My husband and I seem to be made for open waters. We were made for more than the safety of the dock.
Guest post written by Stephanie Heilman. Stephanie is a wife and mama editing professionally and writing for fun in southeastern Pennsylvania. She believes passionately that there is nothing more powerful than the stories we tell about our selves and others. You can find her on Instagram and sometimes Twitter, and when she's really feeling gutsy, she shares some mostly fictitious writing on her website.