“Joe, did you remember to give Maya her morning albuterol? What did Dr. Plaut say about her dosage given the flu and the asthma? We have an appointment with him Monday at eleven. Okay . . . Sammy’s cough is better, that’s so good. How are you holding up honey? Yeah, I know you are a stellar dad.” Joe has it handled, I’m relieved. Yet in my exhausted late-night moments spent hacking — I’ve caught the cough now, too — it appears that I need them more than they need me.
The alarm rings at 4:45 on a pitch-black morning a week before winter solstice so that I can get up in time to catch the early flight to Minneapolis from Hartford. I plan to shower and dress silently, so as not to wake our nearly two-year-old twins. But as soon as I formulate this intention in my mind I hear Maya wailing from her crib, “Uppie Momma, uppie!” Maya has asthma with complications from the winter flu and is pulling hard at her trachea for air. “Uppie” is the only position that comforts her. This winter’s deadly flu is all over the news and with Maya’s asthma; we have to take extra precautions. So yesterday, the day I’d planned to get myself ready for the Renewable Energy conference including last minute details on slides, presentation, group exercises and professional garb — I can’t wear my mom-of-twins uniform of stretch pants and a sweatshirt — is spent holding Maya close to my chest and heart instead. Only Maya was sick yesterday, but now my husband Joe has been hacking all night, and Maya’s twin brother Sam has been coughing up a generous amount of phlegm.
At eleven o’clock the night before as I roll into bed, I tell Joe, “Leaving tomorrow for four days while Maya is sick is my second-worst nightmare.”
“What’s the first?” he asks.
“Maya and Sam both have high fevers.”
I hadn’t even imagined the worst scenario — all three of them sick.
As I emerge dripping from the shower both kids are up wailing, sweaty, hot, hacking. Joe’s not doing so well himself, his usual resonant bass voice replaced by something sounding like Mickey Mouse.
“We’ll be fine,” he squeaks.
“Don’t talk.” I say. “It makes it worst.”
“Go ahead, honey. You’ll miss your plane. Say, ‘Bye momma, we love you’.” Still squeaking.
“Don’t talk, Joe.”
Sam and Maya are howling, wet with snot and tears, “I want juice, appo juice.” They are all in our bed now, in the pitch black. I bolt downstairs to warm some juice and have to scramble to find two sippy cups, two lids, and two of those plastic inserts that keep them from spilling all over. I contemplate phoning my colleagues to cancel my presentation. How can I leave my family in this pathetic condition? What heartless mother would do such a thing? Then my left brain kicks in — this project is a Big Deal. Scores of people have been working for over a year to pull it off and several hundred thousand dollars are on the line. I am one of the leaders on the team and there is no redundancy built in — no one who can play my role on two hours’ notice. I simply have to go. “I’ll call you from the plane,” I say. “I’ll call you when I get there. I’ll call you six times a day. Do you think I should start making some phone calls now – to Dr. Cecchi or Dr. Plaut?”
My husband, ever the Lone Ranger stoic, says, “No, I’ll be fine.” Somehow he doesn’t sound so convincing in Mickey Mouse’s register.
I flash back to my first attempt to work away from home nine months earlier. The twins were just over a year and still nursing. I was scheduled to teach a course with my mentor, the management guru and bestselling author Peter Senge. One hundred people from around the world were signed up, and I had to show. The plan was that both kids and my husband would come and spend the week with me in the hotel. I’d be able to nurse the babies in the morning, at noon, at mid-afternoon and at bedtime. The hotel was in Boston where my mother and sister and plenty of friends live. They’d go to the children’s museums, visit relatives, cruise downtown. Joe would get lots of kudos for taking the week off work to be a single dad-of-twins and he would revel in that. The morning we were scheduled to depart, both kids woke up puking. Maya managed a clear shot all over one of my two work outfits. I felt like a DSS case dragging these sick babies to a hotel room when all they needed was to stay home and rest. I was petrified to be in front of 100 professionals, leading with my intellect after a year of milk-brain and another year of pregnancy. Perhaps the kids were colluding to pull on my heart-strings, push my fear buttons and keep me home. I came close to calling Peter to ask him to find someone to replace me on five hour’s notice. Instead I called a friend to commiserate. “Welcome to working-motherhood,” she said, the voice of a hardened veteran. I picked up the phone to call Peter. Joe intervened — the voice of calm when it’s my storm. “They’ll be fine. I can handle it. You’ve got to go. You can’t let Peter down at the last minute.” I did go, we all went, and I felt my body torn in two the entire week.
I glance at my watch and see there’s no more time for flashbacks, I’ve got a plane to catch. Juices, hugs, kisses, and more hugs bestowed, I pull out of the driveway at 5:05 AM, thirty minutes after schedule, and speed down icy rural roads to the highway to Bradley Airport. As I get further from home a certain spell is lifted. I literally and figuratively get some distance. They’ll be okay, I tell myself. They’ll survive without Momma for a few days. Joe is very competent. And we’ve got a bunch of back-up if he needs help. Yet this trip will be four nights — the longest I’ve been away from my twins. Other moms in our playgroup have never left for a night. Can my umbilical chord stretch across the Mississippi?
I remind myself that the work is worthwhile. Renewable Energy in the Midwest — an important mission. Of course Sam and Maya are oblivious to what I do in the world. “Momma fly airplane,” they repeat every time we talk by phone for the next four days. “Momma in airplane.” Joe explains to me that they have me permanently in the proverbial friendly skies. Mostly, and especially when not feeling well, they still want the warm comforts of my body on the ground, taking care of them, not in some airplane in the sky.
If what’s good for them in the short run is the litmus, I should simply stay home. But for a forty-plus momma the system is complex. There’s the fifty-plus daddy who, also a product of the sixties and the women’s and men’s movement, doesn’t want the pressure of being the sole breadwinner. He claims he’d prefer to stay home and let me make the bucks it takes to run our blended family of seven. Then there are my own needs for stimulation and identity and recognition outside home. I’m not a domestic Goddess. No amount of laundry, diaper-changing, shopping, cooking and cleanup give me the satisfaction I’m used to from twenty years as a professional. The invisibility of the work of motherhood — no external rewards, no pay, no benefits — makes me a little crazy.
Still I’m not the kind of woman who can go back to sixty hours a week. I want to be available for play group and music class and the mountain game and singing the angel song at bedtime. I want “quality time” with my kids — to love them, feel them, know them, enjoy them. I think this is a function of being an older mom — I know this phase of their infancy is fleeting — and it took us seven years of infertility to finally have them, which is a daily reminder to me that the birth and life of these twins is a great gift.
The next four days last for an eternity with me split: my heart and breasts wanting home in Massachusetts, my head and body stuck in a charmless hotel outside of Minneapolis. It doesn’t help that a good chunk of the self-proclaimed experts on Renewable Energy in the Midwest at the conference spend the time doubting what the consultants from New England are doing in their region. My vision of doing “the good work” of environmental sustainability is replaced by the reality that these folks would have less to complain about if I simply were not there. I call home on every break to check on everybody’s health.
I return late on Friday night, hours after the kids are asleep. I sneak into their room delighted to get to do my nightly ritual of covering them up, patting their backs, and kissing them, before going to bed. Their breathing is calm and deep, and I think they are the most gorgeous beings I’ve ever seen. My heart has reunited with my body. I am home.