When my husband asked me, several months ago, to join him in Europe for a leg of his upcoming business trip, I gave him that What, are you crazy? look. We have three small children, ages 4, 4, and 7. The longest I’ve been away from our oldest, not counting her early years in a Russian orphanage, was when she went on a three-day camping trip with her first grade class. The longest I’d left our twin boys was ten days in their first year of life, when we went to Russia to adopt their new sister. The pain was so acute, so physically palpable, I swore I’d never leave them again.
Now, here I was, contemplating a trip to the other side of the world. What if I was needed and was a full day’s travel (or more) away? What if somebody got sick? Or hurt? I wasn’t sure they could handle being away from me for so long. More truthfully, I was afraid I couldn’t bear leaving them. I am addicted to pressing my lips against the salty sweetness of their necks, to making motorboat noises against their fleshy young bellies, to waking each morning entangled, like puppies in a basket: one preschooler in my arms and the other warm against my back; my second grader’s head at the foot of the bed, her lanky legs overlapping mine.
I’d become one of “those” parents — parents like my own mom and dad, who hunkered down with the kids, unable to take time away from the children and just be with one another. I didn’t want to set that example for my children, didn’t want to find myself in that kind marriage. Besides, the trip my husband proposed was for our 10th wedding anniversary. What are the karmic repercussions of not going to Italy for one’s 10th wedding anniversary? I didn’t want to risk finding out. So we lined up the services of a trusted friend and babysitter, and reluctantly, I agreed to go.
In the village of Monterosso al Mare, I waited on the steps of a church while my husband lingered in a nearby shop. In the cobbled square before me, a tour group — Germans, Americans, Australians, and Japanese — gathered around their dark-haired guide like baby chicks. When she indicated the church behind me, they turned en masse. I slunk lower onto the marble step, worn to a slight dip by generations of feet, but the tour paid me no mind. They were listening to their guide’s detailed description of a fresco of Christ, which she said could be found just inside the doorway where I stood.
“But,” she said, after piquing their interest, “you can’t go in. Next… ” She waved an arm in the opposite direction.
I laughed and momentarily considered entering the church, myself. (She hadn’t, after all, told me I couldn’t enter.) When I first visited Europe, in my twenties, I spent time at the duomo in every city. I’d been to the Vatican, I’d seen Notre Dame. But this time, I didn’t feel a pull to any specific holy space. In this remote place with my husband, miles from the tantrums and the messes and the whining and the too-quickly-emptied cupboards, everything felt otherworldly.
In between phone calls to, and video conferencing with, our children (inconvenient, but possible, at Internet cafés), we were remembering what it was like to focus only on each other. I slept in my husband’s arms, to the sound of crashing waves. I took time — time! — to stroll the Via dell’Amore, to linger in cafes over latte machiattos, to read The Ladies of Grace Adieu. One afternoon, as my husband and I collected smooth stones, I gauged which ones to pick up, wondering: Which ones are the most sacred? A voice in my head answered: All the rocks are sacred.
In this place so far from home, food and drink took on the significance of sacraments: local red wines, pizza margherita, and Coke Light, drunk from tiny silver cans that looked like they should hold beer. Always at the center of my thoughts, or at the periphery of my awareness, were my children, my darlings, and my desire to hold them in my arms — my longing to go home — was almost more than I could take. Almost. But not quite.
Leaving small children behind is extremely complicated, especially for a mother. I’m ashamed to admit that there’s a part of me that wants to believe that my children need to be with me in order to be okay. It’s easy, in some ways desirable, to think of myself as a godlike figure in their lives, to imagine that I’m all-powerful, that my presence is the magic bullet that somehow keeps them safe and healthy and alive. In the case of my daughter, who started out her life in a Russian orphanage, this is partly true. But only partly.
The other part of the story is this: my children are individuals, separate from me, with their own dangers and destinies. I believe that the same Sacred Being sustains us all. Assuming a godlike role is self-idolatry at worst, crazymaking at best. But learning to trust — in ourselves, in our children, in whoever or whatever Source is out there — can be (I’ve heard) freeing. Nothing stays the same forever. Children grow up, disasters of varying degrees happen to us all. Perhaps the trick lies not in protecting our children completely (I have yet to meet a parent who actually could), but in alternately separating and reuniting, in giving each other room enough to individually experience life’s messiness and beauty, its loneliness and holiness, and then coming back together to love one another through it all, whatever comes.
Some of the things I feared actually came true. After I left for Italy, one of our children temporarily (we hope) started “acting out” at school. Another has been more clingy and needy since I came back. But all in all, we survived. And we’ve been more affectionate, more tender with one another, since my return.
The other day, while I was getting the children ready for school, my dark-haired son, Will, called me “Mamacosita-sweeta.” “Isn’t that a sweet word?” he said. “It’s a sweet word… in dog language.”
It’s sweet in any language. Love is, after all, universal. Is there anything it can’t transcend? It’s easy to forget its power, immersed as we are in the gritty logistics of a life of nurture.. Far from Italy’s romantic enchantment, back in the midst of the grocery shopping, the dishes, the slicing of the cantaloupe and the mopping up of spilled apple juice, it’s easy to forget that every moment matters, that all stones are sacred. That I take care of our children not just because I have to, but also because I get to. Because it is my blessing, this household my duomo. None of it is easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is.
The sacred text of my childhood said it like this: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Even Mama’s trip to Italy. Even years of being sleep deprived. Anniversaries, spent together and apart. All those things that matter. All those things that are both the hardest and the very sweetest, of all.