Pandemic motherhood robbed me of who I was, but travel helped me find her again

I used to be a traveler. I know it’s a privilege to say this, but travel truly felt like a lifelong priority. 

Then, in 2019, I had a baby. Motherhood is many things, not one of which is conducive to a jet-setting lifestyle. We took a road trip to Milwaukee when my son was six months old, which was the summation of our travel adventures that year.  

Related: I don’t feel guilty for going on trips without my child 

Next, of course, came 2020. My priorities took another seismic shift. Caring for my family became my sole focus, with the added pressure of keeping my toddler safe from COVID. Travel fell to the wayside, a risk that seemed laughable to consider in the days when we were still wiping down our groceries. 

Two and a half years, a pandemic, and a second baby after that Midwestern road trip, I left my three-year-old son and newly minted one-year-old daughter and flew solo to Namibia. To me, Africa is the pinnacle of destinations. It’s a massive, complicated continent, full of wild beauty and hard truths, ripe with opportunities for adventure. I was lucky that this was my third visit.

In college, I’d traveled to Botswana and South Africa, and my husband and I visited Kenya and Tanzania on our honeymoon. I’d never been to Namibia—a country of dry deserts, lonely coastlines and endless sky. I couldn’t wait.

As I pulled my duffel out of storage, I felt a new kind of pre-travel nerves. I’d be traveling without kids—leaving my children for 17 days and flying very far away. My husband is a capable and caring co-parent. Not once did he show a moment of trepidation as he embarked on his solo parenting adventure. But still. I was leaving my babies for 17 days! 

My excitement was laced with guilt and fear. It had been so long since I’d taken on an international adventure. Could I still do it? Would I lose my passport? Or get confused at the airport? Maybe miss one of my connecting flights? 

I’ve always been a nervous flier, but on this first big, solo adventure as a mother, I felt gripped by a new fear. When the plane shook with turbulence, my imagination turned toward the morose. I imagined a fiery crash into the cold North Atlantic.

I’ve felt this fear before on many flights, but there was a desperate guilt to it this time. How could I be selfish enough to board this plane? This trip was just for me, after all. I’d leave my children without a mother if I died in a plane crash. I wondered if this adventure was worth that level of stress. 

Of course, as soon as the wheels bounced onto the tarmac, my fears seemed childish and silly. I made it all in one piece, and I didn’t lose my passport. I stood on the plane’s staircase and blinked into the sun. After nearly 40 hours of travel, here I was. Africa. I couldn’t help but smile as I felt the once familiar feeling of stepping off of a plane into a disorienting new climate and culture once again. 

Over the next two weeks, more familiar feelings returned. A bit of homesickness as I settled into my room and surroundings—a thatched roof and simple bed. The thick fog of jet lag consuming days and nights. The excitement of waking up to a new sunrise with different bird sounds starting my day. Before long, adventure overtook me. 

Related: I took a solo babymoon and it made me a stronger mom-to-be 

I sped down red dirt roads in the back of a pickup truck through the African bush. I peered up at a thousand stars until I found the Southern Cross. I ate oryx. I spent afternoons running past acacia trees toward the Waterberg Plateau. I spied a leopard cub with her mother. I felt something on those long, sunny days thoroughly buried beneath the masks and case counts, rushed daycare mornings and nights of dish duty.

I felt myself growing and changing and learning. I felt like the version of me who was free to explore without the weight of so much responsibility. I felt sort of like me. 

It’s hard not to become fundamentally changed when you become a mother. Retaining bits of a pre-motherhood identity is important. But the role forces a person into some school of grit and growth that’s impossible to avoid when caring 24/7 for another human being. In Namibia, I felt whispers of the traveler me—the person I was before the pandemic and before motherhood. But here’s the thing: Even in those weeks of freedom, I was still a mother. 

I know that we can’t have it all in motherhood.

I learned when I weaned my son that the sudden hormone drop makes me sick. I wanted to avoid this while in Namibia, so though I left a week after my daughter’s first birthday, I decided to make an effort to keep lactation going. Twice a day, every day, I spent 30 minutes essentially milking myself with a hand pump. I dumped the milk down the drain, wiped the parts with a sanitizing wipe, and marveled at the blisters callusing on the sides of my thumbs from this endeavor. 

This was a far cry from evenings spent drinking colorful cocktails in Gaborone on my first trip to Africa in college or the nights with my new husband under a mosquito net in Kenya on our honeymoon. I started and ended every day in Namibia, sweating and pumping in my room as moths fluttered around me and honey badgers tried to raid the garbage cans outside. My return to adventure was still very much colored by Facetime attempts, missed Christmas pageants, and spilled breast milk. Even 8,000 miles away, I was still a mother. 

One afternoon I was walking to pick up one of the Anatolian shepherds on the farm where I was staying so that he and I could go on a run. I looked at the red dirt and acacias, the puffy clouds and huge sky, and thought about what it would be like to leave my family behind and stay here forever. My answer came to me with immediate urgency. Not a single cell in my body wanted to do that. Not one.

As much as I loved Africa, I loved my family and the life we were building together much, much more. I knew that though such a dream seemed glamorous, I really was where I was meant to be in my life at home. 

The relentless hand pumping allowed me to nurse my daughter when I returned. We could reconnect with each other in a way that we otherwise wouldn’t have since she was at an age where she didn’t understand where I had gone. It felt good to hold and feed her like this again and feel that unbreakable bond. 

As for my son, I took a note from Jessi Klein’s book, “I’ll Show Myself Out: Essays on Midlife and Motherhood.” Before I left, I sketched him a little book about “Mommy Going to Africa.” Copying Klein’s words, I wrote: Some things will be different, and some things will be the same. 

Related: Yes, after kids, vacations become trips—so take a solo mom vacation 

Isn’t that always the truth? My solo trip was a return to adventure in its purest form. I saw glimpses of the “old” me. But the reality is, I’ll never fully be that person again. Because being a mother has changed me in fundamental ways that can’t be undone—even when I’m away from home, living an adventure. Some parts of Namibia reminded me of my previous trips to Africa, of course. But now I’m a mother. Some things will be different, and some things will be the same. 

I know that we can’t have it all in motherhood. None of it looks perfect, and even something as luxurious as a solo trip isn’t always easy. But for me, 17 days away was perfect. It was a taste of adventure. It was a chance to feel myself flex those traveler muscles once more while giving me the gift of genuine gratitude for what I’d left behind. 

When I got home to my babies, I held them close, smelled their hair, and felt that pure love again. I felt happy. There’s a whole world out there for them too. I can’t wait to help them explore. 

Motherly Stories are first person, 500-1000 word stories, reflecting on the insights you’ve experienced in motherhood—and the wisdom you’ve gained along the way. They also help other women realize they’re not alone. Motherly Stories don’t judge. Instead, they inspire other mamas with stories of meaning, hope and a realization that “you’ve got this.” If you have a story, please submit it here:

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