My alarm sounded at 3 a.m., but I’d been watching the minutes since 2.
It was day 8 of a 2-week study abroad trip I was leading through the south and north islands of New Zealand. It was also day 8 of suffering from poor, interrupted sleep, even though sleeping in new or strange places doesn’t generally pose a problem for me. In fact, I’m quite proud of my acquired skill to “travel light.” Give me a backpack with a change of clothes, necessary toiletries, a good book, and a writing pad, and I’m ready to travel anywhere, no problem.
I blamed some of the sleep issues on the 17-hour time difference between home—which is located near San Antonio, Texas—and New Zealand. In my heart, though, I knew that my interrupted sleep patterns reflected the unease and stress I felt because, for the first time in my entire career as a mama, I was traveling abroad without my children.
Setting my alarm at 3 a.m. had become a regular practice during this journey. Because 3 a.m. in New Zealand was the same as 8 a.m. back home, I had consistently set my alarm at that time to Skype with my children, knowing they would most likely be available to talk. On day 8, when my alarm sounded at 3 a.m., I was ready to get out of bed, even though it meant leaving the warmth of my cozy cabin to step into temperatures in the 30s. It was mid-June at Abel Tasman National Park, and New Zealand was on the cusp of its winter. Back home, by 8 a.m., the summer weather was most likely already in the high 80s.
My tiny cabin was one in a row of cabins situated at the edge of the national park, and as such, the wifi service was weak. But calling with Skype demands a strong wifi signal, so I intended to walk around the sleeping camp until my phone registered a strong signal.
I piled on layers of clothing, pulled on my hiking boots and cap, and exited my cozy quarters into the cold, dark, and still night. Except for the sounds of my footsteps, there was no other noise to keep me company. The entire camp slept, and I breathed the outdoor freshness of the clean New Zealand air. It was mostly dark, but in the far distance, I could see the barren land and the bridge linking the cabin grounds to “the bush.” I walked in that direction, glancing at my phone every few steps, waiting for a strong wifi signal.
When I finally found the spot, I stood still and alone, closing my eyes to the night. I allowed myself to remember the softness of my children’s bodies when I give them full-armed hugs. I imagined the warmth those bodies provide me when they lean into mine as we sit close to each other on the living room sofa. With eyes closed, I could see my boy lying on the sofa, one leg thrown over the back of it as he watched his favorite youtubers on his phone. I could see my girl sitting on her favorite stool at the kitchen counter, waiting for her grannie to serve up some scrambled eggs and sausage. I interrupted my sweet thoughts; remembering was a reminder of how far away I was from them.
I opened the text message app on my phone, and typed, “Good morning. Wanna Skype?”
“Yes,” was the near immediate response.
“Okay,” I typed. “I’ll call.”
When my son answered the call, the first thing he asked was, “Why is it so dark? I can barely see you.”
“Remember? It’s 3 a.m. here, son,” I answered.
“It’s real cold, too, mama?” he asked.
“Yes. Can you see my breath?” I asked, exaggerating my breathing to create a thick fog.
I stood in the middle of the cold, crispy night, talking to my children about their lives, their daily routines, whether they were enjoying their grandmother’s cooking and the lazy days of summer. They talked to me about which board games they had played, whether they would go swimming later, and which one of them was behaving better.
No one talked about New Zealand. No one discussed Abel Tasman National Park or the authentic New Zealand barbeque that I had shared with my colleague and our students the night before. No one knew anything about the eight-mile hike that a student of mine and I had completed the previous day. My travel experiences were shadowed by the lives my children were leading.
As I talked with my children, my mother popped up briefly into the camera range of my son’s phone so that I could see her. She stayed only long enough to say, “Everything is good. Have fun!”
A handful of months before the study abroad was scheduled to begin, I was a nervous mess before I told my mother about my opportunity. I was nervous the way I used to feel when as a teenager I would ask her questions about personal, female-related, perhaps romantically-focused topics. When I finally became brave enough to share my news, I prefaced it with, “I hope that you can be proud of me and recognize the great opportunity I have,” before explaining the details of the program.
I ended my explanation to my mother with a big request: “Can you stay with the kids while I travel with my students for two weeks?” It was a request filled with guilt and repeated, internal self-flagellation. How could I leave my children? What if something went wrong back home while I was traveling? How could I ever justify the decision to lead a study abroad program if something bad happened while I was traveling? Then, as the actual departure date approached, there were numerous times when I would think, I can’t do this. What was I thinking? I can’t get on a plane to another country without my children.
But I did. I got on that plane, and it took me 7,300 miles away from home.
I have been a mother for 15 years, but it’s only been within the last five years that I’m learning that being a mother and raising my children doesn’t have to be my only dream, that because I’m living that dream doesn’t mean I have to give up working towards other dreams. There is a place in my life to be a mom and to be a traveler. Sometimes, those two identities work seamlessly together and sometimes they are seemingly at odds with each other. And I’m learning that, too, is okay.
Melinda Zepeda divides most of her time between single-mothering her daughter Marisol and her son Diego and serving as Associate Professor of English with the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, Texas. When not mothering or professing, she enjoys writing, reading, traveling, and running.