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The Very Strange Experience of Traveling Alone As a Mom

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I am en route to my family in Allentown, Pennsylvania. My grandfather, nearing 90, is very sick. I am coming for two and a half weeks, away from my household of sweeties in Tokyo and into the hugs of my grandparents, mom, cousins, and sis. I am coming, I am childless, and it is strange.

I don’t sleep on planes. It’s just not in the cards. I much prefer restlessness, unstinting excitement for in-flight movies, “free” mini bottles of wine, and a keen interest in my fellow passengers. These features are all the more exciting when I don’t have two kids who need my attention.

My flight from Tokyo to Chicago is almost 12 hours and then, on I’ll fly. I force myself into the luxury of “alone.” Instead of my usual journey with two children, one of them often nursing, I am restlessly single, fingers thrumming on the armrest. Ho hum. I have nothing to do but hunker- down and familiarize myself with in-flight movies. This is like mommy summer camp. I giggle through two comedies, one lush drama involving a French village flowing with Sauternes and Béchamel. I wistfully remember finally throwing out raggedy nursing bras for something more French. Actually, I could not have been more excited. I held onto them for too long; I nearly slam-dunked them in the trash.

I drink one and a half mini Chardonnays, along with 12 cups of water, one tomato juice, ginger ale, and too-sweet apple juice. A baby saunters down the aisle, exhausted mom in tow. Would she like some help? I consider getting up, but in the end, I just watch my movie. No kid needs a stranger. It is easier for mom to walk. Besides, this is a rarity–just myself to be concerned with. Just movies and meals.

By the time I reach American shores, I am antsy, but compared to mommy-ing two children over a 15-hour period–which invariably includes spilled food, 80 laps back and forth through the pitch-black economy section, negotiating kiddy-blowouts in a two-by-two swaying changing station–this is a cruise. I am the one who is usually solo parenting, wide awake for the whole of the trip and then getting over corporate jet lag for a good week.

I land in Chicago and trudge to my correct gate to fly the remainder to Philly. Delayed. Bored and not wanting to shell out more of my travel money on airport calories, I lay exhausted, draping my camel-colored coat over my head. I have lots and lots of time. Maybe an hour and a half, still. Enough time to fall asleep and dream of my kiddos and some fear I cannot quite place.

It hangs there, perhaps about any one of my irrational (or maybe rational) fears: leaving my kids; keeping them home, away from their grandparents; exhausting my husband for the two and a half weeks.

I wake to my name being called.

“Melissa Uchiyama. Paging Melissa Uchiyama.” Lurch. I’m up. The gate has cleared out. There are a handful of concerned people at the counter looking my way, and the agent is intent, eyebrows raised. “Melissa Uchiyama?” he repeats, eyes trained on me. Crap. I fell asleep! How long have they been waiting? Sounds are murky and I sit, lulled by some airport haze.

I yank myself out of deep slumber, try and stand up, and then the unthinkable happens: My leg gives out, utterly. I am falling, rubber like green Gumby, puddle of slack mommy-muscles. A kind man helps out, taking my carry-on while I will my leg to walk. It is a long performance from my seat to the seat on this next plane. The one I will not sleep on. I gaze at boyish soldiers, people in suits and jeans, and college kids–a flight full of people with promise and destination, all the moms who walk and walk their babies. I want to hold my kids with their leggy frames and rub noses.

Traveling is always two sides for me. Leaving and going. Pacific and Atlantic. Being a kid and being a mom.

It is my round-trip expectation that I can bear-hug my mom, sister, and grandparents on one shore and then get back to my children and husband on the other. That we all make it. There are so many tug-of-wars for a mother, a working mother, a traveling, living-abroad mother. Every hour in the air marks another of my deepest breaths–letting go.

In the end, all is well. Back in Tokyo, I buy my ticket and hop the train, reacquainted with yen and a whole other energy.

I flip open the door and yell, “Todaima!” (I’m home!) There is giggling from the curtains and slippered feet giving it away like in “Peter’s Chair.” My 1-year-old son bicycles his legs in the air, a whir of love and squeals. My girl puts her arms around me, gushing, “I’m just so happy. I have so many tears!”

Me, too, my dears. Tears at being home and setting my bags down. Tears at having it all, here and there. Until the suitcases roll out again, I am at home.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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