Last week, I was on an island in the Pacific Northwest with four other writers. It was our fourth trip together – a week-long vacation I take once a year to focus on my writing, spend time with friends, and give myself a break from the grueling schedule that comes with being a mom who works inside and outside the home. The goal was to spend my time away recovering from the constant push and pull of motherhood, not having to be the only person in my house who knows when homework is due, makes sure P.E. clothes are washed, and finds the missing library book under the passenger seat of the car.
The house where we stayed was on Whidbey Island in the small town of Langley, Washington. It’s a pale yellow farmhouse built in 1909 with a fully stocked kitchen and five bedrooms, all named as if we were on a ship –Master Whidbey’s Room, The Shipmates Room, The Map Room. The dining room has a long table that seats eight. Through the dining room is a sitting room with a fireplace and an oversized bay window that looks out at the Saratoga Passage – a large expanse of water where grey whales migrate from March to May.
It sounds glorious, yes? And it would have been except for one all-consuming detail – my irrepressible urge to go home.
Hints of my impending homesick blues showed up before I left. Waiting to board my flight, I wrote the following in my journal: Here I am, finally leaving for a week to myself and the only place I want to be right now is home.
I was sure my anxiety would subside during the four-hour flight, but halfway there, my stomach began to feel as if someone had triple-knotted it. Stuck in the middle seat, I kept readjusting my leg positions, as if leaning one way and then another would straighten my digestive track.
After landing in Seattle, I immediately turned toward the things that comfort me. I drove my rental car from the airport directly to a bookstore and then a grocery. At Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books, I bought “My Katherine Mansfield Project” by Kirsty Gunn based solely on how much I liked the feel of the small book in my hand. (Later, I will learn Gunn’s memoir is about the idea of home and how it affects the creative process.) At the grocery, I bought avocados, cilantro, a red onion, and a mango so I can make guacamole as soon as I get to the house. I also buy a small square of dark chocolate with almonds and sprinkled with sea salt that I unwrap and eat in the car.
My stomach continued to stay in knots.
There was no shaking my longing for home. I missed my kids and my husband. I missed our dog – I even missed our two cats who only acknowledge my existence when they want outside. Instead of spending my mornings writing, I watched Gilmore Girl reruns and used my phone to see what it would cost to change my flight. I plotted out jogging routes around the island and spent my afternoon running roads I’ve never driven. (During my three days on the island, I will end up covering nearly 18 miles in my Hoka running shoes.)
This homesick woman hell-bent on cutting her vacation short wasn’t me – I am the mom who leaves the kids with dad on Friday nights to eat sushi and see a movie by myself. I plan entire weekends away from home to run half-marathons. I am the mom who tells other moms that the best thing you can do for your kids is to take time for yourself.
I remember a story a friend tells me about a well-known writer who left her husband and two young children to finish a book that turned out to be a wildly popular best-seller. I can’t remember if my friend told me the writer left her family for three-weeks or three-months to finish her novel. It doesn’t matter. Either way, the story makes me feel ashamed how badly I want to be home after only two days away.
During my second night away I have a sex dream with my husband in the starring role. Twenty years of marriage and I am so homesick I’m having sex dreams about my husband. He laughs when I tell him on the phone the next morning.
“Who do you usually have sex with in your dreams?” he asks, still laughing. I tell him that I’m thinking about coming home early, without mentioning I have already looked at changing my flight, and that it will cost me nearly the same amount I paid for my original round trip ticket.
On Tuesday, I try to write at a coffee shop. Before I begin, I check SouthwestAirlines.com once again, but the cost of an earlier flight hasn’t dropped. Thinking a verbal plea with the airlines may work in my favor, I sit on hold for 43 minutes waiting to talk to a customer relations rep. He says he can’t help unless there’s been a family emergency, and I can’t bring myself to lie because the idea of fibbing about a family catastrophe, daring disaster into my life, only heightens my anxiety.
I sip the now cold hazelnut latte I ordered more than an hour ago and open a word doc to write. Unable to come up with one coherent thought, I type my stream of conscious thoughts. All that comes out is I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home. I get hung up on what it would mean if I cut my vacation short – what it would say about me as a mom. As a writer. Would it make me less of either? A lesser mom because I can’t be away from my children? A lesser writer because I want to be home more than I want to focus on my work?
At 2:00 a.m. that night, when I finally click the purchase button to change my flight, not one ounce of me regrets the money I spend. Any shame around returning home is replaced immediately with the relief that I will be with my family in less than 24 hours. My stomach begins to relax as if a magician has waved a wand over my tell-tale gut.
I still don’t know if cutting my vacation short has made me a lesser mom or a lesser writer. My first night back, I sat with my kids on the couch and took a selfie with the three of us. In the photo – my kids look joyful, my daughter smiling with her arm wrapped around her brother who is laughing. I look like a woman at ease with who she is, and happy to be home.