“You’re coming with us, aren’t you, Mama?”
I’d been avoiding this question for weeks, but now my daughter had me cornered at the dinner table. She’s a master of the non-sequitur, so I was unprepared for the swerve from the hijinks in her second-grade music class to the direct question of whether I was joining her, her younger brother, and my husband for the Memorial Day trip.
I looked to my husband for support. His face broadcasted both empathy and pity, but he said nothing. This was my question to answer because it was my decision to make.
At the end of last summer, I was invited to Portland for a writer’s retreat over Memorial Day. My children were with me when I opened the invitation. We all jigged around the kitchen in celebration, singing, “Mommy’s going to Portland.” I signed on and paid in full more than half a year in advance.
This plan had been uncomplicated for months. I was free to dream about the long weekend in the Pacific Northwest, where I would be secluded in an old house with writers I respect and learning from my favorite living author.
I imagined that back home in Chicago, my husband and kids would have local adventures – bike rides along the lake, bowling or bar-b-que with friends, home improvement projects. They would miss me, and I would miss them, but we’d all meet up again after three days and resume our normal lives.
In early January, however, the plan met a wrench when my husband’s college friends invited our family to Sedona over Memorial Day weekend. “We’re all bringing our kids – please come,” the email read. The Sedona crew would be comprised of my husband’s six closest college friends and their children, a raucous multi-age group spanning ages eight months to seven-years-old.
Of course, I encouraged my husband to go. He shouldn’t miss the opportunity to reconnect with old friends, nor should my kids miss the chance to make new ones, while leaping through scraggly sagebrush in the shadow of red rocks.
We aren’t jet-setters. Taking a long weekend to fly across the country is not something we regularly do. The novelty of these trip options adds to the feeling that it’s a big deal in the way that anything new a family undertakes feels like a milestone to them.
So where am I going over Memorial Day weekend?
Back in January, it was too soon for me to decide. I lay next to my husband in bed as he talked to the Southwest Airlines ticketing agent, sorting out which kid was going on miles, which as the companion fare. I heard the agent say, “You’re all set, sir. Three flights from Phoenix to Chicago. Is there anything else?” I held my breath, trying not to cry at the thought of them going without me.
My husband said he supported whatever I wanted to do, though he suspected that Portland was the right choice. With the decision squarely on me, an endless debate ran through my head. The strongest pro-Portland argument was that the opportunity to do this workshop with this teacher amounted to a privilege I would regret forgoing. Plus, I wanted to go. Writing is my passion. My heart had packed my bags the minute I got the invitation last summer.
The con argument was actually a shaming internal monologue about what I do and do not deserve. Mainly, I told myself I didn’t deserve to go to Portland for the writing weekend because writing isn’t my day job, so it’s not like this is a bona fide business trip. And because it’s not a business trip tied to my salary and benefits, what right did I have to abandon my family while I did my little arty thing in Portland.
The rest of the arguments against Portland showed up as rhetorical questions: Who do you think you are? What kind of mother picks her pie-in-the-sky hobby over her children? How are you going to feel at the airport that May morning when you head to your gate and they head to theirs?
Shame is pretty persuasive and has worked on me most of my life, but this time, passion held its own. The battle raged on.
At the dinner table, my daughter waited for a response. She deserved a clear, direct answer. As a kid, I hated those muddled maybes and we’ll sees and it depends. I want clarity for her; I want it for myself.
But I wasn’t ready. I twirled strands of spaghetti on my fork and told her that I hadn’t decided. “My favorite writer is going to be in Portland, but I hate the thought of missing a trip with you.”
My daughter shook her head. “No, Mama, I’m your favorite writer. You loved my story about the little girl in the talent show. You should come with us.”
It’s so simple for her, and here, I’ve made it so hard.
I assured her that as soon as I decided, she would be one of the first to know.
So I have to tell her that I’m going to Portland, even though I will miss her, even though I want to be there when she hikes a trail in the Southwest for the first time, even though I’m just a lawyer who dreams of being a writer, even though my family has never flown anywhere without all four of us in tow.
I’m going to Portland and pushing against that shaming con list that tries to tell me a hundred different ways that I don’t deserve it. I’m fighting against the current that says only real writers get to break away from their families for a weekend workshop. I’m turning my back on the notion that passion and art are at odds with motherhood and embracing the notion that it might actually be good for all of us if I follow this heart string to Portland and entrust my family to the great American southwest.
Maybe good mothers do exactly what I’m doing – struggle with decisions and then do the best they can. Sometimes good mothers pick Portland over Sedona.