It was around 1:30 a.m. when I gave up on sleeping. I sat up in bed and pulled open the curtain to take in the humidity-hazed Tokyo skyline. My thinking muddied by jet lag, I attempted to calculate the time at home. It would be about lunchtime back in Massachusetts, I finally concluded.
I grabbed my phone and FaceTimed my husband. I heard my 2-year-old daughter chirping “Hi Mum-mum” before her face veered into view, her tiny fingers clutching a quesadilla 6,700 miles away. “You seeing the world?”
I smiled a bleary smile. “Yes, sweetie, I’m seeing the world.”
I went to Japan because I wanted to, not because I had to. Around 8 one night, my cousin texted, seeking a companion for a trip to visit her brother in Tokyo, departing in just six weeks. Automatically, I started to type that I couldn’t possibly go. I have a toddler who absorbs my days with startling efficiency. It was patently absurd to think she could go eight days without me, or that I could ask my husband to solo parent for more than a week.
But my fingers hesitated over the screen as I pictured towering red temples and bullet trains and bowls of hot ramen. I mentioned the offer half-casually to my husband. He thought briefly, then said he was game. It would be a daddy-daughter extravaganza, he said. And my sister-in-law volunteered to help him with child care. And the wanderlust always smoldering at the back of my brain began to spark to life.
I texted my cousin, “I’m in,” and immediately began to wonder what I’d done.
When I became pregnant, I expected the love. I was unprepared for the dazzling, terrifying, heart-searing scale of it, but I knew, somewhere in my brain, it was coming. What I did not expect was the relentless barrage of decisions. It starts when you choose whether to accept an epidural and then it never, ever ends.
When should she move from the bassinet to the crib? Do I work or stay home with her? Is that jacket warm enough? Should I read her one more story? Do I buy the conventional raspberries when the store runs out of organic? How long should I linger at day-care drop-off? Should we try to set up a play date this weekend? Does she need more pants?
The decisions are a constant, wearying but necessary. These choices are the heart of parenting as I understand it, the practical means by which I attempt to make my daughter feel loved and safe, and help her become the person she will be. Since the first positive pregnancy test, I have had aspirations for my child’s character: She will be kind and bright, confident, adventurous, thoughtful in all senses of the word. The decisions are how we get there.
The past 2½ years have been a lot like navigating a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book of stupendous complexity without the luxury of flipping back to page one to see how different choices might have played out. When I said yes to Japan, I immediately wondered if I was headed toward hidden treasure or into the dragon’s lair. Would she be angry at me for going? Resentful when I returned? Would her sadness gnaw at me from half a world away as I gallivanted about for my own enjoyment?
I fretted, and friends and family tried to encourage me. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, they said. You can FaceTime every day. She’ll barely know you’re gone, they said (and I wondered why they thought that would be reassuring).
Then, a couple of weeks before I left, my daughter reached behind the chest of drawers in our front hallway and pulled out a long plastic tube with a large, laminated world map rolled up inside. It had been an impulse buy, intended to hang in her playroom eventually, but quickly forgotten and abandoned. She asked if we could open it.
I dug around for some mounting tape, then unfurled the map and hung it on the wall above her art table. I pointed to where we live, on a little green nub of land on the eastern edge of the United States. I showed her the pink crescent of Japan afloat in the Pacific. I pointed out Iceland, where her father and I traveled with her grandparents, and South Africa, where her cousin would soon be studying abroad.
In the days that followed, she’d occasionally declare, “I want to go see the world,” and then run into the playroom and stand, gazing up at the map. As I stood in the doorway, watching her mind open up to possibility and wonder, I began to believe Japan had indeed been the right decision. By going, I would model independence and engagement. I would show her the great out-there is a place to be both dreamed about and explored.
At the end of August, I dropped my daughter at day care one morning, then headed to the airport and took off for Tokyo. While I was gone, we FaceTimed, her face smiling up from the screen of my phone. My husband showed her the pictures I posted on social media: Mommy on the airplane, Mommy in an owl cafe, Mommy posing with her cousins in front of a koi pond. After eight days of eating and walking and saturating myself in an entirely new culture, I boarded a plane and flew back to her. She greeted me with a hug of toddler-fierce joy.
A few days after I returned, my daughter and I were driving to the store when she piped up from the back seat, “I go see the world with you when I older?”
“Absolutely, little girl,” I answered with no hesitation.
Easiest decision I ever made.
Sarah Shemkus is a writer and mother based in Gloucester, Mass. Find her on Twitter @Shemkus.