When I travel with kids, even teenage kids, I am a mother. All mom. People see us and they think, “Mother and children.” We sit on the ground and play Spot It. We split burgers at airport restaurants. We take turns watching the stuff so the others can pee. We fill out each other’s immigration papers. We fight over window seats and try to snatch the single half of a strawberry from each other’s plane food plates. We reminisce about our worst flights ever and we pester each other by constantly asking what time is it and what time is the next flight.
We are a unit and we interact the way we always do – playing, sharing, serving, arguing, invading, bothering.
No matter what my purpose might be for traveling or what my day job is or what I’m wearing/eating/doing, when I am seen in public with my children, I am a member of that group and a mother in the eyes of everyone around me.
What about when I travel alone? No kids, no games, but at the very basest: no familiar interactions. Maybe business travelers are used to this, maybe people who travel without kids a lot are comfortable in this space. To me, it feels dangerous.
Maybe that is why so many affairs take place on the road. Why we shouldn’t make life-altering decisions while traveling.
We are unknown. We can be anyone. Do anything. No one will know. No one will report back home. No one has expectations. There is more time for reflection, to be internal. There is no tradition. There is no safety net.
Who am I now? Who am I when no one is telling me who to be based on who I am in terms of them?
Being a traveling expat means have many experiences of being unknown. Not alone, unknown. Alone is not a word that belongs to travelers in airports but unknown is one of their words. Being unknown here makes me feel nervous at first. I don’t know what I’ll do. Will I be the rude, pushy traveler? Will I eat an entire chocolate fudge sundae? Will I stare at people and judge them? Will I barge into other people’s conversations, desperate for some kind of interaction to remind me of who I was so I will know who to be?
Is this what mothers feel when children graduate and move out of the house? Now who am I? I think might be. We have spent our lives responding to others, meeting their needs before our own, bending our wants, schedules, pocketbooks around their goals. We cook the food they prefer, watch the movies they stream. What would we eat if we had our choice and only our choice? What would we watch if no one else provided input? Do we even know anymore? How can we know? How can we recognize our own tastes and rekindle our own desires?
I think it is a bumpy road and I’m starting to lurch my way down it. We remember ourselves before children and now, as we emerge, like the unknown traveler spewed from an airplane out into a new city, into a world that bares little resemblance to the one we exited decades ago. Now what? Now who?
I don’t think I’m the type who dances on tables or who runs naked 5k races (yes, those are a thing). I am pretty sure I’m the type who smiles at babies, secretly thankful I’m not traveling with one anymore. But beyond these, and other, obvious traits, what else? Am I curious? Am I brave? Am I compassionate and interested and adventurous? Do I hunker down or do I engage? What do I order at restaurants? What time do I go to bed? Am I frugal or do I splurge?
I don’t travel alone very often but my kids are growing up. The older two will graduate in 9 months. Who will I be?
I guess we will see.