Promise me you won’t cry mama, my little said to me. I looked at her speechless trying to mask my welling emotions of sadness and angst, reminding myself to keep my composure. “I will try hard but I can’t promise anything,” I responded, knowing the possibility of not crying was virtually impossible. “Just don’t cry mama,” she reiterated. We were about to enter our Uber ride headed to the airport where she and her older sister would board a flight across the world for their first month long summer vacation to Africa, specifically, Kenya, on their own.
As we settled into our seats and the car powered off for our 45 minute ride to the airport, I couldn’t help but wonder how I could possibly hold it together. I needed to be strong for both of them, especially my little one because if I showed strength, it would give her the liberty to fully enjoy her upcoming adventure. See, it had taken me 3 full weeks of all kinds of coaxing and cajoling to convince her to go without me. And guess what finally did it, her love of animals! I had convinced her with images of Amboseli, the beautiful national park she was going to visit during her first week in Kenya. She had spent a few days researching animals and learning everything she could from Google.
I listened to both of them banter about their adventure while asking myself what seemed like a million questions; How was I going to survive without my babies (yes I call them babies even though they’re 17 and 11)? Would they be safe on the flight? Would their stomachs survive the change in food (given the scare the folks at Passport Health had given us on everything that could go wrong)? Would they remember to follow the instructions they were given regarding water and mosquitos? Did I pack everything they needed? Would they remember to pack everything they needed for their trips while in Kenya? Would they be comfortable to ask for help when they needed it? The myriad of questions kept coming in and the anxiety was almost unbearable!
I turned around and asked them what they were most excited about the trip to calm my nerves. They were excited about going to see all the animals, visiting with their cousins, going to Mombasa, the breathtaking Kenyan coast, and most of all, not having to worry about school. “I’m excited mama, but I would be more excited if you could come too,” my little one said at the end. That feeling of dread crept up again.
As the Uber driver parked the car and unloaded their bags. I felt a knot in my stomach. “Breath,” I said to myself. It’ll be okay.
Check in was uneventful. We met up with their uncle who was chaperoning them to Nairobi. I breathed a sign of relief as he took the focus away from what I was feeling with his excitement for seeing the girls and getting to travel along with them. We headed off to the food courts, grabbed some snacks and food, talked about the flight ahead, and snapped some selfies. We had a couple of hours to hang out which at that moment felt like the greatest gift. For a minute it felt like our usual hangout time until I was jolted back to reality.
“We should probably head to the gate” their uncle said, 45 minutes before boarding time. “We don’t want to deal with the lines.”
“Put your big girl panties on,” I heard myself say to myself. “You can do this!” I let my girls walk ahead of me while I snapped some last minute pictures.
Once at the gate, I started running through the list of things for them to remember during their trip. “Don’t worry mama, we’ll be okay,” my older daughter said.
“It’s time to go,” their uncle said. “Let’s say our goodbyes.” My little one was first. As she came in for a hug, I started to feel the heaviness in my heart and my eyes welling up with tears. “No crying mama,” she said. “No crying,” I repeated using every brain cell I had to suppress the tears. I gave her the tightest hug and the biggest kiss while smelling her hair, taking in every little feature on her sweet face and giving her a reassuring smile that everything was okay.
It was my older daughter’s turn. She came in for her hug, tears welling up in her eyes, putting her gentle hands on my face and saying “you’ll be okay mama.” And that was it. I completely lost it! I pulled her in and we both sobbed. I couldn’t stop myself. I was sobbing uncontrollably trying to breath while holding on to her as tightly as I could, my face nestled on the inside of her shoulder so I could hide the pain and anguish on my face from my little one.
We finally let go of each other and I sent them off through the gate. As they went through TSA, I consumed their every move, tears running down my eyes. Luckily, they were too far away to see them or to hear my quiet sniffles.
Before they disappeared into the walkway to their gate, they both turned around and waved one last goodbye.
In that moment, I felt my heart leave my body and an emptiness I had never experienced before swooped in. I rushed to the restroom, locked myself in a stall and sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. When I finally emerged, my eyes were a shade of red I had not seen before and my face was as grief stricken as the day I lost my dad.
I found the courage to leave the airport and hail an Uber to give me my long ride back home. I sat quietly in the backseat as the driver engaged in conversation that still to this day I cannot not recall. My mind had literally shut down. After a few minutes, the driver sat silent too probably because I wasn’t saying much back to him.
As we approached the house and parked the car, I started to feel the tightness in my chest and knot in my stomach again.
I opened the door and collapsed on my couch sobbing! The silence in the house was deafening. The emptiness was excruciating. I could feel my kids everywhere. Traces of them were magnified everywhere I looked. Emotionally and physically exhausted (I had only slept two and a half hours the previous night) I took a nap and did not wake up for four hours.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept track of the flight to Amsterdam and only breathed a sign of relief when I finally spoke with them on video call. How was I going to survive a full month?
A few years ago, I published a blog post about the importance of having a life outside of your children. What I learned is that it’s not that simple. While I’ve carved out a life outside of my kids by pursuing my passion to inspire women through this blog and HerCanvas podcast, yoga, hiking, dance, and many of the activities I love, I have not prepared myself mentally and emotionally for that transition. The more I thought about it the more I think, maybe it’s meant to be that way. After all, how can you live in the moment and enjoy your kids when you’re thinking of how you will cope when they go off to college.
For now, I decided, it’s okay for me to know it will not be easy, and to be aware the things l thought I would be able to do more freely when they’re gone may not come as naturally or as easily. It will take time. It will take some time to get used to my new normal.
Here are the 9 things I learned from sending my kids to Kenya without me:
1. Kids motivate you to care for yourself
To say that kids give you a sense of purpose is an understatement. I’ve always believed you cannot take care of others if you don’t take of yourself. It’s similar to putting on an oxygen mask on a plane in an emergency before you put one on for your child. While I pride myself in self-care, I found myself not wanting to do it even though I had all the time on my hands. Typically, I have to find the time (and often struggle) to care for myself but now that they were gone, I had no urge to do it. Go figure!
2. Cooking for yourself is damn near impossible
If you’re a reader of this blog, you know, we love food around here and that I love to cook! Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine not having the urge to step into my kitchen. How could someone who prides herself in serving up delicious meals not want to cook? On one of our calls, I mentioned I was having trouble doing it to my older daughter. Her response, “c’mon mom! you have to try a little harder.” But no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t have it in me. Finally, 3 weeks into their vacation, I whipped up one of their favorite steak recipes I found on Ayesha Curry’s cooking show. I was so proud of myself, I quickly sent some pics of it to our family group chat. They both responded with what seemed liked hundreds of all kinds of celebratory emojis!
3. Kids breath life into a home!
Whose house is this? I asked myself as I sat quietly on the couch. It had an eerie feeling of orderliness, deafening silence, and calm that didn’t sit right with me. It was missing my children’s laughter, their chaos, messiness, fighting (yes that too), and curiosity. My little one asks endless questions, which can be exhausting at times (yes, I admit it!). It was missing life! Children breath life into your home!
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff!
The reminder that my kids breath life into our home was a great gift. It reminded me to stop being so harsh sometimes when it comes to picking up and tidying up around the house, getting irritated with their fighting, and getting impatient with their questions. It taught me to be more appreciative of thier laughter and noise, and to embrace all things that come with motherhood. Sweating the small stuff masks all the positive stuff going on around us. After all, is having those shoes out of place really that big of a deal? Since they’ve been back, I’ve been quite relaxed especially about tidying up. Our new rule; we do a thorough tidying up on Friday evening so we start the weekend in an orderly house.
5. Never underestimate the sense of purpose children bring to your life
This is by no means to say that people without kids have no sense of purpose. Prior to having kids, I did have purpose. The difference is after having my kids, I became a caretaker, which shifted my purpose solely from myself to someone else. With them being gone, I felt a little lost. Yes, I still had my work and my passion projects, but they were just not enough. I constantly felt like there was something missing. Funny, when they returned, that feeling quickly dissipated. It was proof that I was nowhere near ready to let go of my caretaking responsibilities. Yes, I may complain how tired I am or how I have so little time to myself but truthfully, I enjoy being their caretaker. It gives me more purpose, more drive, and more reason to do and be better at everything I do.
6. Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for when they leave the nest
Wooo! This is a big one! Previously, the thought of my daughter heading off to college next year gave me hives. Now it terrifies me! Why? Because sending her and her sister off and having them gone for a month was the most harrowing experience of my life! It reminded me that there is some work to be done mentally and emotionally on my part to prepare myself for when they leave the nest. And while I’m excited for my daughter to go off to college and to spread her wings, I have to be honest with myself that part of me is struggling with it. I need to come to terms with it, which will give my daughter the confidence she needs to know she can thrive on her own and that I will be okay when she leaves. Because mom’s know, how you feel spills over to your kids and impacts them whether you like it or not.
7. Make tough decisions even when it is likely to break your heart
The thought of sending my kids away without me was gut wrenching but deep down inside, I knew that it was the right thing to do. I knew that they would come out of their adventure reinvigorated, emotionally and mentally stronger, and most of all happier. I could have selfishly held them back until I could go with them or succumbed to my little one’s refusal to go without me. But it wasn’t about me. It was always about their well being. So even though I was heartbroken, I let them go. And boy did they come back happier and reinvigorated! They couldn’t stop talking about their experience for days. Even now, they will rehash a memory from their vacation and pull up photos or a Google reference, like Lantana, the beach resort they visited at the coast. It’s validation I had made the right decision.
8. Refrain from telling them you miss them
I video chatted with my girls twice a day, everyday. Once in the morning and the other in the evening. Because of the time difference, we had to time it exactly right otherwise on a couple of occasions we missed each other. On those days, I had difficulty functioning fully. I needed to see their beautiful faces in the morning before I started my day and at night before I went to sleep. It was imperative that I say good morning and good night. On the tail end of the second week there, my older daughter surprised me during our conversation by asking “mom, would it be okay if you didn’t say that you are missing us?” Taken aback (and quite frankly, a little hurt), I asked her why. Her response, “because it makes it difficult for us to relax and have fun. We miss you too but a reminder that you miss us every time we speak makes us feel uncomfortable and sad.” After I hang up the video call, I spent some time thinking about what she had said (and appreciating her honesty.) It made sense. Telling them I missed them every time we spoke made it more about me than about them. It made them feel guilty for leaving me behind and caused them anxiety. From that moment on, I refrained from telling them I missed them and instead only reiterated how much I loved them.
9. Letting go has benefits
Letting go gave me the validation that even though parenting is challenging, the benefits far outweigh those difficulties. I found myself missing the emotional roller coaster that comes with living with a teenager; the heated debates and disagreements; the constant requests to my little one to pick up after herself and get off her phone; the mental load that comes with playing the role of therapist, chef, mentor, and coach, and the physical demands of being a chauffeur, caretaker, and personal assistant at all times. It reminded me that I love being a mom. I love the responsibility of nurturing these two amazing human beings who are imperfect just like the rest of us. Most, importantly, it reminded me to cherish my time with them and to be grateful to have them around.
The other day, I was prepping lunch for my girls at 6:30 a.m. as I always do every morning. I paused for a second and smiled. I love been a caretaker and nurturer, I thought to myself. Yes, it’s hard, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the motivation my girls give me to be better and to care for myself. I love the life they breath into our home and the chaos that comes along with it. I love that they give my life more sense of purpose and that they allow me to grow. Through this experience, they helped me learn to chill out on the small stuff, to do things that may break my heart for a greater good, to be more selfless, practice more patience, and most of all to realize how much I love being their mom. Because of their honesty, I am a better mom and human all around. I am grateful for their beautiful souls. Because of them I can admit that I’m not prepared to let them go anytime soon but I can at least start working on a healthier path to get there.
Before you leave…enjoy the sampling of beauty that surrounded my babies in Kenya and be inspired to go on an adventure yourself or let your kids go on one with you or on their own! It’s well worth it!
Amboseli National Park
Maasai Village in Amboseli
Diani Beach, Mombasa