An ode to the moms who let us travel

May 10, 2018

One Sunday night about ten years ago I emailed my mom on the other side of the country in Ontario. I started it off with, “So I’ve made some decisions about my life.” What followed was 1,400 words detailing my plan to take a hiatus from my job and set off on a solo backpacking trip around the world. I ran through my proposed nine-month itinerary, detailed how I would fund the trip and ended with an explanation around why I wanted to do this, partly for my mom’s benefit, but mostly, it’s clear in retrospect, as a manifesto to convince myself this was a good plan. (“It seems so feasible, so fantastic and so perfect for this stage in my life—no obligations, enough funds… I’ve spent so long sitting on the sidelines and just quietly going about my business, and never putting myself in too vulnerable a position… I want to do it because I know I’m capable of more than I let myself believe.”)

My mom responded a few hours later, still nighttime for me in BC: “Whoa! We need to talk! Call me when you’re awake!”

I had flown the coop, so to speak, before. About seven years before this I had set off from my hometown in Ontario to the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. I was 18 and ready to go, and Victoria was about as far as I could go without getting too much paperwork involved. When my mom left me in my dorm room that September, and pretty much every time we parted at an airport in the years that followed, there were tears. I knew she wouldn’t take too readily to my plans to jet off alone around the world for nine months, but she never spoke a word against it.

She’d react with enthusiasm, real or feigned, when I told her about my plans, which changed a thousand times over throughout the months that followed that first email. She told me about the small city in Germany she lived in for a year as a teenager that one time (which I visited). She schemed about where she and my dad could meet me along the way (we did Scotland together). Not once did she question whether it really was a good idea to spend all that money on travel—money that could surely go towards retirement savings or an eventual house or whatever other responsible thing was looming around the corner. She wasn’t exactly swinging from the rafters when I told her about my plan to travel overland across four East African countries (“with a group, it’s fine”), but if there was hesitation on her part she didn’t show it.

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About a month before I left, I moved back in with my parents to save up and wrap up my preparations for my now booked trip. The week before I left, I ran errands to pick up the last few things I needed—good flip flops, a quick-dry towel, a bigger toiletry kit, anti-malaria meds, Yellow Fever and Hepatitis A vaccines. The day before I left, I was busy unpacking and repacking my backpack in the spare bedroom, with the help of one of the family cats. I remember busying myself with thoughts of whether I should bring two pairs of jeans or one (I decided on one) and trying so hard to stave off the growing feelings of panic that pierced at my eyes. It was really happening. It was too much. I walked across the hallway into the room where my mom was tidying up and though she was facing away from me she could tell I was there and asked, “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” I whimpered.

She recognized the tone of voice and turned around to me fully in tears. She came over and gave me the kind of hug she’d give me when I was a teenager, my arms slouched and pinned to my sides by hers as I sniffled into her ear. She asked again what was up and I couldn’t muster the words, and as always she narrated the situation on her own with pretty good guesses.

“It’s all feeling a bit real, eh?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled.

We said our goodbyes, we cried and off I went to the other side of the world.

I had a good cry, wiped up and got back to packing. The next morning she and my dad drove me to the airport and among the business travellers and weekend getawayers, we said our goodbyes, we cried and off I went to the other side of the world.

What followed would go down in my life’s history as The Big Trip. Over nine months, I flew on 30 planes, visited four continents and 29 countries. I wore out four pairs of flip flops and drained seven bottles of sunscreen. I fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing, lions roaring and roommates snoring. I watched koalas, sea lions, kangaroos, elephants, blue whales, lions, rhinos and hippos in their natural habitats. I lost my wallet and got one new scar.

I kissed a giraffe and handfed a dolphin. I ate at a hangi, drank at a shebeen, rode in a tuktuk, sailed on a dhow and took a road trip in a Fiat. I stood on the edge of a volcano and in front of two of the seven wonders of the world. I spent Valentine's Day in Sydney, St. Patrick's Day in Exmouth, Easter in Bangkok, my birthday in Copenhagen and Canada Day in Reykjavik.

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I had a $4 massage and a $14 cocktail. I crossed the equator four times and adjusted my watch 14 times. I used 22 different currencies and read just as many books. I stayed in 120 places—from Adelaide to Zagreb—and slept in 115 different beds, on two trains, three buses, in two campervans, a bunch of tents and on one pile of couch cushions.

I crossed the equator four times and adjusted my watch 14 times.

I would call my parents when I could, every couple weeks or so, and I sent off regular postcards and emails, but I’m sure there were stretches of time I was incommunicado when my mom had to quash worries. I know there were.

That lost wallet part happened four months into my trip, right before I got on a 20-hour train ride between Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg in South Africa. I had called VISA to cancel my credit card but the process was taking too long and I needed to get to the train station, so I told the agent to just cancel the card; I’ll call back to sort out a replacement later. Someone else at VISA must have seen the incomplete missing card information and called to follow up, only they called the phone number on my account: my parent’s house. The agent told my mom that my card had been reported stolen in South Africa and I hadn’t been in touch, did she know where I was?

In my rush to catch my train I hadn’t updated my mom on my stupid but ultimately harmless mistake, and here she was hearing that somehow I was somewhere in South Africa without my credit card. Her mind, she tells me, assumed the worst—that I had been robbed and was dead. She had no way to get in touch with me beyond email. When I finally arrived at my hostel in Jo-burg, I checked my email to find one from her. 'CALL ME RIGHT AWAY.' It was the middle of the night back in Ontario, and I didn’t have a calling card handy so I used the hostel’s payphone to make a collect call and was finally able to relieve my mom’s worst-case worries.

It’s been a while since that trip, but even as the years have worn on and regular life has become pretty dang regular, that trip is still such a monumental part of my life. It didn’t shift anything significant in my life or change who I am in any way—I went back at the end of it to the same apartment and the same job and the same friends—but it gave me little hints of what I’m capable of that creep up in the weirdest moments of self-doubt. Like you’re not sure you can apply for that job or ask that guy out or find your way to some address that’s unclear on Google Maps? You drove a stick-shift campervan down the coast of Australia, you navigated the streets of Nairobi at dusk alone, you figured out how to communicate important information in Polish at one point, somehow. You’re good.

But more recently, what’s become more and more apparent is how hard, I realize, it must’ve been for my mom to not bar up the front door and forbid me from leaving. Obviously, I was an adult, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do and she couldn’t stop me. But to not get any hints that really she’d much rather I just stay safe where she always knew I would be? Easier said than done.

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The strength it took my mom to say go translated into the strength it took me to actually go.

I’m now a mom to a two-year-old girl and expecting her little sister later this summer. The idea of these girls growing up and one day sending me that same email fills me with equal parts pride and total terror. Granted, the oldest of them is a toddler and the youngest isn’t even here yet, so it’s tough to imagine them in their mid-20s. (Maybe they’ll end up as total jerks and I’ll be like, “Go, good riddance.”)

The immensity of the feelings around having your kid out there in the world without you is still a novel and sometimes overwhelming concept to me, but I already know the strength and restraint and heartache it takes to say “go, go, go”, when every fibre of your being wants to say “please, please stay.”

I didn’t understand that at the time. I couldn’t have, and that’s fine. But what I know now is that the strength it took my mom to say go translated into the strength it took me to actually go. And what spiraled out of that was an epic experience that has bolstered my foundation in a way that little else could have. Because my mom allowed me to go without burdening me with her own fears and worries, I’ve literally seen the world, I’ve lived in three different cities, I’ve met people, I’ve done things and I wouldn’t be the same me without that.

So to the moms who let us go when they want us to stay, thank you. I only hope I can do the same when the time comes.

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