We took Charlie to Paris because he was free.
The photos and stories communicate an easy joie de vivre that was not entirely accurate. "We took our baby to Paris for his 2nd birthday." Yes this is true. But, it also isn't true. Not entirely. Not in that way. Taking one's toddler to Paris evokes a sort of image of wealth, status, and easy living. As if we had the time and money to throw around for a casual, spontaneous trip to show our precious little toddler the City of Lights.
The truth is we took Charlie to Paris because it was free. Because we had just come out of a rough, horrible season of our lives and we needed to feel something besides panic and tension. Yes, there is a level of wealth, status, and privilege that comes with being able to visit Europe no matter the budget and I own that.
But, it also isn't like that. We didn't have scads of money flying around. We took Charlie for his 2nd birthday not because we are fastidious about those sorts of occasions, but because it was the first time in two years that my health was stable enough to take this sort of adventure. We saw the window of "free baby travel" closing rapidly and we booked tickets the moment I felt well enough.
There is more to the story than what the photos say.
A harder story. One that is more raw, and real. A story so far removed from "luxury travel" hashtags and the family travel culture that "Anyone can see the world with a baby! You just have to want to bad enough!" Believe me, if wanting and prioritizing were all it took to hop on a plane to Paris... I would have been there the moment I saw a second line on the pregnancy test. Of course, those of us here in the real world know it is not that simple. It never is.
I had always wanted to be a mom. Always. What did I want to be when I grew up? A mom. Teaching or becoming a nurse was merely Plan B. However socially unacceptable it was to want Plan A, I secretly longed for it. I pined for it, planned for it, like some dark and dirty secret.
Motherhood eluded me and then hit me like a freight train.
Somewhere between failed cycles and a lost pregnancy, two lines stuck around long enough to register on a digital pregnancy test. Plan A rested low and heavy within my pelvic bones.
I gained 40 pounds despite the hyperemesis. The math really didn't add up when considering calories in and calories out. It mattered to society more than it mattered to me. We of course love it when a woman's body stays within tightly controlled boundaries. I bought bigger maternity clothes and heaved into a Target bag in the car on the way to the doctor. Turns out the body will do what it needs to survive, and dear God, that is a beautiful thing.
Scott was working 80 hours a week. I rarely saw him. Abusive and toxic company culture were no match for the recession and housing crisis at hand. We were grateful for a job. Still, I resented the stress, hours spent, and the pittance earned.
And then, just like that, I became a mother. Plan A was realized. There it was.
He was born blue. Dark blue. He barely made a sound. The NICU team jumped into action. My own team worked swiftly to stop the hemorrhage.
I felt numb. I felt nothing when they finally placed Charlie in my arms. I felt nothing as the well-wishes came. No elation, no joy. Just numb. Like an epidural- I was aware of the presence of my legs and my baby, I just couldn't feel it. Shell-shocked and stitched I sat in my bed and watched the IV drip, drip, drip. The IV. The last vestige of the events that had just occurred a few hours ago. To the outsider it was the only indication that things didn't go according to plan.
It probably comes as no surprise that the post-partum mental illness that followed was not easily overcome.
I was home in the raging Phoenix summer heat with a pre-term baby, a wrecked body, a brain that had been hijacked, and a husband who worked 80+ hours a week.
The intrusive thoughts came and I didn't know where they were from. I was scared. Fear was my constant companion. Sleep never came. Ever. I heard cries that didn't exist.
"Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself?"
Is it a lie if you aren't in your right mind?
Is it a lie if you don't want to answer one of the most personal, devastating questions on a bland piece of paper under the florescent lights of the doctor's office?
Is it a lie if you have never felt more alone or scared in your entire life?
Is it a lie if you didn't even fully understand what was happening to you?
I had wanted nothing more to be a mother, yet here I was, completely miserable. A shell of who I once was, lying on a post-partum depression questionnaire.
Healing took a long time. Reconciling my expectations with reality also took a long time.
Scott would come home at 11pm and I would leave the house like a bat out of hell. Sometimes I would go for a walk. The Phoenix summer heat would have cooled to a survivable temperature by that hour. Sometimes I would go for a drive, just me, and head to the end of Chandler Boulevard where I would watch the moonlight bounce off of the warm desert mountains. Those moments were my sanity. Those moments where I wasn't anyone's anything.
Sometimes you need to become nothing in order to become something.
Paris seemed so far away. Barely a blip on my radar.
How would I ever feel well enough to travel? Would we even be able to afford it? What about Scott's job? It seems unlikely he would ever get the time off anyway. And so I swapped out one load of laundry for another.
Travel was never a source of identity for me. Not like it is for some people today. A sort of hobby that allows for un-tempered snobbery and back-door bragging. Travel was always frosting for me. Life was the cake. Wonderful and filling. Travel? That was just frosting. The good stuff. The fun extra you might be lucky enough to enjoy.
But still, there was something about travel that I clung to during those dark months. It was my tether that there was more out there... besides long arguments in the kitchen of our shabby McMansion about work-life balance, doling out ultimatums, and searching under rugs for scorpions.
I held my breath at every well-baby appointment.
He was healthy. I was healthy. We were ok. We survived that terrible birth day and the aftermath.
I still found myself looking over my shoulder. How did we get so lucky? The other shoe will drop. It has to. The shadows of his birth still flickered in my periphery. I couldn't quite trust our good fortune. Nevertheless, it held on.
Charlie's passport arrived. We bought tickets.
Scott had gotten a better job.
We were in a better place, in many ways.
Time is a healer and a gift.
I held my son in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on his second birthday. It was not a victory march. It was, as Leonard Cohen said, a cold and broken hallelujah. We took our toddler to Paris because it was free. We took him to Paris because if we had learned anything over the last two years it is that life is wildly precious, messy, tragic, and unpredictable. A near death experience on the delivery table certainly puts that into perspective. I took my toddler to Paris to celebrate life for the both of us.