The first time I became a mother, the transition was heralded by contractions about five minutes apart and a nervous trip to the hospital.
But when I did it again the other day, my destination was the airport, and the labor pains were replaced by waves of apprehension that hit with steadily increasing frequency. Was I ready for this? Why couldn't it happen faster? Why couldn't it wait just one more week? The feeling of being ripped apart wasn't physical, as it had been years before, but it was still real.
This time I was welcoming not an addition to the family, but my own two children, ages 12 and 11, people I had known quite well only nine weeks before when they left to spend the summer with their father back East. My motherhood was resuming, like an interrupted television program, already in progress, and in the same sense, I knew I would always feel slightly askew at having missed plot developments that would prove to be important later in the story.
The children who kiss me goodby at the departure gate in June are never quite the same people who run down the ramp to hug me in August. Every time I put my son and daughter on the plane, I know I'll never see them again--at least not as they are at that moment.
The change may never be as drastic as it was the first year (knock wood), when the children who left me were Mister Rogers fans and the ones who returned preferred MTV. But it happens every year, to some extent.
Maybe that's why, even with a wallet full of photos, I can never quite summon a mental image of my children's faces as I stand there waiting for the doors to open. As the passengers start emerging, I remind myself to expect someone taller than I'm used to, and I consciously lift my chin a little to compensate.
I can sense when it's time for their return without even glancing at a calendar. Maybe someday there will be old wives' tales (old ex-wives, perhaps) for this kind of motherhood, just as there are for childbirth. You know, when you get the urge to go shopping and clean house, it's time for the baby to come.
In my case, the urge is more likely to be for an impromptu trip out of town, an afternoon alone at the movies or an uninterrupted browsing binge at my favorite bookstore. When I've finally stopped whining about being all alone and started to relish being unencumbered, I know it's almost time to get back in the harness.
The first couple of years I was easy to spot at the airport: I was the one who arrived two hours early. This year I was determined not to be so conspicuous, so I didn't leave for Ontario Airport until about an hour before the arrival time their father had given me: 11:06. In June it had been a quick in-and-out for their departure--got a parking spot right outside the door in a nearly empty lot--so I didn't anticipate any problems.
But this time the parking lot was packed, and three lanes of cars crept around it in vain. After being trapped among them for 20 minutes, I managed to escape and head for the auxiliary lot. By then it was already 11:07. The first two trams that came around were loaded and by the time I found a spot on the third, it was 11:14.
For once, I was able to imagine my children's expressions, their bright smiles wilting in disappointment as they scanned the crowd for a familiar face. Would a couple of scoops of ice cream repair the damage, or would they need to recount the experience to a shrink 20 years from now as evidence of one of the many ways I had failed them?
I nearly ran through the metal detector and on to the gate, where all I could find were a couple of uniformed airline employees arranging papers at the counter. By then, it was 11:25.
"My children!" I gasped, frantic and out of breath. "They were on the flight that arrived at 11:06. I was stuck in the parking lot. Where have they taken them?" The airline people looked up at me and then at each other. "There was no flight that arrived at 11:06," one of them said. He pushed some buttons on his computer and told me my children's plane wouldn't be there until 11:47.
"Is it late?" I asked.
"No, you're early," he said. "Someone must have given you the wrong time."
As their plane pulled up to the gate, I stationed myself right in front, brushing past eager grandparents and little boys waiting to see daddies who'd been gone for three days. I shifted my purse around behind me so it wouldn't get in the way in a bear hug. "Taller," I reminded myself, raising my chin. I always have this irrational fear that somehow, we won't recognize each other.
Finally they appeared, smiling and waving. My arms were already outstretched for the hug when the flight attendant asked, "Could I see some identification?" I dropped my arms, dragged out my purse and driver's license, and only then did we get to hug.