When an Opportunity of a Lifetime Means Leaving Your Kids

I have the winning ticket. I am holding it in my hands. 

My body is keeping me upright as I stare in shock at the small, yellow stub of paper between my fingers. I feel somewhat like Charlie, grasping hold of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. There are numbers on the ticket; numbers that have the potential to whisk me away to Kenya for 10 days, but I can’t really see them. I look up at the crowd around me in the noisy room. We are at a fundraiser event and the room is filled with happy people, delighted for me, eyes wide with excitement when I stutter, “I… I think I just won.” 

My shaky hands and the dumbfounded look on my face make me appear excited, too. Maybe even thrilled. But I am not. I am conflicted.

When presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, a mother sometimes pauses before accepting. 

I pause.

I have just won a free volunteer trip to Kenya where I will journey to the Maasai Mara National Reserve and go on a safari at sunrise. I will learn some Swahili and help build schools and spend afternoons beading with the mamas. I will visit Kenyan markets and fetch fresh water.

And yet, my immediate thought is “But what about the girls?”

My three young daughters. They are at an age where they can do most things for themselves—they get dressed and get their own breakfast and brush their teeth in the mornings without many arguments. They aren’t quite old enough to walk to school alone or play outside until the street lights come on, but they are, for the most part, self-sufficient. They can get into their pajamas and fall asleep on their own now—when just a few short years ago, they needed me to stay with them, to rub their backs and listen quietly until their breathing turned heavy.

They have a loving, supportive network around them. My husband doesn’t work long hours into the evening, which means he’s always around after school. Their grandparents, who live close by, dote on them when needed. My children are fine when I’m not around, or when I go out, or work long hours. “They are absolutely fine,” the rational part of my brain says to me. I know this, I really do.

And yet, I pause.

“I don’t know what to say—” I say weakly, apologetically to my friend who is taking the same trip. She has already booked and paid for her entire experience and I have the audacity to tell her I am unsure if I will take the free ride I am being given.

“It’s okay,” she says kindly as she puts her hand on my arm. “Nothing is more important than your children. I know.”

I feel relief flood through my body like cool water at her acceptance. I know that the world is a much, much bigger place than my little corner of existence. It is crucial to serve and give back and teach my children understanding and diversity and acceptance. I am a person other than a mother. I have not forgotten that. And I understand the importance of self-care.

But nothing is more important than my children. Ever since I birthed those three little beings, I will always be a mother first. And I am likely not the only person to think hard and long when choosing between something incredible and leaving their children.

I pause.

The logistics of planning the trip swirl through my head. The end of the school year will happen when I’m gone, so I’ll need to plan teacher gifts. What else will be happening? Is there anything I will miss? The recital. I will miss the girls’ dance recital. There is always some activity or event happening in my busy little life with three kids.

I informally poll my friends and family on this decision, and I quickly realize there are two camps of people: those who think I’m utterly ridiculous to even consider not going—and those that understand it’s really hard to leave your kids, no matter the circumstance. It’s hard to miss out. It’s hard to not see your littlest daughter perform on a stage for the very first time. It’s hard to leave people who still think you are the most incredible thing that ever walked the face of the earth.

When I get home from work the next day, my middle daughter runs out to the driveway as I park the car.

“MOMMY!!!” she squeals. “I missed you today. How was your day?” She slips her hand into mine and we walk into the house together. I haven’t seen her for 8 hours. Can she handle 10 days? 

Yes, of course she can. Of course.” The right side of my brain chastises me again. “It’s good for them and it’s good for you.

I know, I know. I do,” I say silently.

I pause one more time.

And then I book my flight. I am going to Kenya to experience everything it has to offer. I will give a part of myself to the community and know I will love it. I will leave my little corner of the world and see things I never thought I would in my life. I will remember it forever and it will likely change me for the better. An experience of a lifetime.

But I would be lying if I said I won’t wish I could be there when my kids jump into my bed in the morning and bury themselves under the covers, their warm little bodies pressing up against mine while we linger and lazily start the day. I would be lying if I said that all those little moments aren't special.

I once heard an interview with a young girl whose mother had died of cancer. Before her mother passed away, the girl’s parents took her out of school and they travelled the world together—seeing new wonders, experiencing once-in-a-lifetime moments, maybe even going to Africa on a sunrise safari. 

When asked what the little girl will remember the most about her time with her mother, the girl said, “Eating a bowl of cereal one morning together—just me and my Mom.”

I would be lying if I said it was an easy choice to make. 

I would be lying if I said I didn’t pause, as silly as it may seem.