Friday, April 22, 2011

7,000km, A Bike Ride Across Cambodia and One Phone Call Later...

I know this is going to sound terrible, but I think the best part of the trip for me, was getting on the plane and leaving Sydney. I mean, the heady sensation of actually leaving Australia, getting on a plane and doing it without the Von Trap family in tow was intoxicating.

I woke up in the hotel that second morning, (the day after our first bike ride across Cambodia) and realised how tightly I'd been gripping on. Not to the bike handles mind you, to my life. I knew there was likely to be a few 'ah-ha' moments on this trip. This was after all the longest time I would have been apart from my children in 6 years. It was also the longest time I'd been away from my spouse. And anyone will tell you, when you live in each other's pockets, breathe each other's air and swim in the same deep water you are likely, to lose some perspective.

The reason I could tell I'd been gripping on, was because I could feel myself releasing the grip that morning. Pulling back the crisp, white, hotel sheet, I felt a freedom I hadn't experienced in years, I felt the grip lessening, the tense muscles unwinding. When I say grip, I don't mean grip in the sense of holding on for control, or to control. I mean the grip, the way one might grip the edge of a ledge. The way you might grip with even the very tips of your fingertips. As though the tips of your fingers have the strength of a bicep muscle. That you should need your fingers to be that strong, because that's the only thing standing between you and the forty foot drop below. That's how I felt. Like I'd been gripping on for dear life. My life.

Do all mothers feel like this? Like they are one finger grip away from losing hold of the ledge? Had I always felt this way?

I boarded that plane to Cambodia with a giddiness and a joy that I could hardly recall from any past memory. I felt perhaps like one of those kids entering the Wonka Chocolate Factory. Hard to know what was more exciting, leaving my family behind, going back to South East Asia, being in a bed on my own every night, sleeping all night every night without interruption, or the fact it was almost lunchtime and there would be free alcohol to drink the entire flight!

I sat with my friend Bec, the only other Mum on the trip. She too was giddy from the excitement, the fact we had actually made it here, to this point, to the point of boarding the plane, of managing to have raised the money, sorted out childcare for the kids, leaving our husbands. I can't imagine any of the other cyclist on the trip could possibly have imagined what this meant to us. What it meant to our morale, to our dignity, to our sense of self. What it meant to be a person without a title, without the shadow of children constantly on our watch.

I have often envied women who work full time. Mostly I suspect because I am the sort of mother who would much rather be having riveting conversations with professional adults then trying for the upteenth time to look excited about my four year olds attempt to draw a mermaid. Mostly, I find the gibber gabber of toddlers, the constant demands of preschoolers and the attitude of primary schoolers either mind numbingly boring or completely exhausting. The constant demands of three children are relentless, in the same way that riding kilometre after kilometre in the hot sun on bumpy roads in Cambodia was relentless. There was a lot of similarities to me. My body ached, the sun pelted down, the roads were full of pot holes and the head wind relentless. You had to keep riding until it was time to stop - some random time, outside of your control, some time that seemed to be forever in the future, hours and hours away. It was as much a mental game to get through each hour on the bike as it was a physical one. And naturally, if you're suffering, you look around to gauge how everyone else is coping. Everyone looked like they were handling the ride better than me. Everyone seemed to be in less pain, less mental torment, less grief than I.

We are strange creatures, there is no solace in knowing you are the only battler, that you are the only one having to play mind tricks to keep going. In fact, the isolation of being the only one struggling seems to add to your suffering even further. But there is no choice but to keep riding, km after km. That is why you are there. At the end of the day, just before I passed out, muscles aching and more tired than any week where children woke me up all night, there was a sense of achievement for having managed not only to get back on the bike, but to have cycled another leg across Cambodia.

Raising children is like that, watching other mothers is like that. They seem to do it much easier than you, they seem to be in less pain, they seem to engage with their children more, to enjoy their company. And the isolation is made much worse, because you feel the pain of being different, of being the only mother born who just doesn't like mothering.

But some days, on the bike, you can hear someone is suffering, feeling the pain, just like you. They can't keep going, they are hurting, the wind hurts, the sun hurts, the damn pot holes in the road hurt. And you find yourself giving solace to them, offering advice, "Try getting out of the saddle a bit more, it'll ease the pain in your pelvis." or "Try not gripping so hard with your thumbs, mentally relax your hands as you cycle." And you realise you're not alone, other cyclist are doing it tough too. And that was like motherhood, one day talking in the playground, you find yourself talking to a mother who can't do it anymore, who has hit a brick wall and you find yourself offering advice, suggesting a few things that worked for you, laughing with her about the many things you tried that didn't. And you get a glimpse into someone elses world and realise you're not alone, you're not the only one who finds cycling fucking hard, or motherhood fucking hard. We all do. We all struggle sometimes.

So Bec and I, we made in-roads into the worst wine ever served onboard an aircraft. Well she sensibly drank gin, I gulped back little plastic cup of white wine after white wine and we talked and talked and talked. We talked until we passed out, 7 hours later. We talked of our children, our partners, our stresses, our pain and our joy. We laughed, we cried (surprisingly 7 hours of drinking crappy white wine will enable you to feel the entire spectrum of emotions) and we let ourselves feel the sheer delight at being women again, not just mothers.

And perhaps if I think about it, it was not boarding the plane leaving Sydney that was the most special moment of my trip. But the day I spoke to my three children on the phone whilst I was in Cambodia. I had been texting with my husband since I'd arrived, and whilst I missed him, I was still pretty resilient in not missing my kids. I missed having Richard there, exploring a new country. One of the things we always did really well was exploring together. I missed him not being there to go for a beer at a local bar or to eat noodles in a stall that looked wholly questionable hygiene wise. I missed his humour and I missed his bravery, his way of taking a country by storm, indulging in each aspect wholeheartedly. I missed him. I missed the person I had lost in the mayhem of parenting. What I wouldn't have given to have flown him to my side so that we could be a couple again, not just mum and dad, the two people lost to each other in the maelstrom of parenting.
But I didn't miss the kids. I just didn't.
And even when I saw the beautiful Cambodian children, I still didn't miss them.

I was still too over joyed to be away from them.

And whilst part of me felt I should feel bad about that. I didn't. I loved it. I loved the freedom, the joy, the lack of responsibility. I loved not feeling overwhelmed by them. Oppressed by them.

And then, I think on the third or fourth day I spoke to each of them in turn. Whilst I wasn't missing them per se, I wanted to talk to them, to assure them I was coming home, that I hadn't disappeared for ever. It had been several days, and because of the time difference, and because of the cycling, I hadn't been able to talk to them. And whilst I didn't miss them, I was feeling antsy about not having spoken with them. It didn't feel right. Finally I managed to speak to my eldest, she was still awake one night when I called, and the other two got out of bed and I spoke to them too. Their little voices chirped down the telephone. Their little ways and mannerism clearly audible for me to delineate each child in turn. And even from the first child, from the first syllable I could feel something stirring in me. For the first time in many years I felt a longing that took my breath away. Each child, I could feel their energy, as though it permeated down the phone line, their beauty, their uniqueness. I felt a 'missing' for them that reached in and squeezed my heart. I felt a terrible sadness that I couldn't scoop them up and hold them in my arms. I longed to hold them like very few things I have longed for in my life. Their sweet voices telling me about their day, their arguing with each other in the background as to who would have the phone next.
I was laughing and crying.
I felt something inside me soaring - taking flight. Was it joy? Was it knowing that I could feel a need for them, rather than the feeling of being overwhelmed by them? I wanted my Lola. I want to sit her on my lap and listen to her yabber about Cuba and what he had done that day and what he had done to her precious drawing. I wanted to scoop up Ella and listen to her observations of life without mummy about her new hairclip and cuddle her close to me, to breathe in the smell of her hair. And my little boy, my slice of sunshine, my heart really did break in half when he said "I miss you Mummy." God when did he start speaking in sentences? I was gone two minutes and already he had grown up.
After the phone call I tried to hold that feeling, hold it carefully inside my mind, my heart. Because I knew, oh I knew, once I was back in Sydney and life was back to normal, I'd be feeling crushed by my three demanding children. And I wanted to know that memory was there. That memory of wanting them, of aching for them. I wanted to be able to pull that out of the drawer and smell it like a lover's scarf. I wanted to know that I knew how to miss them, to need them, how to feel incomplete without them.

And if Cambodia gave me anything (which it did in many ways that I haven't even covered here) - it gave me a longing for my children, a beautiful, soul-connecting longing, that I will forever be thankful for.

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