When a good friend grew tired of knitting scarves and hats, she moved onto power bands, ribbed wrist bands that resemble sweater cuffs without the sweater. As she knitted, she concentrated on a specific word to imbue the yarn with the characteristics of that word. When my power bands were made, I chose the word “flexibility” as a reminder, each time I looked at my wrists, not to try to control every situation, to allow my children to take the lead more often, and to concede sometimes to my husband’s perspective. In short, I wanted to become the person I used to be.
Ten years ago, when I became a mother, I embarked on an unintentional journey of calcification. I rejoiced at evenly spaced naps of specific lengths. I embraced the regularity of diaper changes. I controlled vitamin consumption by making my own baby food. My inner planner and control freak loved organizing every bit of my daughters’ lives and choosing exactly when and what they wore, played with, watched, and ate.
I wasn’t always so controlling, though.
In my early 20s, I departed for the tiny village of Kuncila in Mali, West Africa as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, spending over two years without running water or electricity. Half the time, I had no idea what was going on or what people were saying. One day, I helped a taxi driver duct tape a part into a car so that we could get back on the road. On another day, my host family offered me puff adder for dinner. Still another time, I rode a public bus lacking a windshield for 12 hours, insects coating us riders. Unpredictability met me around every turn. I loved it.
In my late 20s, I began a nonprofit organization with a co-founder who wouldn’t let me think too hard about diving in, encouraging me to go with my gut. Overnight, I went from a peon at one organization to an executive director at another. Immediately I found myself wading through financial statements, recruiting and managing a Board of Directors, raising funds, and more, applying the motto “fake it ‘til you make it,” shared with me by another unlikely founder. I blossomed.
In my early 30s, I quit my stable job and honeymooned with my new husband for three months, boating down the Mekong River, wandering around temples in Cambodia, spotting orangutans in Borneo, and backpacking through the hills of northern Thailand with no planned accommodation or route from day to day. I thrived.
And then ten years of parenting ensued—ten glorious, joyful, challenging, lovely years—and here I am, calcified like the zippers on my backpack. Yet, children only allow you to be controlling for so long; they push buttons and test boundaries rather quickly. My daughters are now 9 and 11; one of them insists on making her own snacks, while the other has extraordinarily strong opinions on, well, everything.
I understand that parenting is a process of letting go, its mark of success young adults who care for themselves and make well-reasoned decisions. I know I need to become more flexible and relinquish control to achieve these outcomes.
In addition to fortified wristbands, my husband and I made plans that would jolt me with a million gigawatts of flexibility rather quickly: a year of international travel and worldschooling. The backpacks would come out of the closets, their zippers lubricated, and we would take off to multiple countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, circumnavigating the world in 12 months.
Travel offers many benefits, and most of them suffuse us from head to toe swiftly, like a shot of strong Borneo palm wine. Depending on how far we step from our comfort zones, we may grow more patient, self-aware, tougher, open-minded, or perseverant. Through missed buses, unknown foods, indecipherable signage, labyrinthine markets, and delayed trains, I would to grow more nimble, reducing expectations and changing course with ease. I craved it.
As the year-long planning process began, my inner control freak once again awoke and perked up its ears. It helped orchestrate a carefully planned journey that would introduce my daughters to the newness of cultures gently, initiating them to international travel in Central Europe several months before grittier North Africa and Asia. By the time we were trekking through Peru, the children would be hardy, resilient, adaptable travelers. I organized our itinerary based on weather (August in Romania, not in Egypt), festivals (January in Vietnam for Tet), and distances (to Santiago via Sydney for the shortest direct flight). I had it all planned out.
We purchased our one-way tickets from the USA to Europe, departing on June 16, 2020. And well…you know how that story goes.
Several months prior to our departure, an invisible pathogen quietly began its own international journey, hopping its way across the globe with ease. As the world reacted, this tiny pest sprawled across three seats on near-empty airplanes and wandered desolate ruins and cathedrals, enjoying the type of undertourism about which we all dream.
And just like that, coronavirus forced upon me the most extreme version of letting go I possibly could have conceived. My job evaporated; the itinerary grew elusive, and instead of gathering gear and goodbyes, I gathered vouchers and credits.
So here I sit, absorbing a distorted version of exactly what I wanted: flexibility. I can’t make plans; I can’t create an itinerary; I can’t even visit the homes of friends down the street. Each time I visit the grocery store, the changing rules keep me on my toes: walk the aisles in one direction; stand on this circle; handle the bulk carrots with your hands, but no scooping olives with a spoon. My friends keep me alert with their own interpretations of “safe:” we can hug but turn heads away; we can only hug if we both wear masks; we can’t hug at all.
My inner control freak has gone silent as our life-changing journey waits in the wings. I keep reminding myself that those countries and cultures are still out there: our Czech host family still wants to meet; Luxor isn’t going anywhere; Hoi An is still as breathtaking. And each day, my rigidity fades as a newfound adaptability and a growing awareness of my profound lack of control supplant it. Like everyone else, I shrug, sigh, and take each day as it comes, waiting to see what the future holds.
Stephanie Tolk is a mother and writer based in Portland, Oregon. She founded and maintains Deliberate Detour, a blog devoted to thoughtful family travel that’s kind to cultures and the planet. Find her at deliberatedetour.com