I’m preparing to leave town again. Just when my daughter seems to be getting back to normal after my trip last week – more hugging, less clinging – I’m leaving for another three days away from her. I didn’t even bother to put away my suitcase.
Though I won’t be travelling so far away this go round, and the trip will be to familiar ground in the Bay Area, the time away will be just as hard, harder even thanks to the feeling that I just haven’t gotten my fill of Koukla this week (as if I ever feel that I’ve gotten my fill) so I will be starting at a deficit.
But it’s a professional conference, not 72 hours of interviews. I won’t have to be on all the time, I’ll get to tune out every now and then during the sessions. My brain will get to rest while my ambitions are passively fed ideas of how to improve the effectiveness of my institution. And I will be in the Bay Area.
I love the Bay Area. I’ll go to dinner with my in-laws. I’ll take a run to the ballpark and down along the water. I’ll take a taxi to the Mission District for a superburrito, maybe eat dim sum downtown. I’ll end my workdays of professional development with whiskey at the dim hotel bar. It will feel like a vacation. Only, for as grinding as my days are during a normal workweek, I would much rather go through the daily grind with Koukla than take a vacation alone.
The only saving grace for me with my guilt over these trips is that my daughter will be staying with my mom – Yia Yia, the quintessential Greek grandmother. My daughter loves her Yia Yia, and she really really loves her Yia Yia’s house. There is a big back patio full of nature and toys, a sandbox full of dried rice and oatmeal and a little play car with California plates. There are hummingbirds and a stray kitty that Koukla will go looking for, and a giant spa that Koukla will swim in when her grandpa – also known as Pappou – comes home early from work. Inside the house lives Cookie Bear’s cousin, Biscuit Bear, and there are baby walkers and miniature musical instruments and more books than I can count. There is room to run.
And inside and out and wherever they go – to the store and to the park, to her volunteer work and to the museum made for kids, Yia Yia is with her. All day long Yia Yia is with her, running around in the yard with her, teaching her to garden, teaching her how to bake, how to sing, how to dance, how to read – quite frankly, she is teaching her many of the things that I, as her mother, should be teaching her to do. Because it’s not just my few infrequent trips away that my daughter stays with my mom. Between her two days a week (plus more for sick days and school closures), my oh so infrequent date nights with my husband (like when we rode our bikes to the symphony all those months ago, sigh), and my late school nights every other week or so when I know I won’t finish in time to get her home at a baby appropriate hour (my mom, of course, lives seven minutes driving distance from where I work and study), Koukla spends a lot of time with her Yia Yia – probably even more time than she spends with me.
Some days I feel like someone else is raising my child, and I am okay with that. My mom looks like me, smells like me, talks the same funny language as me. And there are pictures of me and of my husband everywhere at Yia Yia’s house – my mom tells me that some days when the baby misses me more than usual she will go around the house pointing to pictures of me and saying Mama, Mama? It breaks my heart when I hear these stories, but this heartbreak is the exact reason why I think it’s so essential for my daughter to have someone else with whom the depth of her relationship is a close approximation to what she has with me. I am away from her so much, I wouldn’t want for her to simply be without that feeling of security anytime I’m not there.
Since having my daughter, my understanding of family has grown to look much like a picture of a many armed Shiva embracing the child, with arms belonging not only to the parents, but to the grandparents, the godparents, the aunts and uncles. I understand now why in so many traditional cultures (the Greek culture being no exception) the extended family is kept not so much at extension as in the house, lending helping hands and helping hearts because raising a child is difficult. It seems like the more modern we become, the further away from this model of family we are moving, but now more than ever it would seem that this model is needed – as a working mother, my options are to have my daughter raised by strangers, or to have my daughter raised by family.
I know many women who would rather quit their jobs and sign up on the welfare rolls than hand their baby off to a family member with whom they may have had a difficult relationship, but despite all of the complications that might come along with this, I choose family. I have lurid Greek fantasies of a three storied house with a floor for each family – me and Moonbear, my parents, his parents, and a fourth floor in the works for when Koukla grows up. It is difficult to understand how we all are managing to survive any other way.
My relationship with my mother is complex, just as complex as Koukla’s relationship with me will be when she is my age. But the relationship between my mother and Koukla is simple, no baggage, no old hurts, no miscommunications. And this is good beyond words for both of them – there is so much safety and room to grow in Koukla’s relationship with her Yia Yia, and there is so much healing and so much joy in it for my mom. As she said to me in one of her more nostalgic moments, she looks at Koukla and she sees me, she sees a chance to do it over again without all of the mistakes.
The mistakes I will make as a mother are yet to be seen, the only certainty is that they will occur, and the deeper she gets into toddlerhood and into the strong-willed, independence that she inherited from me, the more certain this certainty appears – she is going to challenge me. But when she challenges me, when she is old enough to push back and for us to fight, Yia Yia’s house will be there for her to escape to. Of course I already know whose side Yia Yia will take in the argument, and that’s exactly how it should be. No matter how complicated my relationship with my daughter may become with time, Yia Yia will always be Yia Yia, and there will always be another batch of cookies to be made, another book to read together on the sofa, another night away from the parents.