Fifteen hours later, I was watching chickens scratch in the yard of a cinder-block house in a hot and humid little town three hours by dirt road from Guatemala City. When the family with whom I was staying asked to see pictures of my daughter, I brought out the ones I'd carefully packed: Melissa triumphantly atop a huge boulder in the California desert; her preschool portrait with shining blond hair and deep blue eyes radiating joy and energy. Sometimes looking at these pictures at home made me ache with the need to touch her. Seeing them now, when she was utterly beyond my reach, might have broken my heart. But it didn't. The truth, I realized with shock, was that once the plane landed in Guatemala, I stopped missing Melissa. I knew she was fine without me -- she had her wonderful father and a loving babysitter to care for her, and friends and teachers to keep her busy at school.
Meanwhile, I was free. There was no one counting on me, running to me for comfort and reassurance, constantly demanding milk, ice cream, a game, a bathroom right now; no one peppering me with questions or offering the kind of never-ending kid commentary I love but that can drown out everything else. The silence washed over me. My mind and body slowed.
And then, as if I were gradually coming awake, I felt alive with an intensity that was far more than a response to the pleasure of being released from motherhood's endless responsibilities. For the first time in nearly four years, I abruptly realized, I felt like...myself.
I never meant to give up myself when I became a parent. I held on to old friends and old beliefs; I went back to work full-time (albeit at home) when Melissa was only 3 months old. Yet even before this trip, I'd begun to realize that part of me was missing. Sure, some surrender had been necessary -- I quickly found that it's impossible to nurture an infant if you're working long days plus weekends; and it's equally impossible to be a make-no-plans free spirit when the little creature at your side needs you.
But the loss of self went deeper than that. I'd never managed to find time to exercise and lose my pregnancy weight, so for ages I had been dressing in baggy clothes that made me feel like a frumpy stranger. I'd given up on ever going out at night because I felt too guilty leaving Melissa. And most important, although since childhood I've needed to withdraw into myself regularly, to observe and to reflect, I'd never found a way to do that as a parent. Whether it was because I felt so strongly the responsibility to be there for my daughter, or because my love for her was so overpowering -- or both -- whenever I was with Melissa, I was so focused on her that I barely noticed my own thoughts and feelings. On family hikes, for example, the pad of footsteps on pine needles and the green smell of mountain air were less vivid to me than making sure that Melissa wasn't getting tired or bored. At museum outings, I always watched for her reactions to the pictures.
In a place as alien as any I'd ever been to, an old part of me resurfaced. I threw myself into a warm, wild stretch of the Pacific. I tasted every molecule of just-picked mangoes and the milk from coconuts split open only a moment before with machetes. I experienced everything so deeply that those four days remain etched in my mind with a clarity that puts my photos to shame. When I very happily arrived back at home, that sense of wholeness was still there.
And it has stayed. It's not that I have magically returned to my pre-pregnancy self. Motherhood is like a chemical process that permanently alters your being. But feeling all of me again made me understand just how important it is for me to hold onto the self that is the Not-Mom.
Two months after I returned home, I started to exercise again. I occasionally hired a babysitter and went out with my husband at night. And now, when I'm with Melissa, I find that I'm more able to give myself permission to also pay attention to me -- to retreat into private thoughts, even if it's only for a moment, to let her squeals of joy as she runs along the beach fade into the background while I feel my own rising exultation at the briny sea wind and the shimmering, silver light.
It's not easy. For many women, it's a struggle to love other people while maintaining boundaries. But for me, there's no other choice. I'll have more for my daughter if I don't give half of myself away.
Carol Lynn Mithers has written for a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times magazine.