Lesbian and Gay Parenting book coverIn a Family Way

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Posted By on July 1, 2009

Well, I did it! I left my children for ten, yes, ten days, and went to Amsterdam (as in the Netherlands, not the town a few exits West on the thruway). It was one of the hardest, most challenging experiences in my near eight years of parenting. Although I have often left my kid’s with babysitters, and they’ve been in daycare since infancy, traveling to another country, across an ocean, and for ten days, was an entirely different matter.

Generally, even if one of us is traveling, the other is within an hour from home base. Only once before had we left them, less than a  month after 9/11, and we flew to Galveston, Texas for a conference. I insisted we travel on different planes, because the thought of the unthinkable happening and leaving my babies without a living parent was more than I could bear. This time we took the big plunge, and after spending a few hundred dollars updating our wills, grilling the babysitter, packing the freezer with quick frozen foods the likes of which we rarely eat, and washing and folding ten days worth of clothes, we got on the plane and left for paths unknown.

Many people were in awe. “You are leaving a three year old for ten days, “they said, trying not to sound judgmental. “That’s the first full week of school for your little one,” they said, making a statement into a question that clearly questioned my sanity and competency as a parent. A few people said, “Good for you,” and meant it, though they were clear they would never leave their children.

I figure I got to practice what I preach. And what I preach is that parents need time away from their children. Maintaining an adult relationship (not to mention an adult sexual relationship) with small children is a feat of incredible proportion. The truth is we were missing each other, both literally and figuratively. By the time we each finished our daily work, got the kids ready for school, packed the lunches, made a few phone calls, and scrubbed magic marker off of the walls, it was late and we were tired. The other piece for us is that, unlike the majority of couples, queer or straight, we had never, as in never-ever, had time to be a “couple” before children. We got together when our oldest son was 6 months old, and our love-life has always involved diapers, and fevers, and missing shoes, and after school pick-up, and well, sterilizing nipples (that’s not as exciting as it sounds, trust me).

So for ten days, we were just grown-ups. No children to tend to. We stayed up late, and slept in. We drank hot cups of coffee, and ate creamy handmade chocolate. We slowly savored mussels in garlic butter at midnight sitting in café’s on cobblestone streets, with the moon hanging over medieval buildings built during an era when Jews wouldn’t have been allowed on those same streets.

We went to Belgium initially for a conference. I was presenting at the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Conference, a gathering of specialists who work with transgender people. I got to meet a female psychiatrist from Turkey and the only social worker in Finland who dedicate their lives to assisting transsexual people in their actualization. It was a heady experience. When I realized I would be in Ghent for this conference, I quickly did a web search, and discovered how close I would be to the Van Gogh Museum, and I knew I couldn’t just fly there and back for “work,” but that my honey and I deserved some time together.

Amsterdam is a lovely liberal city, and the small towns surrounding it are as quaint as picture postcard and we marveled at a people who has reclaimed their land from the sea so many centuries before. Yes, people really do smoke pot on street corners, and prostitutes sell themselves with union backing and police protection. More to the point for me though, people were kind and gun violence is unheard of, although one’s life was clearly threatened by all the second-hand cigarette smoke, for people smoke in restaurants, and bathrooms with zero sensitivity that this might be disturbing to others. There appears to be no “gay ghetto” because gay people are integrated into their communities. Although gay marriage is legal, gay parenting is still new, and people were surprised when we mentioned having our children.

We came home to two healthy and happy boys, glad to have their moms back and no worse for the wear. Each had a melt-down within 24 hours, and they were sorry to not be eating pizza and frozen food every evening, but otherwise I think they have forgotten that we ever left. I, however, have come home with new eyes, as world travel can do. I am suddenly very aware that Albany was settled by the Dutch, and I see the influence of their architecture all around me. After negotiating very narrow and steep staircases and small quarters, I am glad for my home and yard, and space to spread out a bit. I am glad for the conveniences of America, things like coffee to-go, and the fact that most people speak the same language I do. Mostly, however, I am grateful for our competent babysitter, and all of our friends (and grandma) who checked on my kids, took them for walks and apple picking and made sure they were safe, so I could have a few days of freedom. Taking time away from my kids, I really do believe makes me a better parent. Taking time away from my kids in Europe makes me a happier person.