Absence makes the heart grow frantic!

While her daughter’s trip to Peru did not faze Michelle Lawford, the prospect of having no contact with her well and truly did.

At six o’clock in the morning we drove our 14-year-old daughter to the airport, where she would fly off for the adventure of a lifetime. She was going on a school trip to Peru to install water tanks in a village near Cuzco that had no access to clean water. The idea was to expose the children to the challenges of life in a developing country. For three weeks.

Through the haze and splitting headache of a sleepless night, I tried to remind myself to be cheery and light, but actually, it felt like we were driving to a funeral. My husband was in an even worse state than me; he looked seriously depressed (although, later, he prided himself on how well he had concealed his true feelings!). We should have been excitedly chattering about everything that awaited her on the trip, but instead, there was a conspicuous silence. Three weeks in Peru. Three weeks without contact. That was the deal.

The school had said no phones or emails or Skype or any kind of technology allowed. For us, it would be the experience of being cut off from our daughter for three weeks. Until then, I had been focusing on her experience; what it would be like for her. Now, suddenly, I was confronted with what it would be like for me. Being separated for three weeks was one thing, but not having any contact was something altogether different.

A primitive panic had hit me in the middle of the night. It wasn’t about anything specific. I had no problem with Peru or air travel or diseases or the dangers of trekking or the cold or the altitude or scores of other things that other parents might have worried about. These things honestly didn’t worry me. I had every faith that my daughter would have an amazing adventure. I am not a neurotic worrier when it comes to my children or travel, but the prospect of being cruelly cut off from my child had sparked something deep inside me. My maternal instinct had responded to this forthcoming loss of contact by going into overdrive.

Again, the next night, in my sleep, caught in the psychic limbo between dreams and drives, something was stirred within me and I suddenly woke up in a state of hyper alertness, like a primate mother in the jungle. The darkness and sense of disorientation seemed to feed the panic. There was only one thought in my mind: is my baby safe? My anxiety was primal, but after I woke, I tried to apply my intellect to the situation. However, I found my heart racing about trivial things, such as, ‘Why didn’t I buy her a bigger toiletries bag?’ ‘Does she have enough conditioner?’ As I lay there, going over and over these things in my mind, I knew I wasn’t anxious about anything remotely practical. It was pure frantic panic about separation from, and loss of contact with, my child.

It didn’t make sense. Wasn’t I the parent who had reassured all the other parents? Wasn’t I the one who had been calm leading up to the date of departure? It seemed to me that what I was feeling was primitive and raw and had nothing to do with logic and everything to do with instinct.

I thought about wildlife programs I’d seen recently, where mothers had become separated from their young. It had been fascinating to see the reactions of different kinds of animals to this situation.

Migrating wildebeest and elk seemed to trudge on relentlessly, instinct driving them to complete the journey and stop for nothing. When a calf couldn’t keep up, or drowned during a hazardous river crossing, the mother seemed to briefly look back and then carry on. Some didn’t even look back. “Unaware or unmoved that her calf has not survived the crossing, she keeps going,” the narrator had droned in one documentary.

On the other hand, I’d also seen a program about grizzly bear mothers in Canada on a relentless and urgent odyssey into the mountains to find a den before winter arrived. One mother urged her cubs on, and then had to hide them while continually going back to find the weak one who couldn’t keep up. The mother was torn between her search for the missing cub and her need to keep her other cubs hidden from murderous male grizzlies while she searched.

I had also seen a program about a lioness that spent two days searching for her lost cub, which had become separated from the migrating pride. Caught between the distress of losing one cub and the drive to lead her other cubs to food, the lioness was clearly frantic and stressed. Every minute she spent looking for the lost cub meant putting her whole family at risk: she and her cubs could only survive in the safety of the pride. It was heartbreaking to hear the cub and mother desperately calling to each other, but too far away to hear each other.

In the daylight hours, I was still a rational human, but at night, in sleep, I was just like any other intelligent animal that had been separated from her young. Unplugged, cut off and offline, the only thing I was wired to was my evolutionary past.

Unexpectedly, two days later, we got an email from Lima airport and my heart soared like the lioness when she had heard the faint plaintive mewing of her lost cub far off in the distance. Contact.

It was true after all. Teenagers do think rules are made to be broken. The next day, another email arrived from Cuzco. Well, why not? Why couldn’t she have an horizon-expanding experience and still tell her mummy she was okay? It was good to see the trip had already pushed her to think independently.

That’s my girl!

Illustrations by Ron Monnier