- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 9, 2005

The suitcase drags awkwardly behind me with the weight of its overpacked contents.

Despite the wheels that allow me to pull it through the airport terminal, it tips precariously to one side. I have one hand on the extended handle while the other readjusts the shoulder strap of the laptop case, digging painfully into my collarbone, imprinting itself into my skin as I attempt a brisk walk toward Gate B7. I’m guessing I don’t look very professional.

Clearly, I brought too much clothing. The writers conference I’m attending lasts just three days — I will need to change my clothes every three hours to wear everything in my bag. It has been so long since I have spent time in the company of professionals, I have forgotten what’s appropriate for “business casual.” Basically, I packed anything I wouldn’t wear to the grocery store.

The drive to the airport took about an hour. I spent the first 30 minutes wondering if I had washed the red shirt my daughter needs for tonight’s baseball game and worrying about whether it will occur to anyone to look in her laundry hamper if they can’t find it.

As I barrel down the expressway, I take a mental inventory of all the issues I didn’t mention to my husband when I kissed him goodbye. (We’re out of milk; tomorrow is garbage day; the children start day camp on Monday morning).

I remind myself I’m not the only person in the family capable of purchasing milk or rolling the trash to the curb, all evidence to the contrary. By the time I’m 30 miles out of town, I’m able to brush aside the nagging thoughts of things I wanted to accomplish before I left that will instead await my return. One of those was to clean out the produce drawer in the refrigerator. It’s a sure bet no one will take the initiative on that one.

The next part of the drive to the airport is reserved for guilt.

Guilt is what women feel when leaving home for any reason. Weekend getaway with your hubby? Guilt. Business trip to network with colleagues and build professional connections? Guilt. Nonelective, lifesaving surgery requiring an inpatient stay? Guilt.

Men don’t do this, and they don’t understand why we do.

Here is why: Despite encouraging me to go to the workshop to which I’m heading; despite reassuring me he would handle everything in my absence and reminding me he knew how to heat food long before he met me, my husband made a minor observation about the cost of the baby sitter I had hired to “be me” while he is at work. Clearly, the only reason to mention this is to impose guilt.

The other reason I feel guilty is because my suitcase is filled with emergency purchases designed to transform me from a work-from-home writer in denim to a polished professional — as if new Capris and a sweater set will make over my reality and not just my appearance.

The guilt doesn’t last for the whole trip, however. When a woman makes a plan that involves leaving home for more than eight hours, that plan will include a period of self-imposed emotional hand-wringing while she detaches from the mutual dependence she shares with her family.

By the time I have beached the van in the airport’s remote parking lot and maneuvered my overpacked bag to the shuttle stop, I can feel my shoulders relax, and it dawns on me I have really done it: I have escaped.

Inside the shuttle, I’m struck by the fact that the passengers are squished together, sitting shoulder to shoulder, but no one is yelling “Don’t touch me” or complaining to the driver that the next person is taking up too much of the seat.

Waiting to board my plane, I’m free to watch the news, read a magazine article without interruption and stand in a winding line to order a Frappuccino. Remarkably, none of the people in line with me asks how long it will be until it’s his or her turn to order.

At last, I’m sitting on the plane in seat 14B. Suddenly, my stomach knots like the shoelace of my son’s sneaker. The churning, gripping, tension radiates to the rest of my body. I forgot how much I hate to fly.

I used to like flying, but that ended after I became a mother almost 16 years ago. Before then, flying felt like taking a bus, but ever since I gave birth, I have been unable to relax on an airplane unless my family travels with me. For some twisted reason, I’m less afraid of a tragedy that would take the lives of all of us together than I am of leaving my children motherless, without a ride to camp, or milk, or empty garbage cans.

So I do what comes naturally when I’m nervous — I talk. Fortunately, the man in the seat next to me is eager to chat. He’s on his way home to Mexico for a few months after spending a year in the United States to attend school. He’s studying to be a cosmetologist. His name is Jesus.

Next thing I know, I’m babbling to Jesus about my family — giving him the rundown on my children, telling him about their summer activities and what they want me to bring back for them on my trip.

As I recount all the steps it took to orchestrate my departure from home, Jesus gives me a kind smile, and I realize it’s as obvious to him as it is to me that I haven’t really left home at all.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. hicks@comcast.net.

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