And then the news of Sarai Sierra’s trip and death. Why would a mother leave her children, why was she gone so long, what was she really up to? The insinuations and accusations were flying as the search for her revved up. I myself had a thought that perhaps she was trying to get away. But then they found her, dead, and likely killed the few hours before she was to board a plane home, early, to surprise her son for his birthday. And I felt my heart break for her, for her boys, and for everyone she was inspiring with her journey.
Because she is me, I am her, and our choices really not so different. I am sure some will take her death as proof that she was selfish or that these kinds of choices are inherently fool hardy. And I think about the father soldier who will not return, about the business traveler dad that has to be on location for months at a time, and about the young woman pursuing a high stakes career with travel that is deciding not to have a family. I think about the ways in which their choices are seen as necessary sacrifices and how some herald their decisions. But not so for a mother, and I can’t be sure that a mother of children any age would be judged less harshly.
As I was thinking about Sarai’s life and her decision to travel for a month to a part of the world she did not know I was struck by the choices she must have had to make. Her boys were 9 and 11, on the verge of teenage years, but well after the demanding toddler and kindergartner years. She started her family in her very early 20′s, when many are still figuring out what they want to be when they grow up. I imagined her as a selfless mother, captured by photos of her children that then flourished into photography as a passion. I imagined her planning meticulously, and deciding that the time was perfect, her boys back in school after the holiday break, she would be back in time for winter break and birthdays, and still time with them in school to edit and work on the fruits of her trip before summer came crashing in and she was back to schlepping active boys to and fro.
My husband and I talked about her trip, talked about her leaving her boys. We brought our 5 children with us on our adventure; we judged her. And I reminded him of our privileged ability to pay for the tickets that were not already covered in my travel grant, talked about the choices a parent faces when trying to time their lives and their children’s lives. When is a parent allowed to place priority on their personal or professional development? Would this have been any different if her boys were in college? Worse if they were infants and toddlers?
I am sad for her family. But I do not want her death to be a warning to ambitious parents, mothers or woman who might be mothers, to not pursue their passions. You can place your children’s activities and interests above your own, lots of women do and our US culture praises this. But if you feel empty, exhausted, resentful, shortchanged- are you really giving your best to your family? Does the choice really have to be so black and white? Can’t we cheer on parents, dads and moms, who pursue their passions AND try to negotiate the shifting sands of parenting as best they can? She is a heroine, and I will think of her often as my children are offered opportunities to change their lives. I hope they are always ready to love others and follow their dreams, and I will pray they are as safe as can be while still being part of the world.