I think it’s going to be some time before we take off.

This was my first thought as I tailed two stewardesses dressed in no-nonsense navy, their silky golden scarves wafting over their suit shoulders as they strode to the automatic entry gate. Destination: Heathrow. The boarding process was well underway – Groups 2, 3, and 4 had already been called, plus the obligatory Business and Executive Class along with those with small children and reduced mobility – but I already had a sinking feeling we’d be pushing back late. There was a disorderly queue snaking away from the gate counter, and the two gentlemen in charge seemed in no hurry. I only half-caught their muffled entreaty for “all passengers to London” to come to the counter. I sipped my scalding coffee and texted my sister about how impressed I was with the kids waiting for the Tokyo flight one gate over. Then it hit me. Every single passenger needs to go to the counter? For our Covid documentation? I’d better get moving.

I hadn’t flown in 51 weeks, discounting the flight out of England I had taken to Germany thirteen days ago, and Covid-19 was still ravaging the airline industry. Despite having both coronavirus vaccines, and being on official military orders, the check-in procedure was even slower than border control. Sweaty passengers with rumpled face masks waited impatiently as I walked past. The jetway was deserted. I had been one of the early ones to get checked.

Part of this madhouse is Britain’s fault. In this new age of Covid-19, every country gets its own say as to how to control its borders. As I write this, the UK is still making me quarantine upon arrival because it doesn’t yet recognize my US Centers for Disease Control vaccine card. (In 48 hours, it will, and in five days, Germany will be on the Green List for travel.) As I write this, American friends and family are asking me about the Delta variant and how England’s coping. (Fine, thank you.) And it’s not just the Brits. As I write this, the US is still closed to non-US citizens. (I predict a US-UK travel corridor imminently.) But with the robust, early vaccine rollout in Great Britain along with a few months of Delta already under our belts, the scare tactics are over. It’s time to restart the economy.

Seat found, bag stowed, belt on. Oh, wait. Here’s the pilot in his thick German accent, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you are aware, the travel procedures these days are quite complicated.” Yes, Hans, that’s obvious. “Please be patient as we continue to check travel documents.”

Silver lining: this is an invitation to start writing. I promised myself a blog post months ago.

The last two weeks have been a vacation for me. Yes, I’ve been working. And yes, it’s been busy and hectic and stressful in various ways. But I was able to make it to Germany by myself. One suitcase, one backpack. Considering the chaos of all the airports, train stations, and vehicle traffic I’ve suffered, I’m ecstatic I was able to leave both kids at home. Have I felt guilty? Oh yes. But it was a much-needed work break.

Leaving a nearly-three-year-old at home with Daddy and the in-laws was an easy choice for me. She’s out of preschool, can pretty much feed, clothe, and entertain herself, and loves Nanny and Pappy. But my five-month-old? He still needs me. I was still breastfeeding when I left. I have been his primary caregiver since birth. But also… he’ll be fine. I know this. The signs are all there. 1) He happily takes a bottle of formula and has readily explored baby porridge; 2) He coos at anyone, not just me; 3) As his big sister, Robin is firmly entrenched in her role as sibling caregiver. He’s in good hands.

But then, expressing while working. I did this with Beaner when I finished Command and Staff in North Carolina, and also when I brought her to Germany (twice). I wasn’t excited about the prospect of doing it again. Yes, breast is best and all that, but this time I acknowledged that fed is best. The little man was healthy, happy, and growing well with combination feeding. I tried weaning R when she was around 8 months. She wasn’t ready. My body wasn’t ready. And I wasn’t ready for not being ready. Mentally, I wanted to move on, to get my body back, to have someone else feed her. But I couldn’t even skip one feed before my boobs became engorged and I knew it wasn’t time. When she finally weaned two months later, I found the process more natural.

My son seems extremely willing to let me go. I was bracing myself for nursing long-term, but there were signs it would end earlier. For one, breastfeeding wasn’t the “amazing, natural, easy” task of last time (though, that’s a lie; the first six weeks are hell). For two, this boy bites. And is easily distracted, stretching my nipples in ungodly ways. And third, he sometimes doesn’t finish. So, it was more painful chore and less wonderful bonding moment for me. Obviously, I wasn’t that enthused about breastfeeding this time.

Don’t get me wrong, nursing is awesome when it’s going well. It is a nice bonding moment, looking at your amazing body keeping another human alive, marveling how this tiny man is half you. But when it’s not going well, when the first six months is like having needles of fire coursing through your breasts and you cry whenever he latches on because your nipples are raw and you break down and make a bottle of formula and feel like a failure as a woman and a mother even though you plan on pumping afterward, that’s when you think about what really matters. And a fed baby matters. A healthy child matters. And a healthy mother matters. I learned this time around that my mental health is fragile. That my marriage to my husband and my relationship with my daughter depends a huge amount on how much sleep I’ve gotten, how healthy I am, and how much stress I’m under. And so, I decided that since it was already headed that way, I’d stop expressing.

The plane took off from Frankfurt fifteen minutes late. That didn’t surprise me. We launched in bright sun and patchy clouds. I slept for a moment in the middle, after the stewardesses handed out water but before they came around with a tiny square of chocolate for each passenger. When I awoke, the sun was gone. We were on our descent into London as I opened the shade. Grey clouds filled my vision. I spotted Buckingham Palace and Kensington Gardens down below, smeared by curtains of rain and jetwash. For a brief moment, a weak rainbow showed itself. Ah, England.

It was time to be home.

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