‘When are you coming back?’: Tackling business travel as a parent as the world reopens

A woman talks on the phone at the airport while traveling. Photo: Michael Duva / Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, my husband texted me: “Are you going to speak to your sons tonight?”

I called immediately, apologized and explained that I’d been visiting some hot springs with a friend.

“Hot springs?” my husband asked in mock exasperation.

“We need a break after writing all day!” I responded.

He was teasing; he knew that I’d needed this long-postponed writing retreat. We’d first intended to go in the spring of 2020, and after I taught a weekend workshop in Denver, my friend and I headed northeast to Steamboat Springs, Colo.

“Stop abandoning us!” Gege shouted in the background.

“Did you tell them to say that?” I asked my husband. Even without seeing them, I could tell they were grinning.

Though I felt a bit guilty, I could not pass up the opportunity. When my husband and I trade off who travels for business, the solo parent sends frequent texts and photos of the boys, but scheduling a substantive call can be difficult.

When he’s traveling, though they miss him, I do not recall them making the same accusation of abandonment. Perhaps it has to do with duration and frequency: He has traveled more often, but I’ve been gone for longer stretches of time. Or maybe it’s because I’m their mother, and there are gendered expectations to that role.

The moon rises over the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Where Vanessa Hua took her writer’s retreat. Photo: Vanessa Hua / Special to The Chronicle

“Why are you on vacation without us?” Didi asked.

“It’s not vacation!” I protested with a laugh.

“When we work all day, and then we take you to the pool, is that vacation?” my husband asked them. The boys seemed to agree, but the truth is, they’ve gotten used to having us both around during the pandemic, with me and my husband both working from home.

“When are you coming back?” Didi asked.

“Tomorrow!” I promised. I’ve already told them I’ll teach at another writing conference in Tennessee later this summer, but they’ve probably already forgotten (and may well accuse me of abandonment again when we part ways).

My weekend workshop students were inspiring – diligently pecking away at their computers and scratching into their notebooks. After the isolation and social distancing of the pandemic, the chance to write together felt almost sacred.

Afterward on my writing retreat, I made a breakthrough on a character and also mapped out my class for the fall semester.

On my first business trip of the year in early spring, I had a near meltdown when I spilled globs of hand sanitizer trying to refill a travel-sized one. “I’ve forgotten my systems!” I exclaimed. Now I have my packing and travel routines squared away; I take pride in my self-sufficiency.

As with everything else, we’re not yet back to normal with travel, which remains more onerous than before the pandemic: the way the ear loops of a KN95 mask feel like they’re sawing off that appendage; the coughing and sneezing of travelers who do not bother to cover their noses and mouth with a hand, let alone a mask; the haywire flight schedules, rising fuel costs, jam-packed planes and staffing stretched thin; and the ever-present fear that indoor activities necessary for my livelihood could put me at risk.

People wind their way in a queue created by stanchions at a security checkpoint on June 15 at San Francisco International Airport. Photo: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

“Is this when I get COVID? ” I’ll ask myself, every time I walk into an event. I’ve looked at the calendar, thinking, “This would be a good week to get it.”

Not that I want to catch it – and risk long COVID – and not that the coronavirus will take my travel schedule into consideration. During the recent spring surge, I heard about families who missed milestones like high school graduations and weddings or who got stuck in hotels abroad (before the CDC recently stopped requiring a negative viral test to re-enter) because COVID caught up with them at last .

But I’ve come to realize how important – pandemic or not – the time away is, not only for my kids’ independence but also because professional fulfillment paradoxically makes me a better mother when I am present.

When I got home from the airport, the boys wrapped me into a hug. I did a load of laundry and, a few days later, packed all over again.




  • Vanessa Hua

    Vanessa Hua is the author, most recently, of “Forbidden City.” Her column appears Fridays in Datebook.

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