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

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

A few weeks ago, my husband texted me, “Are you going to talk to your sons tonight?

I called immediately, apologized and explained that I had visited hot springs with a friend.

“Hot Springs?” asked my husband with mock exasperation.

“We need a break from writing all day!” I answered.

He was teasing; he knew I needed that long-delayed writing retreat. We were originally planning to go in the spring of 2020, and after teaching a weekend workshop in Denver, my friend and I headed northeast to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

“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 smiling.

Even though I felt a little guilty, I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. When my husband and I trade who’s traveling for business, the single parent frequently sends texts and photos of the boys, but planning a background call can be tricky.

When he travels, although they miss him, I don’t remember them making the same accusation of abandonment. Maybe it has to do with duration and frequency: he traveled more often, but I was away longer. Or maybe because I’m their mother and there are gendered expectations to this role.

The moon rises over the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where Vanessa Hua retired as a writer. Photo: Vanessa Hua/Special for The Chronicle

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

“It’s not a vacation!” I protested, laughing.

“When you work all day and then take you to the pool, is that a vacation?” my husband asked them. The boys seemed okay, but the truth is they got used to having the two of us together during the pandemic, with my husband and I both working from home.

“When will you come back?” Didi asked.

“Tomorrow!” I promised. I’ve already told them I’ll be teaching 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 – pecking diligently at their computers and scratching in their notebooks. After the isolation and social distancing of the pandemic, the possibility of writing together seemed almost sacred.

Then, during my writing retreat, I had 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 nearly collapsed when I spilled drops of hand sanitizer while trying to refill a travel size one. “I forgot my systems!” I exclaimed. Now I have my packing and travel routines squared; I am proud of my autonomy.

As with everything else, we are not yet back to normal with travel, which remains more expensive than before the pandemic: the way the ear loops of a KN95 mask feel like sawing off that appendage ; the coughing and sneezing of travelers who don’t bother to cover their nose and mouth with a hand, let alone a mask; broken flight schedules, rising fuel costs, crowded planes and stretched staff; and the pervasive fear that the inner activities necessary for my livelihood might endanger me.

People make their way through a queue created by candlesticks at a security checkpoint June 15 at San Francisco International Airport. Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

“East this when i get COVID? I will wonder, every time I walk into an event. I looked at the calendar thinking, “This would be a good week to get it.”

Not that I want to catch it – and risk COVID for a long time – and not that the coronavirus takes into account my travel schedule. During the recent spring surge, I’ve heard of families missing important milestones like high school graduations and weddings or being stuck in hotels overseas (before the CDC recently stopped requiring a negative virus test to re-enter) because COVID has finally caught up with them.

But I realized the importance – pandemic or not – of the time spent, not only for the independence of my children, but also because professional fulfillment paradoxically makes me a better mother when I am present.

When I came back from the airport, the boys hugged me. I did some laundry and, a few days later, I packed up again.

  • Vanessa Hua

    Vanessa Hua is the author, most recently, of “Forbidden City”. His column appears on Fridays in Calendar.

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