Arriving at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I’m rushed to find my train to Bordeaux. The depot for the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or high-speed train) is located within the airport but I don’t know where to go. No signs say: “Train this way.”
“Où est le train à Bordeaux?” I ask several people. When they finally figure out what I’m saying, they all answer in French, too quickly for me to understand.
For a time, I haul my bike case and two suitcases on a cart, but I leave the cart behind when I take a wrong turn down an elevator. Now I’m walking with my backpack strapped to my shoulders. I wheel the bike case in my right hand. I’ve stacked the small suitcase atop the large one, securing the two with a strap, jury-rigged for the purpose. These I pull in my left hand. Every twenty paces, the small suitcase lists sideways and I stop to rebalance it. I stumble on, stopping again and again to adjust my bags. Riding my bike up the Alps will be a cinch compared to this strenuous workout.
Finally, I make it to the train station with twenty minutes to spare. When the train to Bordeaux arrives, I ask the porter about my seat in car seventeen. He tells me that my car is down the tracks, about two hundred feet away. I attempt to sprint but pulling my unbalanced luggage with each hand slows me to a jog. At last I reach car seventeen and struggle to lift up my belongings.
People push by me, stepping around my load. No one will lend a hand until a middle-aged Indian woman dressed in a colorful sari sees my predicament and starts to assist me. Her efforts shame a young Indian man, maybe her son, into dropping his cigarette and helping me to lift and stow the luggage.
“Merci beaucoup,” I say to him. Somehow, my thank you seems inadequate for the appreciation I feel.
I find my seat on the train by the window facing backwards. It feels good to relax at last. I’m tired from my overnight plane travel and smelly from my airport suitcase workout. Dressed in athletic clothes with my hair in a ponytail, I look the antithesis of Parisian sophistication. But I am really in France and on my way to Bordeaux. I can’t believe I’ve finally made it here! It’s the Fourth of July, and I am free from the suitcases at last—or at least until my train arrives in Bordeaux.
While lugging suitcases through an airport in a foreign country isn’t an everyday occurrence, I’m certainly an expert at hauling a heavy load. After all, it has been just me carting the burden of single parenthood, using my wits and perseverance to make it through. Even when I’ve felt worn down, there has been no choice but to carry on.
I raised my daughter, Alex, on my own from the time she was nine. She was an active girl who loved to play sports. After work and on weekends, I would cart her to practices around the city. The worst time of year was the spring, when she would play basketball and train for her softball season. Sometimes she’d have two practices in an evening—one on one end of town, the other half an hour in the other direction.
Her sessions could take up most of my evenings, but I did what I could to be efficient. I might squeeze in a workout by dressing in my running gear and jogging outside. Other times, I’d plan a shopping expedition that could be completed in the time allotted.
After practices, there was always dinner to cook. Usually, we had easy-to-prepare meals like Crock-Pot roast, soup and sandwiches, or tacos. Friday was always pizza night; we’d eat in the living room while watching a movie.
As the years wore on, my weekends became even more hectic. I’d drive to the hinterlands of Montana for basketball and softball tournaments, sometimes staying overnight. There were even a few out-of-state tournaments that we’d travel to.
Alex played three sports a year as a high school freshman and sophomore, which meant a lot more games to watch. But at least I didn’t have to take her to practice. At the time, Montana allowed fifteen-year-olds who had taken drivers’ education to become licensed. I often hear parents say they are nervous for their kids when they learn to drive. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to squeeze out a little more time for myself.
Aside from chauffeur and fan, my primary role was to encourage her goals. Many of her friends and coaches dismissed her dream to pitch for a Division I college. No one from Montana makes it that far, some would explain. Who was she to think she could do it?
I became her advocate, countering the naysayers. “Don’t listen to them. Someone’s got to make it. Why not you?”
All of her hard work paid off, and she became a starting Division I pitcher. I was thrilled for her but lost to myself. I had devoted so much emotional energy to her goals, and once she left, I didn’t have a purpose.
I once gave a talk at my Toastmasters speaking group about how Alex’s determination drove her to success. My evaluator thought the speech was inspiring, but he wanted to know how Alex’s story had motivated me to pursue my goals. I didn’t have an answer.
All parents must go through this over-identification with their children’s well-being. Single parents especially overcompensate to give their children everything they are missing from being raised by one parent.
As a single parent, I learned how to truly love another person. I gave without expectation and set aside personal desires for the well-being of another. Yet in the process, I forgot about loving myself.