Last October, I spent several weeks in Portugal with my kid. If we're friends in real life, you were probably inundated with pictures. A lot of people asked me "Why Portugal?" as I was preparing for our trip, and while we were over there. And it’s hard to answer simply. It’s a fair question, one I’d ask too if the situation were reversed. But it’s also a question I was never sure how to answer, and I never felt I responded in a way that told the story. Not fully. So, here is my attempt.
There are the simple answers, but they aren't the real ones. Portugal is cheap, at least compared other places in Europe. The flight there was short. Europe felt like a familiar, easy destination for the first time I took H out of the country by myself. Logistics brought Portugal to my list, but it was something else that made me fall in love with the place. And that’s the part that gets at the below-the-surface reasons for why I took my kid to another country for almost three weeks.
Let’s rewind. The year is 2011, and I was coming off a brutal spring semester. I was depleted, sad, stressed. It was the end of my first year teaching English; I was a couple years out of grad school and still trying to figure out what on earth I was doing. (Ha, still doing that.) And my marriage was failing. Jesse and I would drive to work together and fight the whole way. I’d get out of the car shaking with anger or fighting back tears. And I’d take a sharp breath in and push down every feeling and get the job done. I was smiley, peppy, full of energy and drive. It’s something I’m good at—putting on a show, getting things done even when I’m in chaos, making sure no one really knows what’s going on, not really. It’s survival. But I can only do it so long before collapsing under the weight of it all.
So by the time the semester ended, I was in sorry shape. I decided to spend the summer working on a novel, and I set it in San Francisco. And then I decided to spend the month of June in the city.
It might have seemed a whim, and it was a fast decision. But the decision was not because I wanted to go—it was because I needed to. I needed to be somewhere else. I needed to be far away. I needed to hide, or to find, or something—I didn’t know what I needed. But I knew that whatever it was, it was in that cold, foggy city. I can’t explain it better than that. I just knew in my bones that I needed to be in San Francisco.
I was terrified as soon as I’d booked the apartment. I was terrified the entire time leading up to the trip. (Didn’t help that I got mono the month before leaving.) Jesse spent the first week out there with me, and the morning he left, I just stayed in bed and cried. I’d never been alone like this, never. I was in a city where literally no person knew my name.
The apartment was so empty. The fog was heavy the morning he left. I stayed inside all day. The next day, I went to the farmer’s market and bought pale pink hydrangeas and made a sandwich with radishes and butter on sourdough, and to fill the apartment with sound I played a CD the apartment owners had left by the stereo. It was Portuguese fado, sung by Ana Moura, and it was so mournful that even though I spoke no Portuguese, I understood it immediately. After that, I wrote, I explored the city, I ate in Chinese restaurants alone, I read books in the Shakespeare Garden at Golden Gate Park. I took yoga classes in the upstairs of a beautiful blue Edwardian house. I rode the bus and the train and listened to music and watched people as the city trundled past my window.
That month saved me. It reset something in me. It gave me confidence, it gave me clarity. It was a way of proving something to myself—something I wasn’t even really aware of at the time.
A few months after I came home, Tom was diagnosed with cancer. A year after that, he died. The year after that was dominated by China, preparing for the trip, completing the trip. And two months after we returned from China, I was pregnant. Ten difficult months later, life was completely upended. Six months after H was born, I quit my job and we moved to Charlotte.
Everything happened so quickly after San Francisco. I don’t think I ever caught my breath.
That first year in Charlotte was brutal in its own ways. I haven’t processed it yet—I’m only beginning to do that work, just barely. But in many ways, it was a more intense, more heartbreaking version of 2011. And I needed, desperately, to be anywhere but here.
So I started planning. Saving. Researching. And it was Portugal that called me.
Lisbon is a city on a river, the Tagus, with a rust-gold suspension bridge. It’s a city on hills. Steep, winding roads. It’s a city destroyed by an earthquake, and rebuilt. In so many ways, Lisbon and San Francisco are echoes of each other. Maybe that’s why I had to be there in the aftermath of my life falling apart around me. I needed to be in a city that had been destroyed and rebuilt. I needed to do some rebuilding of my own.
And I needed to prove that I could travel with my child. Because my life stopped after she was born. It just stopped. Postpartum anxiety and depression felled me the first six or seven months. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t drive. I checked her temperature every day. I was afraid of giving her baths, afraid of any bump or rash I found, I was afraid of too much sunshine, I was afraid of germs, I was afraid of waking up to find her cold in her crib. If I couldn’t hear her breathing as I fell asleep, I would get up to check, over and over, until I finally would pass out from exhaustion. It was brutal. Every day was a battle inside my head. And through it all I tried so very hard to not let any of it show. Because I felt crazy, and what would make it worse was having everyone know how crazy I was. Because why was motherhood so hard for me, when it seemed so easy for everyone else?
After I finally realized what was happening and got treatment, I started to come back to myself. But it took a long, long time. And in the midst of my recovery, much of the rest of my life unraveled in the process.
I had initially wanted to go to Portugal in 2016, but the money wasn’t there. So in 2017, tickets to Lisbon went on sale, and I bought one for H, and one for me. And I threw myself into preparing for the trip, researching car seats on airplanes, Portuguese SIM cards, AirBnBs.
It was exciting at first—and then the terror set in. What on earth was I doing? What was I thinking? Who takes their two-year-old—their exceptionally strong-willed two-year-old—by themselves to Portugal? My family didn’t think I could do it. I worried they were right.
But I went.
And it was hard.
But it was also wonderful.
It was wonderful because it was hard. It was hard and I did it. I carried (sometimes dragged) that strong-willed two-year-old and our luggage and her car seat through three Portuguese cities, on buses and trains and into taxis, up so many hills, across slippery cobblestone streets. My back ached. We fought. The weather was supposed to be in the 70s; an unseasonal heatwave hit and days were topping out in the 90s.
But this is the point: I did it. And I did it alone. I don’t just mean without Jesse. I mean alone. Just me, just me and this child who is so much like me.
After H was born, I told Jesse that giving birth was the most traumatic thing I’d ever experienced. And even though I was surrounded by people—Jesse never left my side, and there were of course the nurses, and the doctors. But even though I wasn’t physically alone, giving birth was an extremely solitary experience. It was something only I experienced. The only other person who went through it was my child. She was the only other person who went through the trauma with me.
Postpartum too—the anxiety, it pushed everyone away from me. No one was there in that darkness with me either. They couldn’t be. No one but her.
Recovery has been a work I’ve done mostly on my own as well. A few kind friends have listened to me and prayed for me, but most of it I’ve done alone.
After about a year here, I started to build a community in Charlotte, and for a while I thought I had found a tribe, I thought I had found my people. But by the time I bought the tickets, I was starting to realize I had been mistaken. I wasn’t going to ever fit into the group I was trying to join. I wasn’t ever going to belong there. I could disappear, and no one would have taken notice.
And so I wanted to be as alone as I felt. I wanted my physical surroundings to match my emotional state. If I was going to be alone, I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be in a country where no one knew me. I wanted to be somewhere I was supposed to be alone.
So, why did I go to Portugal? Because I needed to. I needed to be there.
And I’m so glad I went.