To Battle 'Inner Emptiness,' Mom Goes on a Two-Year Trek Around the World

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Leigh Ann Henion and her son Archer exploring Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island in Georgia. Photo courtesy of Leigh Ann Henion.

In her breathtaking new memoir, Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World published Tuesday, Leigh Ann Henion, 37, writes of the birth of her 5-year-old son Archer: “I love and marvel over him as if he were my own heart pushed into the world and, still beating, set on top of my chest. Yet I cannot help but mourn the loss of something I can’t quite place. I have an inner emptiness—literal and figurative—that I’ve never felt before.”

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What follows is a raw, sometimes gut-wrenching account of the dark and lonely place Henion finds herself in as she cares for a colicky, wakeful baby. Eventually Henion, a travel writer, realizes the only way out of her identity crisis is to leave her home in Boone, North Carolina and venture out into the world that once provided her so much peace and purpose. So shortly after Archer’s first birthday, Henion embarks — sometimes alone, sometimes with her husband — on a two-year trek around the world (with some stops home in between) in search of six natural phenomena. Think visiting an erupting volcano in Hawaii, catching the northern lights in Sweden, witnessing a solar eclipse in Australia and having a staring contest with a lion in Tanzania. Henion now opens up to Yahoo Parenting about the quiet shift that takes place within during new motherhood and how her journey helped her learn to trust herself as a parent. 

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Your treks took you to an eternal lightning storm in Venezuela and a wildebeest migration in Tanzania among other remote, sometimes dangerous places. How did you handle the fear?

I don’t think of myself as physically fit or terribly brave but I’m curious and that propels me. Throughout my journey, I’d think, ‘What am I doing?’ And then I’d do it and it would become one of the more extraordinary experiences of my life. Also, I was way more terrified during my first weeks of motherhood than I ever was on any of my journeys.

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Leigh Ann Henion (right) with her “reindeer sledge guide” (left) on the Torne River near Jukkasjӓrvi, Sweden.

Did you ever think you were taking risks mothers shouldn’t take or hear any negative feedback about your trips?

It wasn’t like I was leaving my son for months at a time — I’d go for a week or so and then return for long stretches so generally people aren’t upset about how much I was gone — they’re upset about what I was doing. But say I’m a mother who is also a biologist and I go to the Bio Bay in Puerto Rico to study dinoflagellates. People wouldn’t blink an eye because we value intellectual pursuits. But if you’re a mother who’s taking a week to gain spiritual perspective, some wonder —an emotion that’s been scientifically proven to have fantastic benefits — it’s not valued as much.

What were you hoping to find on this journey?

This wasn’t a search to find myself — it was a search to reconcile who I’d been and who I was becoming as a parent. I used to live in my head, but being a mother is not all intellectual. It’s emotional, it’s physical, it’s spiritual. I thought I was supposed to be reading all these books as if I was were studying for a graduate degree. This journey was about me learning to trust myself.

Why was the first year of motherhood so hard for you?

I felt so isolated — like I was supposed to do everything on my own. If I asked for help or needed to go out with friends for a night, I felt like that would be cheating, looking at someone else’s paper. You know the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child?’ I wasn’t letting the village in. I truly thought that in order to be a good mother, I was supposed to not exist.

What would you say to mothers who are inspired to seek wonder?

It doesn’t have to be volcanos and northern lights. There are amazing phenomena happening all around us. Go out, seek out these experiences—wherever you live, there is likely some obscure and wonderful phenomena occurring. The question I hope people will ask themselves after reading this book is: ‘What do I deeply yearn to do that I have not been doing because I’m not supposed to?’ If you don’t know, ask yourself what you find interesting but very scary.

How did the journey change the way you parent?

I still struggle through the anxieties of modern parenting but this journey shaped my perspective and reconnected me with nature, which is what gives me solace, spirituality, and wonder. And I share that with my son. Even though I don’t go to Mexico every year to watch the monarchs congregate, I can step outside into my yard with him and see that first monarch arrive on the milkweed in our yard. I can feel a part of something extraordinary.

Many mothers struggle emotionally after giving birth. Any advice for them?

There are so many books are out there about how to help your child sleep through the night, how to discipline your child — there are all these instruction manuals for how to live your life. I don’t feel comfortable telling other mothers how to live. What I would say is, ‘I don’t have the answers, but I really believe that you do.’

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