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I was ecstatic for my first business trip in two years — until all hell broke loose

Author and working mom Jenn Folsom shares her stressful experience and chats with experts about the best ways to ease back to work travel and up the joy factor.
Author Jenn Folsom on her first business trip in two years.
Author Jenn Folsom on her first business trip in two years.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

Last month, I got the call I didn’t know I needed: there was an urgent need for a keynote speaker at an industry conference in New Orleans the following week. Was I interested in taking the spot? Sick of my four walls, inundated with family togetherness because of Covid-19, and a tad bit of wanderlust, I jumped at the chance to spend a few days in the Big Easy.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have traveled some – but never for work. The trips have mostly been by car to visit friends and family. I’ve stayed out of hot spots and have avoided crowds at all costs. And like all things pandemic, I was anxious.

So, I dusted off my overnighter, found some stretchy black pants (yes, actual pants) that still fit, and strolled through the new-to-me terminal at Reagan National Airport. The next 24 hours were glorious.

I slept in a king bed all by myself, got up the next morning and nailed my presentation. Walking to an after-work reception, I wondered what that strange sensation was pulsing through my body. It was so strong it stopped me in my tracks crossing Poydras Street: it was unbridled joy. Since the pandemic began, I hadn’t felt myself, hadn’t felt alive. And here I was, doing my thing. But back on the homefront, things began to fall apart.

The morning I was departing, one of my teenage sons had what can only be described as a low-level mental health crisis that required me to be on the phone with him and his care providers from more than 1,000 miles away. As I was checking out of my hotel, my Mom called to let me know my Dad had collapsed at a doctor’s office and was in an ambulance to the ER. I was frazzled. How was I to manage this from halfway across the country?

I realized I hadn’t set my family up for success. Sure, these things would have probably happened had I been at home, but managing from afar was stressful and only amped up my anxiety. After nearly two years of near-constant togetherness, I hadn’t prepared my family for me to be out of pocket for three days. They were depending on me to jump right in and solve problems and take charge and make everything better.

I am writing this from my second business trip, another conference, and I am doing things differently this time. I chose a location 130 miles away from home; if things went to hell in a handbasket, I was only a drive away. I hired a part-time caregiver for my Dad to give my Mom some relief, and be there in case something happened. I spent an hour on the phone with my two older sons, letting them know where I was going, getting a check on how they were doing, and offering some proactive mom support. I feel just as joyous being back in my element of work travel, but a lot less anxious than before. With my son in a better headspace and a care plan in effect for my Dad, I felt good- and less anxious- about going away.

As the world begins to open up, I turned to two moms who travel a lot for work to share some advice to bring down the anxiety levels, up the joy factor, and prepare for the return of life on the road. Actress and theater director Katie Lowes, when not playing Quinn Perkins on “Scandal,” is a mom of two young children who is always juggling location shoots and theater productions. Amy Sterner Nelson is the founder of The Riveter, a community, content, and training platform for working women. She’s also the mother of four kids under the age of 8 and for six months last year traveled four days per week.

Address the anxiety

“We’re all a little anxious,” said Nelson. “Think about it, we’ve been telling our kids for nearly two years that they needed to stay home from school and playdates and wash their hands and not touch things because they could get really sick, and then all of a sudden Mom is going away. I mean, is she going to come back? Will she get sick? Will she bring germs back to the house? This is scary stuff.” Nelson emphasized the importance of having age-appropriate conversations that directly address fears, but also risk-mitigating steps, such as waiting to travel until fully vaccinated.

Amy Nelson is the founder and CEO of The Riveter, a network of community and work spaces built by women, for everyone.Courtesy of The Riveter.

Determine your own risk profile

Nelson acknowledged that “everyone is in a different place, and that place changes almost daily.” You need to account for your own health profile, that of your family, and vaccine eligibility of those around you. But Lowes, who has teamed up with a major hotel brand to embrace the challenges of working mom travel, added that, “it’s time we get out and see our close friends and family, to do what we’re passionate about. I’ve never come back from a trip and said ‘hey, I regret that I did this.’” Nelson suggests doing a pre- and post-trip Covid-19 test to give you an added layer of security that you’re not spreading the disease, or unknowingly bringing it home to your family.

Amy Nelson's four kids from left to right: Merritt (4), Reese (5), Sloane (7) Holland (2).Courtesy of Amy Nelson.

Prepare the family

After not setting her kids up for success for her first trip post-vaccination business travel, Nelson has made a special effort to make trip planning a family effort. She has a whiteboard calendar with visual cues for her children, even the pre-readers, to see when she will be gone and where she will be. With her older daughters, she helps them pick out three days of outfits and three nights of story time books for Dad to read to them for the duration of her trip.

Lowes is fortunate to travel with her children for some of her work, and added “there's never enough snacks that you can pack. And I use bribery and candy and iPads.”

Lowes also shared her flying hack. "Use that car seat bag and stroller bag to stuff all heavy winter jackets and coats and mittens and all those things in," she advised. "And the best part is it doesn’t count as checked luggage on a flight.”

Embrace the Bleisure trend

I have definitely embarked on the new bleisure trend. I did a few fun things for myself on my last work trip, and tote my laptop to long weekends and midweek escapes all over the country. But admittedly, boundaries have been hard.

For Lowes, it’s all about the boundaries real talk. “I say to my family, ‘I know this doesn't look like an office. I know this doesn't look like work because I'm hiding in my closet or if we're in a hotel I'm hiding in the bathroom or whatever it is, but you cannot come in.’”

Actress Katie Quinn Lowes.Courtesy of La Quinta by Wyndham

Watch your fuel gauge

“I’m a huge extrovert,” said Nelson. “But after so much time at home, I find I don’t have the energy I used to for big crowds. It sounds bad, but I have to be kind of selective, I mean, if the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that I only have so much fuel in the tank. I have to rest and refill.” I couldn’t agree more. These last two conferences have made me realize that my “people muscles” had atrophied during the time at home.

At my second conference in a month, I have to say I agree with Nelson. I may have missed a few key networking moves last night, but I hit the sack before 10 p.m., which allowed me to get more than eight hours of sleep, wake early enough for a workout before a day full of conference sitting, and put the finishing touches on a slide deck that was due today. Well rested and recharged, I’m ready to get some deals done.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of growth at ICF Next. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and has three teenage sons. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.