I rarely manage to travel to the grocery store without bringing my little people with me, let alone anywhere of any significance. (I will admit though, those moments when I’m by myself that feeling of accomplishment is almost like the feeling of accomplishment I have when I get through an entire cup of coffee before having to reheat it in the microwave.) Those brief moments where I slide out the front door and into my minivan to take 60 minutes to myself (grocery shopping, as I said before, it’s just to go grocery shopping) usually come at the end of a full two days of planning. So, the thought of having to plan an entire vacation, perhaps a night or four, away from my children is mind boggling. And certainly if that requires a plane ride that culminates in spending a few days relaxing with my husband and perhaps a friend or two, the effort it seems is required to see these thoughts come to fruition is feels like trying to understand NYC’s preschool registration requirements. (You know the ones I mean, where you have to have your child put on the waiting list while still in utero? Yeah, those.)
But. Here’s the thing. It isn’t hard. Like, at all. We do it. And we love it. And our children are better at wandering this world because of it. Why?
I think it’s probably pointing out the obvious when I say that moments spent being a bit checked out as a parent have the ability to fill a cup that’s less than overflowing. Being a parent is hard. Running a household is hard. Put the two together and Bam! Welcome to a world of (rewarding) exhaustion. And I don’t mean it’s draining because we travel; in fact, those are the moments that are perhaps the least draining (there’s no house to constantly upkeep or dry cleaning to pick up or drop off or mountains of laundry to sift through). But the recharge that comes from traveling alone is different than the late night hours after the little people fall into their blissful slumbers. The last road trip we took had us driving seven hours a day for three days at both the beginning and ending of the trip that moved us out of the cold winter and into the warmth of Florida for five days in between. Somewhere along the way to that sun (probably day two of the drive) I caught my oldest little’s cold. Because of my own health issues, I don’t recover as quickly, and five days later I had pneumonia. Even with meds, it got worse on the drive back into winter and home, and I had to be seen again and have my medicines changed up. We had help come in to take care of the middle little and the tiny, but that doesn’t mean I was off the hook. There are still obligations, and those little obligations sometimes mean recovery is slow. But the light at the end of the tunnel? Wine. Within two weeks we were on a four day trip to Napa Valley without any little people. I attribute all of my recovery to sitting in the California sun, sipping wine, and watching vines grow. My movement was minimal, my focus limited to myself or others whose lives didn’t depend upon my watchful eye. My cup filled (albeit with Cab Sav, but we don’t judge here). I came home ready to take the next trip (a combo road trip/plane trip) that I had previously started to make plans to push back (I mean I had basically canceled the trip on the flight out to California). Getting out of the house and out of familiar space without my little people allowed me to gain a sense of my physical health back and my ability to keep moving forward to share my world with my littles. (And truth be told, when I feel better, I am a better mother and a better traveler, a win for my little people all around.)
There are periods in our traveling life where my husband and I have fallen into the trap of doing the same thing and going the same place again and again and again. (Yep, we visit Disney World three times a year. Guilty. And yep. We’re going to the same beach we went to last summer. Guilty again. And we’ll be staying at the same hotel we’ve always stayed at on our minitrip to Vermont. Guilty guilty guilty.) There is a particular ease in visiting places we’ve already been or doing the same basic types of trips we’ve always done. The planning is minimal and life is predictable. Doesn’t that sound appealing? Well, the truth is, sometimes it’s just what we need and just what our littles need. But other times, it is certainly not what we crave. When we travel without our little people my husband and I always get a glimpse of a world bigger than that which we planned or we predicted. We can more easily go to places we’ve never gone. We can talk longer with locals. There is a hint of understanding of how small we are or how privileged we are or how little we understand of this infinitely large, yet wondrously small, world. And this renewed vigor for discovering this paradoxical place calls us to break out of those habits of choosing the easy way when we travel with our little people. It drives us to show the littles the world and their ever-changing place within it. It reminds us we are not just in this to create vacationers; we’re doing it to create explorers.
Because I am a stay at home mom, my life, whether traveling or spending time at our home, is surrounded by little people and little people accessories. Some times, often times, we fall into habits. In a rush we opt for a restaurant that doesn’t push our little people’s boundaries because we just want them to eat. So we don’t have to work through exhausted breakdowns, we get the littles into their beds on time rather than going to that one last beautiful fountain. Getting the little people in and out of the car is a whole process, so we zoom past the scenic route and opt for the highway. We get mechanical, robotic. And robots don’t explore. Or think. Or wander. Getting away without my little people pulls me from routine. There’s no dinnertime. No naptime. No bedtime. And I like it. And I remember how great it is to stay up later than I want or push myself up that last hill for one final hint of the sun setting over the ocean. Little people need routine, but they also need to know that feeling of catching lightening bugs late into the evening or skipping a nap to view the world from the top of a mountain. Each time I travel by myself, I am reminded of this. And each time I bring this forgotten knowledge back to them, and we slowly change together. And on our next trip, we will walk down that smaller path to the river or pull the car over to walk out to the middle of that old wooden train bridge (on the walkway only of course…I’m not crazy crazy, just three little people crazy).
“Mommy loves to read. She reads all the time!…Or she did. A while ago. But I promise you, my sweet little pea, I really do love books.” I find myself saying things like this to my little people quite a bit. I am convincing them, and half convincing myself, that Mommy really does like to do things. She has interests, convictions, a life.
I’d like to imagine that when my little people are big people and traveling on their own they’d see some amazing meadow of wildflowers, an invigorating street mural, and think of me. At this point, I am a little worried that the only thing that will make me pop into their minds is an innovative vacuum. (Let me be frank here. This does not disappointment as much as I’m letting on. I have gotten a new vacuum for the holidays for the past three years. And this year? Oh, this year, I got three. You see, I’m on the hunt for the holy grail of vacuums. You know the one where you can vacuum once and your house stays clean for, at least, two days. This though, is another blog post for another blog…) The point I’m meaning to get to here is that I want my children to know the me that exists beyond my role as their mommy. I am first a mommy, but I am also so much more than that. And I want to present an authentic version of myself to them. But this wears away after time as I start to search out those travel experiences that are solely geared toward the interests of my littles…the easy experiences. The thing is, I want to enter their world, but I also want to invite them into mine. I like warming myself on a sun-filled porch sipping a glass of wine at an inappropriately early time while I watch the world move about me. While I’m not giving my littles wine, I’d like them to know the value of sitting on a porch, the morning sun warming their legs as the world makes little changes all around them. Traveling without my little people makes me reconnect with those pieces of myself that I have put on the backburner in order to raise these three amazing little loves. As a result of this rediscovery of self, when we travel together, I help make their worlds a bit bigger by sharing passions they don’t often get to see. And it’s those shared experiences, those moments of seeing each other authentically, that make family travel not just about the travel, but about our family.
Mommy brain is real. Very. Real. Or it’s a convenient excuse I use to avoid having to pay attention. I will never admit which one it is though. Needless to say, I forget things. (Or do I?) When I’m off exploring this world with no one but myself, I remember things. Most importantly, I remember what it’s like to push boundaries that I’d never dare to push when I have three little people to care for. I can go to restaurants that force me to eat food that I would never have thought I’d eat even two hours prior. I can step into situations I wouldn’t feel comfortable throwing my little people in. But, I have the ability now to assess these situations, these moments, with the eye of a mother but not the worry of a mother. I can determine if the place, the experience, is manageable for my littles, and I can plan accordingly for their future travel. When I was getting my MS in Education, one of the most helpful pieces of advice I was given was to always look ahead, anticipate any problems before they could occur, and replan accordingly. Traveling by myself affords me this luxury. I know how difficult it will be for my nonseafood eating little person to eat in a country where seafood is a staple. And I can plan for this. I can anticipate this bump. This is the privilege of traveling without my little people. I know what bridges are not ok to cross for my climbing-centric tiny person. I know what historic sites will be too much for my empathetic little. I’ve had time to look, to think, to judge. I anticipate. I adjust. I plan. I can gather information in a way that is greater than mere research. It’s a lived knowledge. Without my littles I can evaluate and reevaluate to make our family travel road a bit less bumpy.
Let’s be honest. Traveling with kids is hard. It’s like throwing thirteen balls into the air and trying to juggle them when you have just two hands and no thumbs. It’s this weird balance of two extremes: overplanning and being spontaneous. Somehow, though, we manage to make those two worlds coexist. Traveling without my little people is an important part of establishing that balance. I can watch so we can anticipate. I can remember so we can relax. It gives me a better me: a better mother, a better traveler, a better friend, a better wanderer, a better teacher, a better student, a better listener, and most importantly, a better guide to my littles as they travel their way through this endless world.