Our toddler is your average imp/angel combo. On a good day he gives kisses on demand, parrots everything we say in adorable toddler-ese, and helps smaller kids climb the stairs to the slide. On the same day, he might decide it’s a good idea to collapse in the checkout line and refuse to move, or slap me in the face for no reason, or throw a tantrum because he can’t take his hair off, or because we asked him to stop throwing our clothes into the running shower. The other day he knocked over a food offering at the buddhist shrine in front of a crowd of onlookers. We eventually found a rag and my son even helped me to clean it up, but I was too embarrassed to look to see if they were still hardcore judging our oafish American ways.
And yet: even on my son’s worst days, our long term travel is easier with him than it was on our trips before he came along. Two perks we didn’t expect:
Parents Are Already in the Mindset
Parents are already in the traveling mindset whether they know it or not: they have to roll with the punches and make the best of the time they have. In some ways, it was good that we traveled now: after we’d gotten used to the inconvenience that young children bring, and before Spencer was old enough to start acting rationally, or even predictably. Essentially, any toddler gives his or her parents a crash course (emphasis on crash) on time and stress management, so that now, more than ever, are we comfortable with chaos, inconvenience, and creative time management.
In my twenties, I worked for a large company. I did a project, received feedback, was rewarded. When I had my son and made a very personal decision to resign, the positive feedback disappeared along with my free time. It took me two years to figure out how to prioritize meaningful work that would sustain my soul in those precious few hours I wasn’t cleaning up vomit, or comforting a sobbing mess, or entertaining the baby while my husband pulled it together. While I was wallowing in grief for my childless life, my son was slowly turning me into the type of hardy, organized adult capable of adapting to the rigors of travel and work from the road.
While my little imp was proving the second law of thermodynamics with his constant supply of entropy, I learned to do what every parent does: adapt by creating systems, building routines and rituals, and finding hacks. When my husband and I sold our house and took to the air, we were amazed at how relatively low stress the planning and child minding was compared to our stationary life.
Let me ask you this: at a restaurant, does the phrase “knife check” mean anything to you? When you enter a room you’ve never been in, do you robotically assess the number of ways your child could harm himself and/or others and their possessions? Are you skilled in public tantrum de-escalation tactics, and the systematic identification of boredom solutions?
Though a transatlantic flight is longer than a dentist appointment or a trip to the grocery store, the pattern is the same. There are a few very tense moments to get through, followed by periods of relative relaxation. After completing more than ten 12 hour+ flights with Spencer, we find that the intensity of these moments is the same as at home, and they last for about the same amount of time.
For us, the tense moments are: keeping him happy and quiet after boarding and before plane take-off, soothing him if he wakes up in the middle of the flight and is freaked out or uncomfortable, putting his seatbelt on for landing, and that last hour of ground transportation after a long trip. This is about 1-2 hours out of a day of travel. The rest of the time, Spencer (and the other babies on the plane) are generally lulled to sleep by the noise and vibration, or they’re happy and excited by their new environment.
I kid you not, a 14 hour plane ride with a 2-year-old is only slightly more stressful for us than taking him to the doctor. His grandparents will tell you that Spencer is one of the most “busy” kids they’ve ever met. And no, I’m not drugging him. I stopped doing that when they stopped selling the good stuff at the airport pharmacy and switched to a useless herbal liquid that tastes like whiskey with none of its other happy benefits.
Are there times I want to cry? Yeah. Especially when Spencer was turning one, he had a hard time on long flights. Before and after that age, he’s been great. We’ve had a few 20 minute screaming sessions, when I had the distinct displeasure of knowing that my son was annoying more than 100 people at once. But it’s hard for a toddler’s stamina to hold out for longer than 20 minutes, and afterward he falls into a blissfully exhausted sleep. I only remember one toddler on a flight who cried for over an hour, and I’m sure David and I weren’t the only parents who were impressed. Can you believe it, this kid’s going for a record! After a couple of crying sessions, the emotional intensity lessens. There’s nothing I can do that I’m not already doing, and the other passengers (especially the grandparents!) are very forgiving. When your kid does an awesome flight, you feel like you’ve won a major award. When someone says “I didn’t even know he was there!” I have to stifle the impulsive urge to take a bow.
What about all those strange new places when you’re waiting in line for a visa, or looking for a cab, or your flight is suddenly delayed? Unless the toddler is tired and weepy, he loves it. He’s happy to explore the dusty corners of the terminal while we wait. If he IS weepy, I know it can only last for so long.
- I think David and I are pretty laid back, and we’ve still had to do our fair share of trial-and-error stress management to avoid snapping at each other. Kids pick up on this, and it makes everything worse. We don’t always succeed at a zen attitude, as our parents will tell you. If our relationship were snappy even in a stable environment, travel would only have made it worse.
- Spencer is a low-sensitivity kid. My favorite book about child brain development, Brain Rules for Baby, has a great explanation of high and low-sensitivity kids. Essentially, introverted (highly sensitive) kids can be extremely stressed out by minor changes to their environment. I was one of these kids, and I’m not sure how I would have taken to travel. (I’m still self-conscious and introverted, but I travel now, so there’s hope!) If Spencer were highly sensitive, we would have adjusted our lives to his needs. As it is, he’s shy of new people but warms up quickly, is curious about new places, and I’ve never seen him scared. Everyone asks how he does with the travel, and the question always surprises me for a second because I forget that this life isn’t normal. It’s normal to Spencer. Yesterday, he said, “Stairs too big, Mama, new house?” He put in his first amenity request. In our new house, he doesn’t want stairs that are “too big.” He’s ready to move on.
Kids Give You a Friendly Pass into Every Culture
As a traveler you can’t get by without the help of strangers, and you also spend a lot of time being embarrassed by the faux pas you make. Because everyone loves kids, the help is forthcoming and so is the good-natured forgiveness.
Other than greetings and thank you/no thank yous, I speak no Thai. Within a week of landing in Thailand, I’d already had three friendly conversations with Thai people via gestures and laughing, and countless more friendly interactions, all thanks to my son.
A Thai mother at the playground held up two fingers to ask if my son was two years old, and then nodded and held up the two fingers again as she pointed to her son. We smiled as our children took turns pushing a block down the slide, and when my son slid down before the other boy was out the of way, doing a kneecap job Tonya Harding would be proud of, the mother shook her head and waved it away. I could tell from the tone of her voice when she was admonishing or encouraging her son, and I recognized the same tones she was surely hearing in mine. I’ve heard it said that kids are a universal language unto themselves, which is less platitude and more practical advice than I realized.
In Japan, I asked a shop proprietress where the nearest toilet was, pointing to my potty-training son. She ushered me to the private home area behind her shop, and showed me how to use her fancy toilet. If I’d been alone she probably would have pointed this ungainly American down the street, but my son’s innocent need caused her to trust me, a foreign stranger, in her very private space.
When we took him for the dreaded haircut, I know his screams were heard down the entire street because when we finally came out and walked across the street to a restaurant, the grandmotherly owner made scissors of her fingers and gave us an empathetic smile. On the previous day, the same woman had served my solo, non-Thai speaking husband with grumpy, wordless resignation.
Kids are conversation starters and common ground. Traveling with kids evokes an extra dose of empathy from everyone you encounter. During one of our very first flights when our son had an earache and screamed for a good twenty minutes, a woman passing in the aisle stopped to put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it. 80% of the people on this plane have been there.” I see the same message in the eyes of people in every country we visit, and all the sudden I don’t feel so very far from home after all.