We squeezed in two international trips as an intact family before my husband died. I have memories of my oldest son playing with the sailboats in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris with my overprotective husband hovering nearby. We sipped wine in the evenings at a sidewalk cafe. My son lost his stuffed animal in the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore across the street from the Notre Dame. My husband jogged there and back to retrieve the green turtle from where it had been accidentally left behind on a shelf of books. Those memories will always be emblazoned in my mind–one of the few things that can not be taken away from me.
When Kenneth passed away, we were a few weeks away from a trip to Germany. My three children were all six and under in age–the youngest still a nursing baby. I had to use the non-refundable plane tickets and went anyway, even though my grief was raw and it felt as if I were emotionally hemorrhaging. That trip marked one of the first big things I would do in our new family configuration. My first practice in the art of moving on with my life.
People ask me why I travel with the children. They question my motives as if I am doing something reckless. I get asked about the costs, as if nobody has ever heard of budget priorities. They wonder how I can possibly enjoy myself. I’ve been told more than once that my children will never remember these trips. I also have people who say they love that we travel and wish they were brave enough to do it, and some of them do.
When I was younger, my goal was to travel as much as I could before starting a family. Domestic life appeared to be a big black hole where people disappeared into once they “settled down.” I assumed you traded in your traveling cards for motherhood, and that the two didn’t coexist. Hence my plan to take advantage of my freedom while I still could. I crammed in a respectable amount of travel into those single and pre-kid years, walking on the Great Wall of China, crying in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, gazing up at the Sistine Chapel, sleeping in overcrowded hostels and seeing many new places. I had no regrets.
I finally experienced the mythical black hole of domesticity when I got married, but it came in the form of a mortgage and daycare expense. For seven years we did not go anywhere, and year-after-year I felt the unhappiness and discontent grow and expand inside of me despite also feeling generally happy and fulfilled as a mother. Both feelings coexisted even though I spent my entire life believing there was no room for both.
I am glad that I nagged my husband until he finally agreed that traveling was just as important as our retirement accounts and emergency funds. We would have never had the two trips to remember if he didn’t. When I watched him take his last breath, in that final exhale I also saw all of the missed opportunities that he would never experience leave his body too.
I continue to travel. I choose to travel while I am still young and healthy and alive. I go to as many places as I can, and most of the times with my children.
Traveling is a great experience as a family. Being away from home, disconnected from the daily grind and housework and neverending obligations–this is a freeing place to be with your children. It is an opportunity to be in the present moment, focusing only on basic needs and pleasure. Having time to read and talk and meander. To see the world with beginner’s eyes–something the children always do, and now you can share it with them, together. Dealing with the uncertainty of a new place. Packing. Carrying luggage. Time schedules. Transportation. Deciphering where to go, what to say, what to do. Asking for help. Getting the children involved in these necessities.
People stare at me as a single mother with three young children. They ask if my half-Asian children are really mine. I am regularly reminded of my dead husband when I see the other intact families and couples together. I continue to struggle with these reminders, even when I’ve consciously decided to accept my reality and move on. Solo parenting is hard. Parenting is hard. Having young children is hard.
What I’ve found is that the tediousness of parenthood exists whether you are at home or abroad. It exists whether your are married or single. Life is tedious and hard and good and bad and everything in between, but these are all true in any situation. Single parenthood is grueling, but I wasn’t going to let it derail my traveling. If motherhood wasn’t going to stop me, I couldn’t let widowhood either. Sometimes you have to claw your way to happiness.
We were at the airport this past summer, about to fly home. I was running on four hours of sleep. When we finally got through the security and check-in rigmarole, I settled the kids down at a table with breakfast and drinks and their tablets so they could implode into Netflix and I could have a moment to drink my coffee. My oldest son offered to take a picture of me, and since there are so few photos with me in them, I agreed. When I decided that I didn’t look like roadkill in the photo, I decided to post it on social media and began to type a caption for the post. Everything was going great.
Until two seconds later when my toddler accidentally knocked the coffee into my lap, mid Instagram-caption-writing. My pants were soaked. I was about to board a 17-hour-flight home, and while I had spare pants in my backpack, they were for the toddler.
I deleted the caption. All was not well anymore.
I wiped up the coffee. Bought another one. Sat down for my second attempt at having a moment to myself, and then I took a deep breath.
The reality was that I would have wet pants wherever I was. This kind of stuff happens all of the time. Daily. Sometimes hourly.
I had a choice though. I could stay home with wet pants, or I could seek out new adventures abroad with wet pants. It could be hard at home, or it could be hard in a foreign country with cool things to see and experience.
We often can not avoid the coffee pants, but we can decide what to do while wearing them.
When you travel with children, there will be meltdowns. You can expect it. You can write off being able to go clubbing at night or doing anything wild and impetuous. The children will require naps and full bellies and sometimes they will whine. Let’s be honest–there will be a lot of whining, and sometimes they won’t be the only ones doing it. A trip to the museum might turn into a drive-by visit that involves lingering near the water fountain and telling the kids to stop touching the water. Anything is possible, but most of the time it will be manageable chaos. Most of the time.
There will be amazing moments too. The expression on your son’s face when he gets to see a rare opal in Sydney. Everyone’s joy at a savory meal in Italy. Swimming in the warm Mediterranean Sea. Walking barefoot across the cold wooden floors of a temple in Kyoto on New Year’s Eve. The memories and pictures that will keep you forever anchored in those experiences.
I want my children to know that there isn’t one definitive way to live. I want them to identify suffering with their own eyes. I also want them to know that there is more good than bad in the world, and to understand that kindness is found in different languages and cultures and food and traditions. I want my children to realize that they can choose to be a part of the love that exists in humanity. This is why I think traveling is so important.
Our years are too few. Time is fleeting. I learned the hard way that the future is brutally uncertain, and we have to deal with a lot that is beyond our control. But we also get to make choices, and this is where we have power. We can live our best lives even with coffee pants. Best doesn’t mean “without pain.” There will be many bumps in the road. But, the trip and the scenery will be worth it. We just have to choose to do it.
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