Stamps in their passport: The highs and lows of travel with children
I’m really excited to welcome my friend Sarah Ruttan as a guest blogger this week. Sarah and I had our first babies 5 weeks apart when we both lived in Tucson, AZ, and we developed a tight bond as we shared the early months of motherhood. Sarah is also an experienced traveler – with and without kids – so I was thrilled that she offered to write about some of her experiences with international travel with young children on Science of Mom. Today, she reflects on why she and her husband choose to travel with their kids and how it has pushed her to the edge of her parenting comfort zone – and maybe beyond. Tomorrow, she shares her best tips for pulling off an international trip with kids. Enjoy, and please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments!
Stamps in their passport: The highs and lows of travel with children
By Sarah Ruttan
Our family recently returned from a trip to Peru. It was our first travel adventure outside of the U.S. with both our son (almost 4) and daughter (16 months). My husband was headed to Peru for a training program and we decided to try making the journey together. Before you congratulate me on successfully traveling to another continent with two kids in tow, I have a confession to make: I’m REALLY tired. And the trip – while a good experience – was only sort-of-fun, in the way that many experiences with young kids end up being: great highs, followed by meltdown lows.
I’m a slow learner when it comes to this parenting thing. I should have recognized that hauling two kids to Peru was going to be a lot of work and that we would arrive back home exhausted, barely able to process the experience, wondering if it was worth it. Yet, I needed to do it to know what my limits are when traveling with kids, to know how much is too much and what the right balance of adventure is for us at this point in our lives.
Let’s be honest – there was an element of “We just want to prove that we can still do this” in our trip planning. Of all the things we missed most about life pre-kids, it was travel, and in particular, international travel. My husband and I have traveled to more than 30 countries. Some of those trips were taken as a couple in our pre-kid days, others on our own before meeting each other. I have fond memories of both my solo trips and our later trips together – carrying a backpack and exploring new cities, seeing foreign landscapes from the window of a train or bus, and clumsily navigating menus in languages we didn’t speak. These journeys expanded my view of the world and my place in it. We talked on those trips about what kind of travel we wanted to do when (if) we had kids.
I remember meeting a family on a trip we took just a couple of years after getting married. We were in rural Ecuador, staying at an inn in the Andes that could only be accessed by riding along a bumpy dirt road for miles in the back of a pickup truck. The family had two elementary school-age kids, and they had all collected dust in the back of the truck together. We shared a table for dinner one evening and commented on what great travelers their kids were. I was in awe of these parents. I wasn’t even a parent yet, but no matter – when the time came, I wanted to give my own kids these same experiences.
I thought of that family often when we were in Peru. Because the truth is, I do want to be that family. I want my kids to understand that there are many ways of living in this world and that we are but a small piece of a much larger puzzle. I want them to experience that feeling of being completely out of place in a new culture and to learn how to persist through the discomfort. I want them to experience the kindness of fellow travelers – and learn to reciprocate with their own small acts of generosity. I want them to go far enough away from home that they will appreciate coming back to it. I want them to collect stamps in their passport.
I’ll look back on the Peru stamps in our passports fondly, but we’ve collectively decided after this trip that we might wait a few more years before we really start amassing stamps in our passports. I’ll admit – it was fun to return to a corner of the world that I’d come to know as an adult traveler and see it again through my kids’ eyes. I remember stepping off the plane in Iquitos, a humid city in the heart of the Amazon. The kids watched from the windows of the bus, fascinated by the moto-taxis and transfixed by the chaos of urban life around them. As the months pass, these are the moments that stand out when I look at pictures.
Yet, while traveling, I was caught off guard by how nervous I felt as a parent. I actually had a dream that our toddler fell off a boat and into piranha-filled waters of the Amazon. I am not typically an anxious parent, and I’ve definitely never considered myself a risk-averse traveler. The trip exposed my vulnerability and reminded me that while our kids can enrich travel, they also make it more complicated.
When we’re not traveling abroad, we love to hike and have spent many a happy afternoon on the trail together. This, too, has changed as we’ve had kids. Initially, my son was happy to sleep in a carrier while we completed the same hikes we had done sans kids. As he grew older (and heavier), there were hikes we started to avoid because neither of us wanted to climb 1,000 feet with a 30-pound toddler on our back.
This forced us to begin to shift our mindset about hiking with kids. We’ve slowly accepted that hiking as a family is – at this point – less about exercise and more about time spent together outdoors. It’s about our son setting the pace and finding treasures along the way. The payoff comes on the other end – when your children can begin to hike greater distances and (soon enough) are able to keep up with you (or leave you in the dust!). As with any act of parenting, there may be several years of input before you complete that magical favorite hike together.
Some days it feels like it would certainly be easier to just stop for a few years – hang closer to home, relax at the campsite – instead of coaxing a tired preschooler along a trail. I’ll admit that it’s hard to sometimes move along the trail at a turtle’s pace. However, those family hikes build an appreciation and love for the outdoors with our kids so that when their little legs are able to run up the mountain, they’ll actually want to be there with us. These acts of patience are really about building a family culture – a culture that says “we value spending time together outside.” So it’s still about the hiking, maybe just not so much about the exercise in the short term.
I’ve come to believe that this same idea is true for travel. Sure, we could stay close to home for the first few years. Everyone would sleep more, and lots of potential public meltdowns could be avoided. Yet, we’d be missing something along the way. Those early family trips build our family culture – they give us an opportunity to begin to teach our kids about the world around us, even if in small ways on local outings. Great moments – and memorable family stories – come from these journeys.
Our kids, too, build skills just as in hiking. They learn how to navigate airports, keep themselves occupied while waiting, sleep in strange surroundings, and eat food different from that served in our own house. These journeys ensure that when they’re older, we can plan a dream trip and know what we can reasonably expect of our kids as travelers. It’s still about the trip, but that trip might look pretty different these days.
For now, I’ve decided to meet my kids somewhere in the middle of home and Peru, somewhere where we’re both living a bit outside our comfort zone. Perhaps it is all about continuing to adapt – as travelers and as parents. It’s about pushing our kids a little, but mostly it’s about meeting them where they’re at and recognizing that our limits, tolerance, and comfort zones for travel might be different than they used to be. For this too shall pass, and one day soon I’ll be watching both kids roll their own suitcases past customs in a foreign land.
Author bio: Sarah Ruttan is a lover-of books, mom, and sometimes-writer. She currently lives and works in Austin, TX. When she’s not hiking and traveling, she works as an educator, where she gets to share her love for great books and writing with her students and fellow teachers.
Have you traveled internationally with your kids? How do you find the right balance between adventure and comforting routines for your family?