Traveling with children: From angst to Zen

With apologies to Siddhartha Gautama, Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot and, of course, Abigail


Judith Weinstein

ReaderEssay We 21st century families are impressive travelers. Chatting with parents on the school playground after winter break is a vicarious trip around the globe. Perhaps it is our multicultural surroundings. Ours is also a magnet school that focuses on foreign languages. Either way, we hunger to discover other cultures.

Many of us travel for work. Others are transplants with relatives still "back home."

I place myself and my family in all those categories. I’ve logged a few miles, starting with my college studies in France, then working in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.

Having kids didn’t curb my travel appetite. These days, our family often tags along with my husband, Mathew, to his professional meetings (when they coincide with the Chicago Public Schools vacation calendar, of course).

The children have proven to be good travelers. But is it nature or nurture?

It could be their genes. I am convinced our children, especially my oldest, were born to travel.

Or perhaps it is nurture. For Abigail, maybe it was those two trips she made (in utero) to Morocco and Kenya that marked her for a life of travel.

Abi was a colicky baby, soothed only by the constant motion of the car and, later, the noise of an airplane. She wasn’t fooled when we put her car seat atop the dryer, as some parenting books suggested.

She needed to be going somewhere. So did I. Ten hours of screaming daily didn’t curtail my nomadic behavior. It necessitated it. There was now a greater purpose—to get this baby in motion.

Colic was, in a terrible way, liberating. Unlike the parents of the "normal" babies, we were not bound by nap schedules or other routines the colicky baby disdains.

Abigail had just turned 2 when I took her to France.

Some were skeptical: "You’re taking a toddler to France?" "What will she get out of it?" "What about the nap schedule?"

I don’t know if Abigail remembers this trip, but I do. It was the beginning of our annual mother/daughter trips—and planted the seeds of her own wanderlust.

Children are not only awakened during trips, they teach us adults about the journey. I have learned much about packing light from Abigail. How does she fit everything into that teeny Barbie carry-on (now retired)? She even stashed toys for her younger twin brothers once when her parents were too frazzled to remember anything but the essentials.

When she was 6, she revealed her formula for packing enough underwear: "You count the number of days you’re staying and add three." I still think that is as exquisite as Einstein’s theory of relativity and remember it whenever I travel.

Children also keep us adults in line, imparting their inner travel wisdom. I first realized this during a grueling layover at Miami International Airport. Abigail was 6 and her brothers were 2. After eight hours of purgatory, we were exhausted.

I was at my limit—on the verge of phoning Amnesty International to report torture by the airlines—when I realized Abigail was remaining calm.

I asked her: "How do you do it? How are you remaining so collected about all of this?"

"What does ‘collected’ mean?" she asked.

"Calm. Not freaking out, like me," I said.

"I don’t know," she responded. Then, after a moment, she added, "I just ignore myself."

That was it. She simply ignored herself and suppressed her needs. She became one with the situation. From then on, she was our Zen leader. Who says the expression "family vacation" is an oxymoron?

Trips are also times when children’s growth accelerates. They experience new sights, cultures and foods. And we parents stand to learn from them.

I just returned from a trip to Paris and Brussels with Abigail (her seventh trip in 10 years to the Continent) and my mother (her third in her almost 74 years). Each trip is a luxury, I am aware, not having boarded a plane myself until I was 20.

On each trip, Abi grows more, attempts more French (especially when I find pint- or liter-sized natives) and becomes more tolerant of my obsession du jour (currently, a quest for the CDs of singer Keren Ann Zeidel never released stateside).

Yet on the eve of every trip, I am plagued by doubts, wondering why I subject my family to my peripatetic lust.

These feelings dissipate almost as quickly as the plane takes off and I observe my kids settling in with the headsets. (We are thankfully past the "let’s play with the plane phone" phase. On this trip I noticed the phone had been cemented in with a wad of chewing gum, clearly the desperate act of a beleaguered parent.) And when we return home, I am always grateful we made the trek.

In my house I have a painting my father did while I was studying abroad. He was a scientist and amateur painter who never liked to travel (ixnay on the heredity theory). He liked to point out that his own father never traveled beyond a 50-mile radius of the Manhattan street where he was born.

His canvas depicts the New Jersey house where I grew up. At the bottom, my father lettered a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s "Four Quartets," a less-than-subtle plea to his wandering daughter:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Bon voyage.

Judith A. Weinstein, who lives in Chicago, is a public health educator, writer and the mother of three.


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