Fight or Flight – Realities of Travel With Kids

In the months leading up to our around-the-world sabbatical trip with two kids under five, countless people offered up their opinions of our decision to bring our kids along with us.

“It’s not like we can leave them behind!” my husband would quip and I would remind him that they meant that our other choice was not to go at all. It was clear that plenty of people thought we were brave to take this on. An equal number thought we were crazy.

In my mind, the opportunity to travel the world with my kids was a gift and in many ways no more difficult than getting to the mall and back in the middle of a blizzard. Travel with kids never scared me.

Travel comes with a guidebook and a map. Parenting is the puzzle, and that’s the same no matter where you are.

Parenting on the road just puts in high relief all the struggles I would encounter on a daily basis anyway. I might as well tackle them while watching the sunrise over Mount Batur from my front porch in the jungles of Bali.

But then there’s plane travel.

Plane travel is a different story completely. Plane travel is the only thing that might bring me down. Plane travel just might undo me.

I have two kids. When we left for this journey six months ago, Bird was four and Spider Monkey was three. Bird is generally able to entertain himself while sitting for long periods of time. He has the ability to be a dream on the plane if he so chooses. But Spider Monkey? Spider Monkey does not.

I want to be clear here. Spider Monkey is a crazy awesome little creature and a big part of the reason that we chose to do this trip in the first place. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than seeing the world through his eyes. But aside from being crazy awesome, he is also just crazy.

This is the kid who, when warned that climbing up the banister might end in a broken leg, declared “I can’t WAIT to break my leg!” This is the kid who, at sixteen months, could open the door to our pull-out freezer, steal a container of ice cream, and eat it for breakfast, all without anyone noticing. This is also the kid who, when at a year old we took him to South Africa, cried the entire 15 hours on the plane, except when one of us was walking the aisles with him or letting him play in the sink in the bathroom. He finally fell asleep on the descent. Of course.

So, we know how we go. Spider Monkey is not meant to be strapped in a seat. That means our measure of success around travel with him has a remarkably low bar. But I had hope this time. After all, we’d survived an 80-hour cross-country car trip without screens.

We had our arsenal of tools:

Mindy and Guy Raz and Wow in The World podcast is worth at least a few hours (and they are just amazing). That fabulous Usborne dry-erase activity card pack will be even better on a flight when I don’t have to pass the cards to Bird over my shoulder (he likes to get things one at a time and be “surprised”). On a plane, we wouldn’t need to worry about gas stops or “I need a hug” breaks or the appeal of the candy counter every time we stopped to pee at a rest stop. That South Africa trip was a rookie move.

Surely now that we were more experienced, we could survive the 15-hour flight from LAX to HKG with less drama.

I was not entirely wrong. I was not entirely right either.

From the minute we left the house in Camarillo and hopped in the Uber only to sit in two hours of nail-biting traffic, our supremely amped up preschoolers were doing the best they could. After all, we had been prepping them for this part, the actual departure from the United States, for almost a year.

Once we finally boarded the plane, they were PUMPED. So pumped, in fact, that they could not sit still, keep their voices down or contain their desire to open and close and open and close the window shade. (WHY???)

In front of us was an older couple. I don’t speak Chinese, and they did not seem to speak English. From the first few minutes of the flight, however, they both gave me several dirty looks that spoke volumes. I felt ashamed and indignant all at the same time.

Boys, calm down. Sit down, please. Keep your hands and feet to yourself please…

The layout of the plane was not to our advantage. It was a three-three-three seater, meaning we could not all sit together and build a little family nest. For most of the flight, I was with the two boys. Bird acted like a big boy, some of the time. He told his brother what to do. He watched movies. Yes, he constantly asked “why” questions throughout these movies, but mostly he was pretty good.

Spider Monkey started off strong, but when cabin fever hit, he started to act like a caged cat on LSD. He jumped up and down on his seat. He made public announcements about things that were random and nonsensical. He wet his pants. But honestly, it was nowhere near as bad as South Africa.

So, we saw it as a success. The couple in front of us, however, did not.

I kept trying to remind the boys not to touch, kick, or press the seat back in front of them. But it was a touch screen! And the latches on the pull-out tables were so attractive! Every time I got another ugly look, I wanted to retaliate. No one was crying, or vomiting, or even screaming, so what was the problem?

And then it happened. Spider Monkey jumped on his brother and Bird pushed Spider Monkey and both of them started to scream and pull hair and the man sitting in front of us stood up and turned around and hit Spider Monkey on the head with his pillow.

He hit my kid with a pillow.

It all happened so fast. I didn’t know what to do. I just kept calling out, “This man hit my kid!” Suddenly there were flight attendants and insults being thrown around in English and Chinese and my husband had to nearly muzzle me. The boys, of course, were frozen. There were no other free seats on the plane, so the couple couldn’t move.

One lady yelled at us to “handle” our kids. Husband turned to her with the kindest eyes and replied, “This is handling them.”

And it all was very bad for what felt like an eternity but was probably ten minutes. Then they suggested that we switch seats, which we did, and eventually, all key players fell asleep, including the man who rested his head so sweetly on the very weapon he wielded against my kid.

To be fair, a little bit later, he did apologize, maybe because he saw me crying. When we finally landed, we disembarked last, avoiding all eyes as we dragged ourselves to customs.

That was six months ago now. We’ve moved on.

But here’s the thing.

Recently, I’ve been swept up in an online community of families who are doing similar kinds of long-term travel with children. I get to see their Instagram posts and they follow mine.

In every one of those photos, I see another carefree family looking glorious, delighted with life, clean and unencumbered.

Every post talks about how divine it is to travel with your babies. And I’m kind of like, who are these people? How are they all traveling in white linen?

What about the chocolate stains on their clothes from the cookies they had to use to lure their children into photo-taking? Where is the dragon puppet they keep at the ready because it’s the only way to keep one child from pounding on the other child? Where are the meltdowns in hotel lobbies or the carry-on bags holding nothing but mattress pads to protect beds from little bed-wetters? Where are the photos of their fifteen-hour flights?

I signed onto the idea of an online community because, in the absence of a physical home, I wanted commiseration, understanding, and a little humor about the whole endeavor. Instead, I only feel like a parenting failure.

And then I remember this.

I can’t photograph the moments that Bird crawls into bed in the morning to whisper how lucky he feels to be with his whole family. I can’t capture the wonder and awe I shared with my husband when the boys suddenly held hands all through the security line in the Hong Kong Airport. And I can’t post anything that will communicate the triumphant feeling we have when the day feels full, active, sane and anything but average.

Extreme living was our goal, and extreme living is what we are getting. It’s not always going to be rainbows and roses and romping through fields of wildflowers.

But one day it just might be.

Editor’s Takeaways:

  • Don’t compare yourself to another family’s online presence – we all have our flaws.
  • Travel for YOU, the way you want to. Forge your own path, or take the well-known path. It’s up to you. The expectations of others are irrelevant.
  • Indie Travelers aren’t in it for the picture-perfect social media feed.
  • Traveling with kids isn’t always easy, but it is worth it!
  • If you see a family traveling with young children, make an effort to be considerate and helpful. We’re all doing our best. Remember the Indie Travel Manifesto!

Laurie Sales is a high school theatre teacher who is currently taking a sabbatical year to travel around the world with her husband and two young children. Laurie records her reflections on radical sabbatical parenting on her blog, Our Lives in Wanderland. Laurie is a passionate advocate for Global and Arts Education and the dismantling of xenophobia through cross-cultural experiences for learners of all ages. Every day of parenting on the road is a new adventure! Follow the journey on Facebook.

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