How Long-Term Travel Made Me a Better Parent
And how is it that three year olds can outsmart people with PhD’s? Toddlerhood kicked my ass every single time. We’ve had every possible mishap (except a major broken bone) across five continents during the school age years. Now, I find myself with four teenagers, a tag-a-long boyfriend, and all systems go for two kids to launch on their own paths within the next few months. The teens are my favorite phase thus far, but let’s not mistake that for easy, shall we?
As the mother of four, there is nothing that drives me crazier than someone with one child trying to tell me how to conduct our three ring circus. People who have had only one gender should not be allowed to write parenting books. As the totally overwhelmed mother of one little girl, nothing frustrated me more than the older mothers of a tribe who waltzed through life with perfect hair and nails making it look easy while I was fishing peanuts out of my kid’s ear before we pulled her out of her car seat and checking her pockets for frogs before playdates.
And the “just wait” crowd? Don’t get me started. The instant a mama starts to settle in and enjoy even one precious second of the vomit inducing fair ride that is parenthood, some sanctimonious older parent will ruin the day with, “Just wait until they’re….”
Shut up. Just shut up, will you? Seriously. Shh.
It was a freeing moment when I accepted the reality that it’s impossible to do this job “right.” There is no “right.” As soon as there is a “right” way to parent then we’re discounting the individuality of the child, the freedom of expression within a particular family, and the kaleidoscope that is the gene pool. Giving up on the concept of doing it “right” as a mother freed me and my children from the tyranny of judgement and allowed me to focus on the only thing that matters: doing my best. I’ve long been committed to doing my best as a mother and I freely admit that my best varies greatly by the day and the season of life. My best for one child looks very different from my best for another child. I’m okay with that. I expect the kids to do their best too, because they can’t do it “right” either, whatever that means.
So when I say to you that travel has made me a better parent, I want you to understand that we are talking about me here. Not you. The things that I’ve learned on my path, with my kids, as we’ve chosen to travel the world, are nothing more than that: my lessons, my path, my kids. They are not an indictment of you or how you choose to live your life, raise your kids, or survive parenthood, because let’s be honest, some days, it’s all we can do to get from, “Good morning Sweetheart,” to “Thank god they’re in bed!”
Parenthood is an evolution, from the first idealistic days of creating a birth plan to, well… maybe to how we great grandparent our grown great grandchildren, should we be so lucky as to live that long. We’re all learning together, no matter where we are in the process. The last thing we need is someone telling us where we’re messing it up or how we could be doing it better. I know what that feels like, and I hate it, so I’m not going to do it to you.
It is true, however, that travel has made me a better parent, mostly by pointing out my lack of perspective on a few things:
Needs vs. Wants
Having a baby in the first world is an overwhelming exercise in the power of marketing. From the instant a mom sees two lines on a pregnancy test, products are being shoved in her face that promise to assuage her myriad of fears, amp her child’s potential in fifty ways that can’t be measured, and guarantee his early entrance to Harvard, even before he’s made his entrance into the world. New parents leave a baby shower with so much junk that they feel the need to move to a bigger apartment to accommodate the gear that comes with a human who, himself, would fit in a shoebox to begin with.
How crazy is that?
If travel has taught me anything (and not just about kids) it’s that the gap between what we need and what we want is very wide indeed.
What do children need? Food. Shelter. Education. Clean water and decent healthcare. Love.
Is there more that we want for our kids? Absolutely, but that want list is a sliding scale of privilege that has almost nothing to do with good parenting. Some of the best parents I’ve met in the world are those who can provide the fewest “wants” for their kids. We have far more than some people, and far less than others. Spending time in the world, outside of our own culture, with our children has helped us all to see that equation more clearly.
What you realize, after spending a little time outside of the first world, is that most parents don’t read fifty books between conception and their child’s fifth birthday. Most parents just feel their way through the process with input from the few people that matter in their community and according to their particular cultural bent.
Most kids in this world are raised in an entirely more free range approach than the writers of the best selling parenting books would be comfortable with, and they come out just fine. Most parents in the developing world haven’t heard the all important message from the parenting pundits about nurturing a child’s self esteem, and yet the next generation seems well in hand. The working mother vs. stay at home mother debate that rages as a result of first world luxury doesn’t seem to be as prevalent elsewhere, where all mothers are working, at a variety of tasks, with their children around their feet, or hanging out with Grandma, or are entirely unsupervised with a stick and a hoop in the street.
Travel has taught me that there are many paths for families and many approaches as parents that seem to yield reasonable results. My way, our way, is not necessarily the best way. A little grace to our neighbors and trust in the organic process of human evolution would go a long way to making family life easier and happier for everyone.
Traveling with my kids has taught me to trust that they are learning, more than I ever could have imagined, even on a day that we don’t crack a math book. It’s taught me that life is not made up of achievements or of lines in a day book that are scheduled to the max with activities; life is made up of days and moments strung like pearls on the cord of time. Moments are more important than activities, and achievements grow quite organically when moments are watered.
I was the young mother of many books and charts, schedules, and plans. I am the older mother of trusting my young people to be up to much good and giving them all of the freedom they can stand.
It might seem a paradox to say that I’ve learned both to relax as a parent,and to push my kids as a result of our travels, but it’s not. In many of the places we’ve lived over the better part of the last decade, young people join the ranks of adulthood much earlier than they do in the first world.
In the last generation the idea of extended adolescence has emerged, and it’s not uncommon for first world youth to remain “kids” well into their twenties, relying on Mom and Dad instead of launching their own assault on the world. There are valid exceptions, of course, but in general, I don’t think this is a good thing for individuals or society.
The living at home part is not the problem; it’s been traditional throughout humanity and across cultures for two or three generations of a family to share life and a home for mutual social and economic benefit. Rather the lack of taking up the mantle of true adult responsibility is the problem.
Clearly, adolescents are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. My friends Edwin and Michela, who run a restaurant in our town, are a great example. They are 25-years-old and have a thriving business. They had a thriving business four years ago when we were here. Their daughter, Evelyn, who is a lovely girl, attends school, is well educated for her age, and works hard in the restaurant in the evenings alongside her mother, is 12. Do the math on that. There’s a back story, as there always is, but the point is that as teenagers they successfully raised a child, built a business, and became pillars of the community. They are not an anomaly, not even close.
Travel has taught me that it’s okay to push my kids. It’s okay to set high expectations. It’s okay to point out, clearly, the first world advantages and tools that they have at their disposal and expect them to pick them up and get on with the business of using them. I’m not talking about pushing them educationally (although I don’t think that’s a bad idea!) I’m talking about pushing them to dream bigger, think bigger, pursue their passions, consider how they can give back to the world, become problem solvers, and live their lives right now, right where they find themselves, without making excuses. With great freedom comes great responsibility, and I expect my kids, I push my kids, to make the most of both.
Accepting My Own Evolution
Perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve learned traveling that overflows into how I mother my children has nothing to do with motherhood at all and everything to do with who I am as a human being. Travel brings you face to face with yourself in ways that are very difficult to achieve any other way. It systematically deconstructs everything you thought you knew about the world, your assumptions, your beliefs, and your standards of measurement.
Over the years it’s become clear that I know nothing. I don’t have answers because the questions are too big and too complicated. I can’t save the world or change it in any major way. And then, as if those revelations weren’t humbling enough, it became obvious that I didn’t even know myself, and it took several years of patient exploration to unearth that girl, often to the great discomfort of the people who know me best.
While walking the world, I’ve come face to face with extreme poverty, death, dismemberment, abuse, neglect, sickness, and pain that I can’t even get my head around. I’ve had the privilege of meeting simplicity, joy, community, creativity, freedom, grace and compassion with such muddy boots that it takes my breath away. I’ve made friends with sorrow and love in equal measure. It has changed who I am. It has changed how I mother. Perhaps evolution is unavoidable, and I’d have come to the same place regardless of whether I’d gone traveling, I don’t know. But for me, each lesson is tied to a place, a person, a journey, and so, for me, travel has made all of the difference, both personally, and as a parent.
Photo credits: altanaka