In Defense of Multi-Generational Travel
Jenn Miller has been on the road with her husband and four children for over five years and is well versed in all aspects of long-term travel. Each week Jenn will bring a unique insight into extended travel, touching on topics ranging from inspirational articles to practical trip planning to family travel to education on the road to interviews with interesting people she’s met along the way.
They say you don’t really know a person until you travel together. In my experience, that’s very true, or at least, you come to know people in a new way when you travel together. There is something about being thrust out of your element and into the world that has a way of revealing the true character of a person, showing you a side of one another that is often veiled by routine, and that opens doors to discuss things that don’t come up over the breakfast table at home.
But is it still true with the people we know best? What about within our families? Our siblings? Our parents? I would argue that it’s even more true where our parents are concerned, and it’s one reason that I’m such a big proponent of multi-generational adventures. Does the thought of a trip with your parents seem like your worst nightmare in the making? Hear me out. Let me tell you a couple of stories, and I’ll give you three reasons to take the plunge, risk the nightmare, and maybe surprise yourself and them.
You Don’t Know Them
You don’t know your parents. You don’t. You think you do because you grew up in their care, and you’ve heard every lecture they’ve ever given. You’ve made assumptions about them, as all children do, and those assumptions get carried over into your adult relationship in a way that sometimes creates chasms instead of building bridges. You’ve only known them in one incarnation of themselves: parents. There are more layers there, if you can bridge the gaps between the parent-child relationship and find equal footing, and anyone who has traveled knows what a universal equalizer it can be.
The world flickered in and out of focus like an old reel to reel movie at the end of its tape. The space-time continuum shifted slightly so that I stood transfixed, in the long round hallway of the colosseum at El Jem, watching my father flicker between his sexagenarian self and a twenty five year old man who I almost recognized as the legend who raised me.
With one hand tucked in his back pocket, he pointed off into the distance through one of the openings, and I overheard him talking to the boys, “Look carefully boys, the ghost of young Gramps is here… right over there, that’s where Grammy rode her first camel… she was younger than your mom, and she had on a red scarf. The town was much smaller, and we were walking across from Morocco…”
The scene shifted, the world flickered again, and he was sitting on the stone stands around the arena watching his grandchildren. For an instant their Grammy laughed loud as the “lion” almost bit the “gladiator’s” head off, and then there was this young woman in her place. I recognized her bright blue eyes, and the adventure reflected in them; she had a backpack, almost like mine. In an instant she was my Mom again.
Since that moment I’ve become used to the time warp feeling of traveling with my parents. Of course we traveled lots when I was a kid, but at those ages there was but one world: the one in which I was reaching hard for the sky, and my parents were two dimensional figures.
They were wild adventurers, lovers, trouble makers, hard workers, builders of the world we were born into, and seekers of truth and beauty long before they were Mom and Dad.
Their travel pictures and stories, from before my brother and I were born, have taken on new life, and I see my reflection in them. Stranger still is the reflection of my own children layered in. Once when we were looking at old color slides from a backpacking trip to Guatemala circa 1970, eight year old Ezra asked, “Mama, when did you have a yellow bikini?” Grammy laughed; it was a picture of her on a lago that the grandchild recognized. I don’t have a yellow bikini.
Our parents invest 20 years in the project of raising us, and until we have our own kids, we have no concept of the cost of that sacrifice. But parenthood is not the sum total of who they are. They were wild adventurers, lovers, trouble makers, hard workers, builders of the world we were born into, and seekers of truth and beauty long before they were Mom and Dad.
Do you know those people? Have you peeled back the layers and asked the questions? If you haven’t, you don’t know your parents yet. Pack a bag, and go find those people.
They Don’t Know You
Your parents might have raised you, but if you’ve been gone for any amount of time, they don’t know you. You know this, but maybe they don’t. As parents, we make assumptions about our kids, in the same way children make assumptions about their parents, and it’s hard to look past what we think we know to what the realities are. When kids grow up and out and away, it’s hard for parents to remember that they are still becoming and still changing and developing into their truest selves. Of course as adults we’re acutely aware of the differences between ourselves and the families that raised us; it’s one of the reasons that bridging those adult relationships can be so hard.
My husband was not raised in a traveling family. He was raised in a hard working, traditionalist, midwestern family that was so proud when he was the first in generations to graduate from university. His parents have always been his fiercest cheerleaders, and there have been supportive even when it broke their hearts. But they haven’t always understood. They were concerned when he dropped his very good job to travel. They didn’t get why we spent so much time in the third world. When we wintered in Muslim north Africa, they worried. Then they took their first international trip to Guatemala, where we were living.
It was a lesson to me, as a mom, to remember to let my kids be who they are, even if it’s not at all what I expect, and to meet them more than half way.
They left behind everything they had known and dove into the deep end. Guatemala isn’t an “easy” first country for the uninitiated. I was wowed by their moxie and admired their bravery as they ate street food, waded through their inability to communicate, came to grips with our very “off the beaten track” community, and fell in love with our life. It’s a huge love gift for parents to step that far outside of their box for their son and grandchildren. It was a lesson to me, as a mom, to remember to let my kids be who they are, even if it’s not at all what I expect, and to meet them more than half way.
The last day they were with us I was standing in our garden, watching the volcanos beyond the lake and reminiscing with my mother-in-law. After a long pause she looked at me with tears in her eyes and she said, “You know, I get it. I get it now. I never really understood why you guys traveled like you do, why you live this way. But now… I’ve seen my son in a whole new way, and you and the kids too… and I get it.”
It’s those moments that make it all infinitely worth it. They continue to be fiercely proud of us, and we’re plotting our next multi-generational adventure!
I can’t put this any other way: You won’t have your parents forever. They’re going to get too old for big time adventure. They might get sick. They are going to die. I am not looking forward to the stage of life when the two people who spun me, like a top, out into the universe fade into picture frames. It brings tears to my eyes even to think about it. I’m as determined to make the most of the years I have with my parents as I am to make the most of the years I have with my kids. And for a very few, very precious years, our three generations overlap, and the memories made on epic journeys and grand adventures during that brief window are precious beyond measure.
Your parents gave the best years of their lives to the project of raising you. Give them some of that gift back by making time for them during the best years of yours. It’s hard to find the time, I know. It’s hard to reach beyond the differences and the difficulties sometimes. But ask someone who’s lost a parent what they would give for one more day, one more holiday, one more trip with their parents. It’s never a mistake to invest in time and relationships.
My uncle died two winters ago. Our last visit was in his care home. He was having a lucid day and remembered me. He sat in his chair, toothless, in a diaper, a shadow of the man I remember. His daughter and I went to dinner, shared a drink, and reminisced about our childhoods and his generation.
You’ll get to know them in a way you haven’t yet. They’ll have a window into your world. You’ll bridge culture gaps abroad while building bridges between hearts at home.
“You know, I’m so glad I took him to Scotland,” she smiled her fantastic, open, smile and we toasted “the old people.” Their trip to Scotland wasn’t a cake walk. He wasn’t an easy man, even on his own turf. They fought hard and cursed one another soundly in the Scottish highlands, as is wont to happen in our gene pool. But at the end of the day, when he dried up and blew away like a leaf, his daughter had Scotland, and perhaps he took that memory into the ether.
No one knows what we take out when we die, but at the very best, it’s our relationships and our memories. Is there anything else really worth investing in?
Traveling with your parents might seem like a chore. Heck, it might BE a chore! Don’t get me started on my Dad and bernouce shopping in backwater Tunisia in three languages. I nearly strangled the man! But it’s also an investment, in yourself, and in the relationships that matter most. You’ll get to know them in a way you haven’t yet. They’ll have a window into your world. You’ll bridge culture gaps abroad while building bridges between hearts at home. Take a chance, take your parents.
RTW 30 for families
BootsnAll offers a free trip planning course called Plan Your RTW Trip in 30 Days for anyone interested in taking a long-term trip. We are hard at work at the moment in creating another free planning resource, this time for families! If you want to stay up to speed and be among the first to know when we launch this new product, sign up for the BootsnAll Indie Travel newsletter!
For more on family travel, check out the following articles:
- Preparing Young Children to Fly
- 5 Reasons Parents Should Travel With Their Kids (From a Teen’s Perspective)
- 21 Reasons to Travel Around the World With Kids…From Those Who Have Done It
- 5 Steps to Simplify Family Travel
- Why Raise an Indie Traveler?
- Why It’s Not Selfish to Travel With Young Children