Traveling With Kids Is Such a Trip

Travel helps you see the world through their eyes, for better or worse.

Illustration by Julia Yellow

I spent a month traveling in the fall, which is not a typical way for me to spend 30 days of my life. I started out with a long weekend trip to Los Angeles with my 10-year-old son, Maxx, so he could do flips on Venice Beach at a freestyle trampoline event. A week later, I drove 11 hours to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where I stayed alone in a writers’ colony for 10 days. Less than 36 hours after getting home, I left for a weekend in North Carolina with my 8-year-old daughter, Georgia, so we could meet up with another friend and her daughter to attend a wedding.

While I have traveled by myself quite a bit—including three prior sojourns at this writers’ colony—I had never flown solo with a kid before. I was so focused on packing, choosing seats, and finalizing itineraries that I gave little thought to what my month might actually be like.

In short, it was surreal. But once I got beyond the weirdness of being so alone sandwiched in between being so not alone, the experience illuminated something for me I was trying not to admit. Something I need to bring into the New Year.

First, there is the obvious point that children are the worst people in the world to travel with. Sure, joyful family people who put the best face on everything want to pretend this isn’t true. I know because I’ve always been one of these people. The boy and I will just fly to L.A. Then I’ll take my girl on a girls’ weekend in North Carolina. It will be great! I told myself. Opposite sides of the country with each kid, and my time to write in between. How fun! Oh, Judi.

I did have many moments of joy and fun with my kiddos on these trips. Moments. But on the whole, modern travel is not designed for modern children.

Let’s start with the fact that kids are too damn small and slow. Even if they had oddly long legs on their tiny bodies, they still wouldn’t walk fast through an airport, train station, car rental terminal, or long-term parking lot because they don’t understand the concept of flow. Though I traveled with them separately several weeks apart, both of my children did the exact same thing upon discovering the moving sidewalk: They leapt on and ran a few yards ahead, only to stop right when I was behind them, causing me to nearly fall down. This scene repeated itself many times in different ways. Cross in front of people and stop. Tie your shoe on the jet bridge. Lollygag at the desk of the TSA agent. Get under your mother’s feet when she steps forward to grab the heavy suitcase off the luggage carousel.

Children are always impeding traffic, looking the wrong direction, and meandering in spaces not at all designed for meandering or meanderers. They don’t understand how to be like the Knight Bus from the Harry Potter books, contracting and expanding and moving seamlessly with the herd of other people in a hurry.

They also never stop talking and asking questions, usually asking such questions loudly. Do they think our cereal bars have a bomb? they ask as the TSA agent pulls the box of Special K Pastry Crisps from your overflowing bag and says she has to test for explosives. Why do these people get to sit in bigger seats and have more room? they ask as you walk sheepishly through the first class cabin to get to your very second-class seats. What is a water landing? they ask during the safety instructions you’ve long ago tuned out. What is ED? they ask when the Cialis commercial comes on during the football game you suggested they watch on Delta’s free live streaming.

It’s exhausting, and often embarrassing, to get from point A to point B with them. You wonder how you could have done so much wrong as a parent to fail so spectacularly at traveling with your children, when it looks so effortless in every smug travel magazine story about family travel—some of which you may have written.

After my whirlwind trip to California with Maxx, I enjoyed the solitude of a long drive to the Ozarks in Arkansas, when I listened to podcasts, stopped when I wanted to stop, and answered zero questions. At the writers’ colony, I stayed in the coziest little cabin you can imagine—with wide plank paneling painted cream and mint green, gracious wicker chairs, a fireplace and large writing desk, and a back deck that felt like it was inside the forest. I wrote for hours at a time, took long walks and runs, sat in the adorable town square with a latte most afternoons, did yoga on the deck, and enjoyed delicious meals every evening. It’s unfair that this kind of opportunity isn’t accessible for every parent who desperately needs some time alone, and I don’t know what to do about the fact that it isn’t.

In past years, the place has been filled with other writers, and we commune at dinner each night by talking about our work and how we spent the day. I’ve met writers from around the country—biographers, playwrights, novelists, essayists, poets, and journalists. This was an odd year, though, because it was just me alone. Another writer came two days before I left, but other than that, I ate dinner by myself each night.

I didn’t long for Maxx’s unending questions in the security line, but I did realize that too much solitude is too much solitude. Once I rejuvenate alone, I need to empty out, so I can go rejuvenate some more. I’m a little bit like the old cordless phones we all used to have—my battery lasts longer when it gets to drain. People think introverts don’t like people. I adore people. I just need to be left alone when I’m done with them. I’ve known this about myself for a while, but I didn’t completely understand it until I found myself sitting at the head of a large dinner table, eating my kale salad in silence, feeling cut off from the world. Something gnawed at me in those moments when I was alone and shouldn’t have been.

Still, I was productive and the trip was a success. I drove back to Cincinnati after my time was up and didn’t even bother unpacking, since the mom train—or rather mom plane—would be leaving again shortly.

I am a wonderer. Not to be confused with a wanderer because, though my month of travel seems to suggest differently, I don’t actually do much wandering. But wondering? That’s my full-time job.

Children are wonderers, too. Both of mine are introverts like me—recharging alone versus with others—so they do a good bit of wondering silently in their own head. Traveling brings out their verbal wondering though, which is a kind of high-need wondering. Over and over, during each trip with each child, I wanted to say, “Please, just be quiet,” or, more to the point, “Oh my God, shut up!”

But because I believe in answering children’s questions honestly, I tried my best with each query. Some answers were easy: “People in first class pay more money for their seats or get them because they fly all the time.” Other answers were so absurd that hearing them aloud made me laugh. “We all take our shoes off because one time a guy put a bomb in his shoe.”

Kids make you examine the unexamined and rote parts of any system. They force you to say aloud things that, if you listen, might incense you.

Maxx, my logic-minded kid, asked why kids didn’t have to take their shoes off. “Couldn’t someone just put a bomb in a kid’s shoe?” he said. “No one would do that,” I answered quickly.

He looked at me skeptically, because they do lock-down drills at school in case of an active shooter. He knows the world. “And did that guy with the shoe bomb blow up?” he asked. “No. Or, uh, maybe,” I said, confusing the shoe bomb guy with the underwear bomb guy. But there was no way I was mentioning an underwear bomb. “I guess I don’t remember what happened,” I finally said.

Adults just accept the elaborate charade of airport security without asking many questions or retaining details. We don’t want to get blown up or hijacked, and spending too much energy criticizing security measures feels like bad karma. “They’re just trying to keep us safe,” I told him.

As a TSA agent tested my cereal bars for explosives a few weeks later and I gave Georgia the same explanation about trying to keep us all safe, I felt anger rising. Not at her and not at TSA, but rather at the way “safety” always seems to get twisted, so that the most vulnerable populations—immigrants and their children, people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, gay and gender-fluid people, teenage girls at parties—wind up with the least amount of safety. I thought about my own privilege and how my blonde-headed daughter and I could disappear into this crowd without trying.

Kids make you examine the unexamined and rote parts of any system. They force you to say aloud things that, if you listen, might incense you. And so an interesting thing happened while traveling with my children. In between my frustration and embarrassment, I remembered, in bits and pieces, the fiery girl I had once been, who wasn’t content to accept things as they are.

For example, why do the most asinine erectile dysfunction commercials run all hours of the day, yet if someone were to mention, say, right after A.J. Green made a game-winning catch, the fact that huge amounts of women still feel compelled to fake orgasms, the room—whatever room you happened to be in—would be horrified. Oh! How inappropriate to talk about female sexuality! If you suggested discussing rape instead, they would likely tell you to stop ruining men’s lives.

God, the arguments I used to have with people about inequity. Then with career, marriage, and babies, I put indignation on hold when it took too many resources.

But when the damn cereal bars get tested for explosives and my answers are so insufficient, the quiet rage drips out. Even if I hide for 10 days alone in Arkansas, it doesn’t go away. It drips out in hotel rooms on Venice Beach when my kid is playing on the iPad for a few minutes as I’m unpacking and watching Senator Susan Collins tell me she’s voting to confirm. It drips out when I’m too alone with my thoughts and must confront the idea that I’m not doing enough to fight for what I believe in. It drips out when my kid makes a snide comment about people in first class and—while I wonder at the unfairness of who has money and who doesn’t—I have no idea how to explain my own confusion and low-level guilt about economic disparities.

So I start this new year with funny and fond memories of our travels (I usually remember just the good parts of trips, though writing an essay highlighting the bad might make it slightly harder to forget); with gratitude for my opportunities (some hard-won, most just luck); with a renewed pledge to keep trying to answer my kids’ questions honestly; and with a goal to see the world through their eyes a little more often.

But I also have rage. I’m pissed off. I’m carrying that into 2019, too, and I’m not apologizing for it.

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