My family and I just returned to Australia from a 5 week trip visiting family and friends in America. While it was really nice to see everyone, the trip and the type of traveling we did, really pushed me to the limits. All of my parenting knowledge was put to the most extreme test. I’ve been reflecting on everything I learned over those five weeks and I wanted to share my experience with you.
Mentally prepare the kids
Briefly explain the logistics of what’s going to happen, how and when. As much as you may want to rent a private jet and travel in luxury, this isn’t an option for most of us. There’s no avoiding the hassle of commercial flying, so you need to try and manage what your children will experience. If you sense any fear or anxiety, fun role-playing can help. If you know you have to do something that your child will not enjoy (long plane ride, meeting strange relatives, sleeping in an unfamiliar place, using public toilets, etc.), you can do role playing to help lighten the blow.
For example, I knew that my 3 year old was really scared of using the toilets on the plane because they’re loud. So, a few days before the trip, we did lots of laughter role playing. Over and over, with some props, we played out the same scene in our living room; the scenario of what it would be like to use the toilet on the plane. We exaggerated the sounds we thought we would hear and we laughed and played. When it came time to use the toilet on the plane, she was only slightly hesitant, but not terrified. And towards the end of the first leg on the plane, she was a pro.
Rushing brings out the worst parenting in all of us. Doing anything with kids always takes longer and it’s even longer when there’s packing and shlepping of luggage, food, and presents around. It’s much better to sit around and be early, than to yell, scream, and make them hold their pee while you rush through the check in at the airport or drive in a hurry to get somewhere. We were two hours late for Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house. I knew that people had flown in from all over the country to see us. We did our best to get there on time, and it just didn’t happen. I called ahead, apologized for being late, and didn’t stress. We ended up having the perfect amount of time with everyone anyway, we just missed the eating together part, which was really no biggie.
We had way too much stuff with us. Since we were staying with different people and changing places frequently, we started to notice that every time we moved locations, it took nearly half the day to organize the stuff we had and pack the car. It was also super cluttered, frustrating and disorganized in the rooms we were staying in to have so much stuff. One night, we stayed in New York City with my husband’s brother. We took public transportation and packed only one bag between the four of us, left the rest at my parents, and it was glorious!
Don’t expect your family to understand
They love you, but they may not understand your family unit and all of your little quirks. If your parenting style is a bit (ahem) alternative, they might get on your case about it. Just go with it the best you can. You don’t need to change their mind or their opinions. They might judge, make assumptions, and say weird things and your blood might boil. Remember, they’re only seeing a sliver of your life. And often, what they see is a tired version of you parenting kids who are either excited, tired, overwhelmed and/or possibly frightened.
Family and friends might say and do strange things with your children that you would never do. Before you get all in a huff… stop and consider… is what they’re doing really that bad? Or, is it just not the way you would do it? If they’re truly not doing any harm or pushing your boundaries too far, can you just let it go? Remember that your family members also have their good qualities.
Older people are usually not interested to learn from your life lessons, so you don’t need to preach to them about your world views. Try not to talk about politics or whatever else you disagree upon. Keep it simple. Don’t stress if they have misconceptions about your life. Put your foot down (gently) if needed.
Can I have a hug?
I had to nicely explain that my kids don’t give out hugs on demand unless they know that person very well. If a hug was requested and denied, I would just tell the adult to give it more time or try again next time.
Find accommodation that is on your own
Staying in anyone else’s living space can be a challenge, especially if it’s for an extended period of time with kids. If you can afford it and it’s possible, try staying nearby in a hotel or holiday unit. You can still see the family most of the day, and then escape for at least a few hours to let the kids decompress. Of the 5 weeks on our trip, we spent 8 days by ourselves in a rental. It was so nice and relaxing. We were still able to catch up with friends, but it was only for limited amounts of time.
Let some things slide
You’ll drive yourself mad if you don’t and you have to decide where you draw the line. But try to relax. For example, I’m a firm believer that young kids should not watch movies, but you know what? A 14-hour long haul tacked on to another 6-hour flight and I quickly changed my mind about letting the older one watch a movie. I didn’t let her watch unlimited. Just a couple of movies and it was fine. We also ate more junk food in 5 weeks than we usually eat in an entire year… and you know what? This was also fine. We came home and the kids were shoving raw kale and fresh fruit down their mouths as they might never get to eat it again in their lives. They haven’t asked for a single sugary food or a movie since we’ve been back.
One thing that is often overshadowed is how long traveling and how potentially boring these family events can be for children, especially young ones. For an adult, you get whisked away in the chaos and stress of traveling and along with the excitement of seeing people again after a long period of time. But for a younger child, this can all feel very confusing, and it can also feel like it takes a long time to do anything. If I was to re-do this trip again, I would make sure that I have multiple adequate distractions planned out. One way this could be done is to download youtube videos to make sure you have a constant supply, or you could make sure that you have some books to distract them with. These are only small distractions, but they could break up a long car journey, or a lunch that goes onto the evening. This could help your child to refocus and be ready to take part in these long interactions again.
Expect crying, embrace it
My three year old had the most epic temper tantrum in a huge line at the USA customs. All eyes were on me. But humanity prevailed! A security guard whisked us through to the front of the line and the border police gave the kids chocolates. She threw the tantrum because she was so tired that she couldn’t fall asleep. But, after she cried, she fell asleep peacefully for 8 hours, all while being traipsed around the airport and plane take-offs. She just needed to get it out of her system so that she could fall asleep. When she woke up, she was cheerful again. Don’t worry if people ‘tsk tsk’ and shake their heads at you, imagine how ‘cool‘ they would be if they were in your shoes. Most people will understand.
Make extra time for rest, exercise, play
A few days off-rhythm and rushing around is ok, but any longer than that and kid’s state of well being starts wearing thin and so will your patience. We made a rule of doing one ‘thing‘ per day and anything else we could fit in, was a bonus. I had to really pay attention to how many hours the kids were sleeping and if they are getting enough exercise and quiet time to do hands on playing. The kids and I took turns getting really really sick over a period of 2 weeks. It was awful, and we had to cancel a lot of things to simply rest. Luckily, we had built in just enough time to accommodate for that.
Don’t forget about yourself. I gave myself a minimum amount of self care time per day. Self care did not count as checking Facebook! For me, self care was finding 40 minutes a day so I could do my yoga, breathing, and meditation. Without that, I would have gone bonkers. Although I know this can be very difficult so if you need some extra help with your self-care and health then you may benefit from coaching for women from companies like The Woman School, and this should help you to validate your self-worth and boost your confidence.
Presents vs presence
Kids love getting gifts, but what they love even more is connection time from the people who love them. It’s easy to get swept up in the preparation of food and presents for people, but your connection, your attention and your loving presence means much to a child than any gifts you can give them (of course presents are super fun too, we do both).
Enjoy your company first, then comes tradition
If you have limited time with family, order food or buy pre-made stuff rather than stress over cooking and cleaning. With one particular branch of family we met, we went to an All-You-Can-Eat-Buffet. There was about 15 of us. At first, my husband and I thought it was a little cheesy, but when it was all said and done, we were impressed. We got to do a lot of catching up, and we didn’t have to worry about cooking food or cleaning up. The kids had a blast!
Take a holiday from your holiday
Give yourself a few extra days to recover when you get back. My husband had to go back to work the very next day! He was jet lagged and exhausted and his clothes are still sitting unpacked in his suitcase days later. Going away gives you a renewed appreciation of your home, so give yourself some time to enjoy it!