Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mama Adventure #1: Traveling with Kids

I have a lovely and difficult curse.

It's called wanderlust. You know, that feeling of, I've got to get OUT of here/town/the house NOW! I've got to GO! You don't always see it coming, but when it's there, it's almost obnoxious in its insistence, despite the other things in your life like, say, work, appointments, deadlines, or people who are relying on you being here, in town or in the house.

I think it's genetic because my Mom has it too. As a teenager, I remember coming home a time or two to an empty house and a note that said simply, "I had to go to the desert. There's money on my dresser and food in the fridge. See you on Sunday XXOO Jude the Mom." When this happened (and it wasn't too often, but often enough) I remember always being a little stunned, but also sort of innately understanding her need. (And back then, as my freedom dawned on me, and I dug my secret pack of cloves out of my backpack and turned on the TV, I quickly moved from stunned to thrilled.)

An Unwilling Traveler Converts
A little later, after I had graduated from high school, Mom took me with her on the - pardon me - mother of all roadtrips: A six-week meander around the perimeter of the country in our '72 orange-and-white VW bus. Just her and me. We drove down the West Coast to L.A., across the Southwest and then east to Florida, up the eastern seaboard to NYC, and then right through the middle of the country to Utah and back home.

It was truly an epic adventure, but I didn't want to go at first. In fact, she pretty much had to drag me kicking and screaming. After all, what self-respecting 18-year-old wants to leave all her friends the summer after high school to hang out in an old hippie car with Mom?? I sulked for the first 20 hours like the most wounded of drama queens. My bitterness and attitude was like a lead blanket for our drive down I-5.

But it didn't take long for me to get on board...only a day or two, in fact. Here's what started to win me over: Waking up in a small Northern California coastal town still shrouded in nautical mist, getting coffee and danish from a local bakery, and wandering the town with Mom, looking for undiscovered treasures and interesting people to talk to at a roadside flea market.

Here's what nudged me further: Mom relenting to buy a map of stars' homes and spending hours searching the hills above L.A. in the July heat and with no air conditioning, all so I could stand alone for a few minutes at the gate of what was once Judy Garland's house, tears spilling out of my awestruck, idealistic, over-the-rainbow colored eyes.

And here's what sealed the deal: Mom letting me drive one night -- a thrill since I never had a car in high school -- the whole long stretch of highway between LA and Pheonix, while she slept in the back (or didn't, as I now know) and I sang along to a mix tape from my boyfriend, my left arm holding a freshly lit Marlboro Light out the open window, sucking in through every pore the romantic cool blackness of a summer desert night at 65 mph and the thrill of being young and alive and not knowing what lay ahead. That trip was a thousand of those memories, and it sealed my destiny as a Wanderluster forever.

What's out there?
Now I'm a couple of decades older, but every few months, especially in the summer and fall, I still get a visceral desire to be in a car, driving outward on fast highway, with a "leaving" song escorting me past the city limits. I struggle with that almost physical need to go to the high, cold desert of eastern Oregon, where the air sears your lungs and spirit; or to the ocean for the rythmic push of the waves and the soothing mist of negative ions, or the call of unknown people in unremarkable towns who might share a bit of their lives with me and therefore make this world seem a little less disjointed.

Most times, I am willing to settle for even a long drive by myself around the city at night, listening to the radio too loud and soaking in the mood of the city lights. (And not listening to Free to Be You and Me for the 700th time. Or placing dishes in to or out of the dishwasher for the third time that day. Or sitting in front of the TV after the kids have gone to bed, not because you want to but because you lack the energy or imagination to do anything else.)

Until recently, my wanderlust has been a curse, because for the past 13 years, I've been either:
  1. gainfully employed (and could therefore skip town for only 14 days each year) or
  2. freshly married (when skipping town seemed inappropriate; better to set up house and gaze adoringly at hubby, or new oriental carpet, or the 27 glass vases received at wedding) or, since 2004,
  3. the mother of one, then 18 months later two, baby girls

Traveling with Kids: Isn't That Just for Crazy People?
Mamahood and wanderlust are not the best partners - at least not if you long for the trip you would have taken with your college roommate: all Cheetos and beers and cigarettes and bare legs out the window and secretly staring at yourself in the sideview mirror and admiring how you look in your tan and your highlights and your new Oakleys.

On the other hand, if you prepare well and have the right mind-set, the call of your children and that of the open road need not be mutually exclusive. For one thing, many mamas opt, at least for a while, to take some time away from work (the biggest road-trip killer there is). If you don't work outside the home, either because you're a SAHM, or a self-employed mama, even better - you can take off generally whenever you want!

But even if you work regularly - in fact especially if you work and you don't see your kids as much during the week - a road trip with kids can be the most incredible experience. Or a plane trip, or a train trip. Even a weekend at someone else's house when they're out of town, and you're in a slightly new environment with the beings you love the most - can satisfy that need that mamas struggle with: that need to be out in the world, doing something other than making PB&Js, other than nursing or burping or bathing or diapering or shopping or cleaning or soothing or wiping - just something other. Because even if you're doing the same old stuff, somehow, doing it somewhere else seems different, seems more voluntary, more like adventure and less like drudge.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about and doing travel, both as a singleton and as a mama, and I believe in its powers. But you have to do it right in order for it not to be a complete stress-mess for you and/or your children, and that takes trial and error. In upcoming entries, I'll cover what I've learned from my own adventures and those of other smart, fun and sometimes wild mamas. We'll talk about:

Air Travel with Kids - how to survive , what to pack, what to wear, how to take care of them.
Road Trips - how far and how long is reasonable, how to do it without a DVD player, ideas for short or long trips.
Weekends away - how to get that wanderin' feeling when you have kids and only a couple of days

..and more. If you have ideas, questions, or comments, please join the conversation. My hope is that anyone reading this, who has had that feeling in her guts, will find the inspiration and support to go for it, and to take her kids along for the ride.

--Sarah, December 2007