Three Kids and a…Bowl of Spilled Soup (Or How Family Travel Makes Me a Better Momma)

Many minutes after her final tuck in, my biggest little sat up and started spewing questions at me about our upcoming overnight flight. Through my grumpy, impatient protests, she was relentless in her need for answers. How long she would be on the plane before she had to sleep? What pillow would she use? Who would she sit with? What would she wear? Would it be a full nights sleep? Will we be fed breakfast? Dinner? A snack? How many movies should she have with her? Lovies? Where would they go?

I could see her imagining herself there, snuggled into the pocket of the airplane seat, preparing for an adventure. Day after day, night after night, week after week, it was her go to topic. I tried to steer her into conversations about her toys, friends, pets, day…literally anything else. But she couldn’t shake it. She was fascinated with the idea of sleeping on the plane. The thing is, this wasn’t her first overnight on a plane, but for some reason, this one stuck with her and sparked her imagination. She was creating scenarios, expectations. And every parent knows, once expectations have been established, life can get a bit dicey when they aren’t met. So to say I was fearful was beyond an understatement.

Fed and fast asleep.

Luckily, the flight to our destination was smooth (at least as smooth as it could be considering we were traveling overnight with three little people under six who were simultaneously excited and exhausted). Our landing was less successful…think six-year-old hiding her face and body from passport agents as she screams and cries (I’m pretty sure the passport agent was waiting for her head to spin around)…that was our level of success. Still, we made it through the airport and easily through our week. Then Boom! We were slapped in the face with the flight back home. Another overnight flight. Or partial, kind of, maybe overnight flight since we were flying west.

On this flight, excitement took over (believe me, not my excitement). Our tiniest little bounced above the seats, calling to his siblings until he collapsed red-faced into sleep after an extensive and endless battle (a “Pediatric Nurse” actually came to see if she could help us–I think that sort of sums up the degree to which he was screaming and thrashing). When the fray was over, I thought nothing could be worse (famous last words, I know). Ready for a slice of peace, I slipped, physically and emotional drained, into my seat next to the oldest two littles and reminded them about the time change, naively expecting them to settle into their own blissful slumbers. (I mean, you’d think I’d never done this before. It clearly didn’t happen and I’m sure it was because I wanted it too much.) That whole flight home, they stayed wide awake. And not just quietly watching tv or coloring. Oh no, the biggest little was basically Broadway-style singing her every action and thought the entire time. Every. Single. Second. And nothing I said or did made it stop. Nothing.

The highs of the tiniest little person that came right before the lows of the tiniest little person. MVI_2545

So, when biggest felt the gentle tilt of the plane and was asked to put her tray table up, she finally fell silent, if only for a minute. Because that’s when the unmet expectations erupted. She had pictured the perfect doze on the plane, but it hadn’t happened. She hadn’t fallen asleep at all. And then six-year-old rationality took over, and she frantically exclaimed that she would never get to sleep on a plane again. I, quite gingerly, reminded her we’d be flying overnight again in a few months, and then her wails quietly changed to pouting, a silent lamentation of the fact that she would never be able to sleep on this exact plane again. You know, as a six year old who has spent weeks perfectly piecing together how this flight should go, these all seemed like perfectly reasonable things to be upset about.

Finally, her imagination took hold again and her brain lurched forward. She pulled herself together just to ask me those familiar questions about taking an overnight flight. But this time she wanted to know more about the flight she was going to take, not the one she was taking. And the rounds of questions started again (some asked, some sung), except they were comparison based this time. Was the flight longer or shorter? Will there be breakfast next time? Will the seats be like these? I answered as best I could, explaining to her that the flight would be much more like our flight we took to Japan two years prior.

Airplane story telling at its finest.

I am flooded with memories of that specific flight because on that plane our biggest sat by herself. She was just over four, and because we were sitting in first class, there were no two seats configured together, so she sat behind one of us and catty-cornered from the other. Alone. She was the bell of the ball. The flight attendants were kind and gracious with her. But she sat alone. She was so alone that she buttered her own bread. She was given a butter knife like every other person sitting near us. And then she buttered her own bread. Alone. When she was tired, she took off her headphones and made her seat flat. She, alone, made the decision to go to bed. She rarely asked for help and remained quiet and calm the entire 18 hours in the air. In the snippets of my little person’s life, this flight was so much more than a means of getting from point A to point B. This is when I discovered something she already knew: she was no longer a toddler. She was a little person. She was growing up, and I hadn’t been paying attention.

So when I told her that the next flight would be similar to the flight we took to Japan, I expected that to be it. But instead, she looked at me with open and wide eyes and told me, quietly, she simply didn’t remember the flight to or from Japan. Excuse me? We, still, often talk about that flight, about that trip. So how could she not remember? What made my chest ache was the sheer honesty behind her statement. She didn’t remember. This specific moment I will remember forever, she does not have a relationship with. She often speaks of wanting to go back to Japan and talks of it fondly (way more fondly than it really happened). But she doesn’t actually remember it.

Happy to have conquered steps and rain to climb to a temple in Kyoto together.

And then I allowed myself to slide down that slippery slope. I thought, it’s true. Children don’t remember their travels, so why are we taking them out of their comfort, their habits, their schools, just to travel somewhere they’ll never remember. Why are we exhausting them? Making them miss lessons and parties? She doesn’t even remember that flight that I could never forget.

Now, juxtapose that with the sweat and tears of my nearly two year old only hours before. The bite marks left on my body by his attempts to relieve himself of his frustrations. The glares of some of those around us and the simple pity of others. And then the slope gets steeper. And defeat was pushing it’s way the edges of my thoughts. It was not a path I was willing to follow though, so I tucked it back in my mind and there it sat. Until it didn’t.

Oh, I, of course, could offer the usual lines of how little people are still undeniably shaped by their experiences, whether remembered or not. How they still learn, whether it’s a bit about culture or how time zones work. I could say that being surrounded by places and people unlike their own “normal” they begin to understand that “normal” is a malleable term with no absolute. Travel isn’t about making memories of places, but it’s about how the places impact the people we become. Yada yada yada. And I believe all of these things. Wholeheartedly. But it wasn’t until soup spilled on my kitchen floor that I realized traveling together is so much more than just opening the world up to my little people: it’s about opening myself up to my little people.

Learning of the Wampanoag people and exploring a replica Wampanoag Homesite at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA.

One average afternoon, the tiniest little was standing on his chair at the kitchen table, slurping chicken noodle soup with his brother and sister flanking his sides, each eating their own. In one sudden, and completely expected, move, he let the soup fall, first to his upholstered chair (don’t ask, I clearly did not think through the upholstery on kitchen chair thing when I bought them) and then to the freshly cleaned floor. His immediate response was to say a gentle, “Sorry Momma.”

My nearly two year old apologized to me for accidentally spilling his soup. It was sweet. But then it wasn’t. That he apologized frightened me. Largely because it confirmed for me things I didn’t want to admit: the chaos of every day life was overwhelming me and making me lash out in ways that made my almost two year old feel the need to apologize to me for a simple bowl of spilled soup. He expected some type of anger, whether a deep sigh, an audible grumble, or a full blown growl. I never expected myself to be the mother who growled, but that day my little people did. And it made my heart stumble.

I know that there is a frustration inside of me that exists when I’m caught up in the storm of the everyday. But I am fortunate because part of my every days includes the “other days.” It all quiets down when I step out of the day to day world of expectations and “have tos” and travel somewhere, anywhere, with my family. I can toss out time tables. My obligations become just to those whom I adore: my little travel tribe. I can stop being the things I dread and only partially invest myself into: chauffeur, cook, housekeeper. And I become those things I love but have tucked away in the interest of time management: a kissing monster, hand holder, explorer. I become a reader again. A hiker again. A story teller again. I learn and I teach.

Taking a hiking break to talk and soak it in.

Exploring with my family reminds me that it’s ok to be all those pieces of me that exist, that I think I have to shut off or quiet in order to get things done in the “everyday.” And each trip draws these parts of myself out of hiding to linger with us just a little bit longer, creeping into our lives at home, offering a better version of myself to my little people. One that they don’t fear will be angry about a bit of spilled soup.

A snuggle and a view. A moment we often forget to take at home.

So, maybe family travel doesn’t just have to be about the tangible impact it has on our children. It doesn’t have to be valued just at what bits of language they pick up or paintings they see. It’s not just squeezing in as many ancient ruins as possible. Maybe it’s okay that it’s just about who we finally allow ourselves to be when we’re together. It’s about how we slow down and ask each other questions. It’s having tea in an unfamiliar spot at the most unexpected moment and learning that my oldest loves the taste of ginger. Maybe family travel has to do less with discovering other cultures and more to do with discovering ourselves and each other. It’s figuring out how to be who we were, are, and will be, so that when we come back to every day, we are better for it. So maybe my biggest little can’t remember that she buttered her bread by herself for the first time on that airplane, but I do. And for her? She remembers how we spent every day together, fighting monsoons and food allergies and how we came out of it laughing.

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