I traveled with babies, often. I took a vacation every maternity leave, because I turn blue if I have to stay in one place too long. Traveling with a baby takes planning, flexibility and a weird sense of humor. Many friends said to me, for example, as I pushed a newborn and toddler through Disney World, “I’m going to wait until mine are bigger.”
But being a travel freak, I’ve taken my kids on trips every year of their lives. Not just annual Disney trips (don’t judge), but road trips to grandparents and plane trips across the country and once, memorably, to Australia. You can do 17 hours in the air with kids the same way you do two hours in the air, with a screen and snacks.
Nothing has ever broken me, not a zombie walking down the halls of a Stockholm hotel with a one-year-old who never adjusted to the time change, or my granddaughter having a sit-in with a snowman in Vermont and absolutely refuses to budge. Nothing broke me, that is, until my teenagers, according to the popular “old enough to enjoy” travel myth, were absolute, total brats on an amazing trip to Europe.
It was a day in Dublin. We visited ancient sites and saw a rainbow. We were on our way to a hard to get dinner reservation when my kids said they were done and wanted to be at the hotel. I got uncharacteristically angry and accused them of being ungrateful. How often are we in Dublin? And you’re going to spend the evening in a hotel room, on your phone? I dragged them to this restaurant, and my son refused to eat his dinner, and we all drove mad back to the hotel.
Three things: I had lost sight of the fact that teenagers, like babies and 5-year-olds and kids of all other ages, love being in a hotel, especially if there’s a pool, and little it doesn’t matter if you’re in Dublin or Detroit. This is where they want to be.
I had also let my own adult desires get in the way. I wanted a good dinner and a glass of wine. They do not have. If I had something to do again, I’d take them back to the hotel, serve them burgers, and then go to that nice dinner with my husband.
The final revelation came three years later: despite their behavior there, my children remember this trip fondly.
When they talk about loving Ireland, my husband and I look at each other like, “Do we remember the same holidays?” When my son once remembered how “cool” Trinity College was, I scrolled through my phone to find the photos of him looking bored and downright disgusted to be there. Proof aside, he remembers it as a great one.
I used that fact to speak to a friend from the proverbial ledge recently, when she recounted how her teenager had acted horribly on a long-awaited family vacation. He moaned about sightseeing and rolled his eyes in pictures. “Just look,” I told him. “He’s going to remember it completely differently.”
Talking to her mentally prepared me for yes, another trip to the UK with my grumpy son, no daughter this time. I decided that I was going to let him make his own decisions. When he wanted to nap (almost all the time), I let him nap. When he wanted to sit in the hotel on his laptop, I let him. I invited him on walks and to my surprise he often (certainly not always) joined me. I let him “lead” excursions, which often gave the impression that he walked ahead as if he didn’t know me. Honestly, you have to laugh, and we did, calling it the “trash” of Nottingham Castle, for example. Turns out laughing with your teen is a lot more fun than telling them they should be grateful.
Because in fact, I know now that my children are grateful for every trip that we have been able to take. But they’re both still teenagers, so neither of them will turn to me and say, “Mom, thank you for spending time and money to give us wonderful experiences. I never said that to my own mother when I was 16. Only now, when I travel with her as an adult, can I fully express my gratitude because I am no longer programmed to complain like teenagers are.
I love babies and totally understand that a fountain in a hotel lobby can be the highlight of their vacation. I love my 6 and 8 year old nieces who will drag me by the hand to the nearest playground wherever we are. And I can finally rejoice to see my 16-year-old son point out that the Brits stole everything from the British Museum and that dead mummies are scary. He has a sense of appreciation, on his own level. It just won’t exactly look like gratitude, but as he takes pictures to text his friends, I know the appreciation is there. Making new memories with your children is always worth it.