Before we left the United States, I read many blogs of other traveling families who had taken similar trips, and they all described the incredible bonds developed on the road. “It was such a gift to spend so much time together!” “We returned feeling closer to each other than ever before.” And how the kids would spontaneously come up to hug their parents, thanking them for this amazing experience. For the first three months of our trip, as we traveled through Africa, I kept thinking of these testimonials to familial closeness and wondering whether we would be the exception. While we loved being in Africa and were having incredible experiences–seeing parts of the world largely untouched by Western culture, camping out in a remote village in Southern Ethiopia under the widest night sky I’d ever seen, learning traditional dances in Uganda, swimming in the Nile River, touring 900 year old churches chiseled by hand from solid mountains of volcanic rock, the list went on and on—being together all the time was definitely not making our hearts grow fonder to each other. Navigating onerous visa applications (India, anyone?), bookings on complicated foreign transit systems, hours of research online to locate decent affordable lodging with snail-like internet connections, along with a tight budget, language barriers, stomach ailments, flea and mosquito bites, and a dearth of playmates, toys, and television didn’t help matters.
What happened to our family is, the gloves came off, introducing a new rawness and bluntness to our interactions. I told the kids more than once that they were acting like little brats, something I might have thought occasionally at home but would never have said out loud and in such a nasty tone too. I pinched hard the soft part of my eight-year-old daughter’s upper arm when she wouldn’t quit teasing her brother while out somewhere. I told my husband to shut the fuck up in front of the kids and strangers—albeit strangers who didn’t speak English, but my tone still garnered an alarmed glance. The kids screamed that they hated us, that they wished they could have a new family. They’d prefer anybody but us. Even my five-year-old son took to storming into the bathroom, wailing, “I just want to go some place where I can have some peace! I just want to be away from you people!”
“I want some peace, too,” I shouted back. “I want a break from all of you too.”
These moments inevitably returned me to a summer traveling with my own family in France. Remembering how that trip had gone, I would ask myself what in the hell I’d been thinking.
A shared passion for France weaved through my parents’ love story, and it was a dream of theirs to one day take their children to their favorite country. The trip spanned six weeks, with the bulk of the time spent in a rented 9th century stone tower that had been converted into a home located in a small village in the Loire Valley. My parents heard about it through the friend of a friend, and a photo of the tower on a hilltop with some bougainvillea climbing its rounded wall sealed the deal.
My brother and I were older than my kids: I was eleven and he was thirteen. The tower was damp and somehow cold, even in July, and far from anything to do or anyone to hang out with. My father, in his characteristically blunt fashion, summed up our neighbors in the surrounding farming community as either peasants or petty criminals who all seemed to be about to enter prison or had just been released.
The food or water or both didn’t agree with my dad, and he spent much of his time hunched on the single toilet that was located on the landing off the tower’s winding stairwell with only a folding screen for privacy. My brother and I found solidarity when scuttling past the bathroom trying to simultaneously block our ears and noses—no easy feat–but otherwise we detested each other.
Earlier in our trip, my brother found the diary that I had begun to record my observations during our travels. I intoned (with what I’m sure I would now view as a cloying precocity) about the landscape, the differences between American and French boys, and my impending womanhood, which I was sure was going to visit me any day now, and—remember, he was thirteen–he mocked me mercilessly, repeating my oh-so-poetic phrases in breathy falsetto. Mostly, without our friends, our games, and our TV shows, we were terribly bored.
One day, my mother, in an effort to lift everyone’s spirits, proposed driving an hour to a lake on the other side of some mountains. There was supposed to be a nice beach area there. We normally went to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer, and the chance to swim and sun again would do us good. My mother woke up early, or perhaps she stayed up late the night before, and made an elaborate picnic. Roast chicken, potato salad, green beans, home brewed ice tea with mint from the garden, and something sweet.She packed it all in a big basket, and set it out by the car, along with the bags of beach towels and books and a ball we’d found for a game of toss.
The lakefront didn’t have the graceful dunes and big waves of the Atlantic beach that we were used to, but there was a wide expanse of sand, funny pot-bellied men in tiny Speedos, pouty-lipped French teenagers, some paddle boats, and a bustling café scene. As we began unloading the trunk, I could feel my own mood rising unbidden on our collective excitement.
“Where’s the picnic basket?” my mother said. My brother and I looked at each other and shrugged. Neither of us remembered seeing it.
“It was right by the car.” The alarm in her voice rising. She started searching frantically through the trunk. I can remember my father suggesting that we eat at the café. But my mother, who managed the budget in our household, didn’t enjoy eating out as a rule. Where some people counted calories, she counted the dollars that dishes cost, dishes that she could prepare much better and far more cheaply herself.
My mother insisted that she was going to drive back to fetch it. I imagine she would have justified this decision by detailing all the effort she’d put into making the picnic or how we simply couldn’t afford to eat in the café. I can’t remember exactly, but I do recall my father, who’d been watching her with a hand on his hip, saying that he wasn’t going to stand around listening to this martyr act. He retrieved his book and towel, and ambled away.
My mother turned to my brother and me. “You’re coming with me.”
“But it’s an hour each way,” we protested. “It’s not like you left a kid behind.”
At the time, I agreed with my father that my mother was being irrational and long-suffering, although, now, as a mom myself who also packs a mean picnic lunch, I understand that while she hadn’t left a kid behind, she had placed in that basket something nearly as precious—all her care for our wellbeing and her faith that she could rescue this romantic fantasy of a trip, for a while at least, with a great day on the beach.
I hadn’t noticed on the drive there how windy the mountain road was. I clung to the armrest in the back, where I dove first, forcing the front seat on my brother, as the little rental car whipped around the corners. My mother drove faster and faster, as she lectured us on how we needed to assume more responsibility in the family. She couldn’t ask more from our father: he was from an earlier generation when men didn’t help out so much. Besides he was supporting us. But she couldn’t be expected to do everything else herself.
We tried to point out the ways that we did help around the house; we said again and again how sorry we were that the lunch had been left behind, but she would not be mollified. The only thing that might have sufficed would have been admitting that for the forgotten picnic basket, we held, if not all, a handsome portion of the blame, but since we had never seen it in the first place—was she even sure she put it out by the car?—we weren’t willing to cop to something we hadn’t done.
This too: the urge to blame, to dispel some of the bad feeling churning in your stomach by placing it on others, I have been recognizing in myself during my family’s trip. If my mother stopped shouting at us, then she’d have to listen to that quieter but more tragic voice: the voice of regret asking, Why oh why, had she not double- and triple-checked to make sure that this key element on this special day, that she had worked so hard and so lovingly to prepare, was traveling with us.
At some point, my brother—who as the older one and the one sitting next to her was getting the brunt of my mother’s invectives—snapped. I remember him shouting and quite possibly crying, and maybe even pounding the glass of the windshield. “I can’t stand this! I can’t stand this family! I just want to get out of this car. I just want to get away from you.”
My mother slowed the car down; her voice lowered and steadied. She stared at him for longer and longer moments, taking her eyes off the road. “And where are you going to go? Who is going to take care of you? How are you going to support yourself?”
“I’ll find a way,” he said finally to avoid acknowledging the truth that she was trying to force out of him. He was thirteen. There was nowhere else to go. We were his family and he was stuck with us. I wish now that I could go back and give my parents, and especially my brother and me, a little more time–time to be out in the world, alone together, to accept this fact, and learn to deal with it, and even come to love it. Because once my own family of four began our fourth month of traveling, I started to feel something shift between us, or perhaps particularly in me.
It’s not like we’ve stopped shouting at each other—or in the kids’ case, punching each other—although I think there is less of it, and more often it has some addressable or temporal source—such as fatigue, homeschooling or the stress of transit–rather than the existential claustrophobia of being unable to escape your own flesh and blood for more than five minutes at a time. And it’s not like I wouldn’t enjoy some time off to get a massage or take a yoga class, although I wouldn’t mind if one or all of my family members came too, as long as they agreed to let me have my peace and quiet. And while I would definitely jump at a night out with a newfound friend—maybe a fellow traveling mom–particularly if it involved a few glasses of wine, some frank talk about life on the road, and dancing, but if it meant giving up some outing with the kids that I’d been looking forward to, a trek or a tacky theme park, I might think twice.
But earlier in the trip, and certainly back in Brooklyn, having any of my family around during “me time” felt as if I was still on duty. The specter of being asked to locate a misplaced toy or what was available for snack could sour a soak in the tub or an hour reading in bed. Being interrupted while writing could chase off the muse for the rest of the day. I thought of my role as mom as something I could switch off, and as the hours wore on, I yearned more and more impatiently for that time when the kids were asleep and I could retire to our stoop with a glass of wine and my once-a-day cigarette as a reward for having made it through another day.
While my children slept or were in school or when I took a two-week writer’s residency, the other side of myself came alive, the person I was on my way to becoming before marriage and children intervened, the person whose expression and fulfillment I thought of as crucial to my happiness and sanity. No matter how much time I gave to this person, it never seemed to be enough to sate her. I longed, Cheryl Strayed-style, to go out into the wild on my own to have uninterrupted communion with myself. Whether there was anything new to discover, I wasn’t sure—after all, I’ve been living in this same body for more than four decades–but I longed for it, the way that you might long for a cherished lover whom life’s circumstances forced you to leave.
I put so much stock into this concept of a dichotomy between the roles of mother/wife and self that I spent the last six years working on a novel where the main character, a woman with two children, feels that one must always come at the expense of the other. And now I’d willingly put myself in a situation where there could be no split, no precious private time for my precious private self, because I was never ever alone.
A friend who had to radically change his diet for health reasons told me that you grow to crave what you eat. Once you get through the initial period of adjustment, it gets much easier. I am beginning to think that you also crave what you do and the reason for the shift in our family dynamic is as simple as the more time we spend together, the more we want to spend time together and the more we enjoy it. But I also wonder if the shift in me has something to do with the amount of time I’ve spent squished between my kids in the backseat of a car or in the berth of a train or in a bed.
When I was pregnant with my first child, someone gave me Dr. Sears parenting book, which I skimmed through, scoffing at the scenes of his wife commanding her household from her armchair where she would remain planted for months on end nursing on demand and selflessly nurturing each subsequent baby. I wasn’t about to give up that much of my freedom. I thought women who advocated “attachment parenting” should get their own lives and that the family bed was a little creepy and too easy a resignation to the sexlessness of parenthood. But I did appreciate the science behind Dr. Sears’ points about the benefits of touch and carrying an infant—how it soothes them and makes them sleep better by combatting the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, which paves the way for healthy brain development; while also raising the mother’s oxytocin level, which keeps her in a happy dreamy state, better able to bond and care for her baby. I wore each of my children, often skin to skin as they were both born in early summer, for as much and as long as my back could handle it. I loved the proximity of their warmth and smell and how their breath seemed to time to my own; I loved being the sole audience to their little hiccups, tremors and stomach churnings, which were louder echoes of the things their bodies had done when they were still inside of me. This literal attachment made me feel that these flailing, foreign, often awkward beings were in fact the flesh of my flesh much more than breastfeeding or co-sleeping ever did.
I’ve started to wonder during the many hours I’ve spent scrunched between my kids about the effects of constant physical contact on older children and me, their parent.
We’ve always been a pretty cuddly family; our limbs tangled up together on the couch watching a movie or on weekend mornings in bed. Back at home, my husband and I take turns lying with each of our kids every night as they are falling asleep, and I love the conversations we have in darkness, the unpredictable intimate turns about God or death or some rare specifics about a friendship, until suddenly they are asleep, falling off mid-sentence. Even so, one part of me was often thinking about an email I needed to return or an article I wanted to finish reading, my date with our stoop, or, my husband, if we could both stay awake long enough. I always had one foot outside the bed, my body readying to leave.
After school, when my kids wanted my attention the most, and would hang their arms around my neck as I sat at my desk, trying to finish something on my laptop, or as I stood at the counter chopping onions, my mind chewing on some writing from my day, I sometimes would have to consciously control a reflex to jerk away. I was still clinging to my other role, trying to eke out a few more minutes of my private sanctum.
Since we’ve been traveling, I’ve had neither space nor privacy and I’ve begun to recognize how in much of the world what a luxury those two things are. Actually, luxury isn’t the right word, since the idea of wanting or needing to be separate from your family likely wouldn’t occur to many people. Often everyone sleeps in one room on shared mattresses, always lined up in front of the ubiquitous TV screen; they ride four on a scooter, sit eight around a tiny table of the type used in American kindergarten classrooms. Of course, the desire and ability for space and privacy increases with wealth, but it’s been instructive to see so many women cooking, running guest houses, weaving baskets or selling vegetables with their children beside them, helping out or happily engaged without the benefit of an Ipad.
I’ve started to think that maybe I don’t need my boundaries as much as I thought I did. (In fact, I’ve worked on this essay during a five-hour train ride in India with my daughter’s head in my lap, humming loudly to amuse herself, or maybe to get my attention, so that I’d drop my hand from the keyboard to stroke her hair, and while sitting by a hotel pool in Cambodia as my kids called out to watch this dive or asked for a towel or to order a snack, and I didn’t lose my train of thought or temper once.)
In the backseat of a hired car, with my husband up front next to the driver, as we drove around Ethiopia or Uganda or India, or in a bus in Vietnam or Cambodia, I have spent hours with both of the kids’ heads in my lap, stroking their hair, scratching their backs and tickling their arms in a lovely languid meditation. I’ve watched over their shoulders as they matched fruit on Candy Crush or jumped trains on Subway Surfers or fed the pigs on Farmville so they pooped out more clay (yeah, I don’t get it either), and I’ve seen how skillful they are at these games and experienced their contagious excitement at reaching another level. They’ve been playing them for ages now, but I never really paid attention before. They were what the kids did so I could have some time to myself.
Sharing a narrow train berth or nestled together in a single bed, my body has reclaimed my children, temporarily at least, as its own flesh and blood that it can no sooner escape than its own nose. These close quarters have softened the edges between “my time” and everything else, between the role of mother and my idea of self, between me and them. I know that they will and should be separating from me soon enough, but for now, I find myself greedy for their proximity, even when I’ve got my earbuds in, which is supposed to signal that I’m working and should be left alone.
And in fact, once I stopped viewing their presence as an interruption, it became less of one. More disrupting was my annoyance at being interrupted and my fear that my precious private self, my muse, was going to storm off like a spoiled diva, refusing to return. (I still haven’t learned control my annoyance with my husband’s interruptions, but that’s another story.)
That I have no obligation except to myself to produce work while we are traveling makes being jointly present with my children and myself much much easier. But I think there is a lesson that can be applied once back home. Giving my unconditional open-ended focus to them, whether it’s cuddling without the shadow of a time limit or listening to why some video game is so thrilling, has the unexpected outcome of making that same fully present self more quickly and readily available when I’m alone. I can choose both, them and me, with each part of my life building up the other.