March 18, 2014 in Inspiration
Any advice on fatigue from extended traveling with kids and how to cope with it?
This was a question we received last week on the post I wrote about six things I’ve learned from six years of travel. It came from Cliff, a fellow traveler, and I promised him I’d write a bit about that… and here we are.
Traveling long term with kids is different than going on a family vacation.
We’re always amused when people confuse our lifestyle with one of perpetual vacation. Vacation involves a break from your regular life, liberation from your usual routines, and usually hiring someone else to do the cooking, cleaning and laundry; leaving your job behind and spending a week, or three, just relaxing and enjoying yourself with your kids. I love vacation. The last one we had was the three days we were SCUBA diving on a live-aboard on the Great Barrier Reef, in October. The last one we had before that… I just sat for several minutes thinking about that. I don’t remember. The last one that leaps to mind was Tobacco Caye, in Belize, for a week, in 2011. We don’t vacation much, but we do travel a lot.
If you’ve been reading along, but haven’t ever taken a long trip of your own, here’s something that you might not have considered before now: Travel is tiring. Very tiring. Traveling with kids is even more so. You know how hard it is to keep all of the balls in the air at home, deal with school, deal with sibling difficulties, deal with feeding, clothing, cleaning, and life maintenance, keeping everyone interested in life, socially fulfilled, healthcare addressed, routines established and, oh yes, maintain your marriage and work your job? Now imagine doing that whilst changing location every three or for days, in languages you don’t know, in currencies you’re constantly converting and with irregular food. That’s the reality of traveling as a family. I’m not in any way complaining. It’s 100% worth it, for us, but it’s not always easy and it is often tiring.
Here’s a story I haven’t told yet on this blog:
Last February, just over a year ago, we hit the wall. As a family.
We’d left our lovely home base in Thailand in early December and had been traveling hard, and (for us) fast ever since: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei. Jakarta (which we did not love) took its toll. Road tripping the length of Borneo, while a stunning bucket list month, was not without difficulties. Sulawesi made Borneo look easy. We were hiking, exploring caves, diving, bussing, eating street food, and sleeping in some pretty flea-bitten places at night. The Indonesian brand of Muslim culture is not my favourite. If I had to eat one more plate of nasi goreng I was going to shout at someone. We were sick of more than a few things. We actually found ourselves hiding in the mall in Jakarta. IN THE MALL. This is not us.
When we landed in Bali we were out of sorts. The salad in Ubud was like a balm to our souls. I ate nothing else. Tony and I walked in the evenings and finally dared to utter the words we’d both been avoiding: Perhaps we are done.
Perhaps we’re done with traveling. Perhaps we’re just jaded and sick of it and over it and ready to build a house and go nowhere ever again. Those are scary words for people like us to say out loud, but we were both feeling it, and it had to be said. The kids seemed sick of it too.
And then… we arrived in New Zealand a few weeks later and spent six months in our delightful Thunder Pig camper. About three months into that adventure we realized that, no, we weren’t done; we were just done with Asia (for now) and done with full on forward motion. We were tired.
The first time we felt that massive traveler fatigue was after seven months of hard core cycling in Europe. We crossed the Med to winter in Tunisia and the moment we checked into our seaside apartment we collapsed. The children spent three straight weeks watching Knight Rider and the A-Team with Arabic subtitles, and I took two pregnancy tests. I was sure I was either pregnant or dying of some terrible disease that was sucking all of my life and energy. No. I was just tired. Bone-crushingly road weary. It happens sometimes.
What to do?
One of the reasons we travel as slowly as we do, and spend a month to six months using one place as a base is that, in order to make this lifestyle sustainable, we have to go slowly. We’ve found that, for us, the best approach is to spend a couple of months moving forward, exploring and having adventures and then to spend a couple of months rooted in one place, chilling out, doing laundry, schooling, working, resting and just living in a place. We have to give ourselves time, and permission, to not do things, not see things, not adventure, but just quietly live together and be a family. Constantly trying to cram adventure or education of some sort into every waking hour of a journey is the fastest way to ruin it for everyone and exhaust yourselves in the process.
I’m amused by the competition in the travel world, even the family travel world. We occasionally encounter people who are driven to check many things off of their lists or ensure that their kids are the biggest, best travelers out there. They’re welcome to those titles. We freely admit that we can’t keep up and, really, we don’t want to, because what we’re looking for in our journey is not a laundry list of places we’ve “done” and experiences we’ve had. What we’re looking for is deep relationship with our kids, and adventures that sing to our souls. Ours. No one else’s.
And so, we go slowly.
When the telltale signs of travel fatigue set in: grumpy kids, grumpy parents, sleepless nights, a deep desire to hide in the hotel, to watch TV instead of kite surfers on the beach, and a craving for salad that drives us to the most cliche destination in Indonesia: we listen. We stop. We rest. We recharge. We give ourselves time and space to work. We let the kids play. We lower our self imposed expectations.
There’s a lot of chatter this month in the family travel community about this: travel fatigue, the journey not measuring up to expectations, the stress of juggling work and school with adventures. Kids who aren’t having fun. Parents who are a bit disillusioned. Those things are normal. They come and go when traveling longer term with kids. They come and go when living stationary life as a family too.
So here are my big pieces of advice for Cliff, and anyone else who’s asking the same questions:
1. Stop comparing
Let your journey be what it is. Please yourselves. Work with what you’ve got in your family. Live your dream and no one else’s. There’s no right way to do this thing, there’s only your way. If reading “their” blogs is making you feel inferior then stop reading them right now. Do family life your way, at home, and abroad.
2. Slow the heck down
It wears me out to read the enthusiastic itineraries of folks setting off their first year on a round the world odyssey. I promise you, if you “do” twenty countries in a year, you haven’t done most of them justice. If you’ve got kids, slow down even more. If you’re feeling stressed by the planning, stop doing it. If you’re feeling pushed by the deadlines, shift them. If you’re hating the packing and unpacking every three days then stay put for a month. Slow. Down.
Listen to your partner. Listen to your kids. Listen to your body. Listen to your fatigue and stress levels. Listen to your dietary concerns. Listen to the trusted voices in your life. Listen to the people who’ve “been there, done that.” Listen to your heart and remember why you’re doing this. Listening requires quiet. It requires a slower pace. It requires a desire to hear.
Have you experienced travel fatigue? What did it teach you? What’s your advice?