Yes, Traveling with Kids is a Sh*tshow––But Here’s Why It’s Worth It

traveling with kids traveling with kids
photo courtesy Joy Netanya Thompson

It was two days before our spring break getaway to San Francisco, and I was in rare form. “Maybe we should just cancel the trip!” I yelled, shattering the peaceful bedtime mood for our 6-year-old daughter, Zadie. She stared up at me in the darkened room. I quickly sat down on the edge of her bed, softened my voice, and apologized. “Of course I won’t cancel the trip. Mom’s just under a lot of pressure.”

Later that night, I wondered what had stuffed the tinderbox, why the smallest spark had made me explode, why I was so on edge about our trip. As I packed our suitcases, I tried to reframe my expectations. A vacation without anything going wrong is the stuff of daydreams (or delusion). What did I really want out of our time in San Francisco? The answers came to me easily: Adventure. A change of scenery.

I also remembered the advice my mom had passed on to my sister, a mother of three, who was preparing for a week in Cape Cod with her wild bunch. “Traveling with kids isn’t about a vacation,” my mom had said. “It’s about making memories.” My own childhood vacation memories are mostly from the times we escaped the heat of our desert town north of Los Angeles by heading to the closest beach, where we always stayed at the same budget hotel. We’d spend all day in the pool, counting down till happy hour when they served little paper boats of popcorn, which we’d set by the edge of the pool and eat by the soggy handful, washed down with syrupy Shirley Temples.

Nowadays, my husband, daughter and I don’t travel together often; even normal weekends at home together can be a bit bumpy as we negotiate our preferences and agendas in what can feel like a three-way battle of wills. As for our upcoming trip, I couldn’t predict whether the novelty of exploring a new city  together would smooth out our usual relational wrinkles or exacerbate them. But I believed that no matter what happened on this trip, it would feel like an adventure to my kindergartner. I knew the change of scenery would feel like the giant exhale my husband and I needed, and that, whether good or bad, memories would be made.

The first evening in San Francisco we walked the hilly streets to a restaurant where we had incredible cheeseburgers, then shared a warm sourdough chocolate chip cookie for dessert. Dusk started to fall on our way back to the hotel and the sky turned lavender. We were lighthearted and light-footed as we walked, pointing out our favorite houses, each of us saying in turn, “What if we lived here?!” Zadie plucked a dandelion and stuck it behind her ear, and my heart took a snapshot—my own little San Francisco flower child. The next morning, we walked to B.Patisserie and carried our white box of treasures up to a hilltop park with sweeping views of the city. We shared Kouign-Amanns and madeleines while dogs sniffed at our feet for crumbs. Looking out over the city, I felt satisfied––maybe even smug. Look at us! We’re doing it. We’re exploring a new city with our child.

But on the way back to the hotel, the mood shifted. Zadie was suddenly grumpy. She stopped walking every few hundred feet to pout, and I tried to calculate in my head how long the remaining half-mile would take at that rate. I asked questions to get to the bottom of her mood: Did her tummy hurt? Was she tired? Finally, she said in a small voice, “I just don’t feel very comfortable without Asher.” I knew what her reference to our dog meant. She was homesick.

After that, our trip was a roller coaster of moods and experiences. One moment we were running across Chrissy Field together toward the water, marveling at the Golden Gate Bridge rising out of the misty bay. The next we were carsick and hangry in the back of an Uber. I vacillated from pride in Zadie’s ability to go with the flow as we figured out the bus system, seeing her as a budding world traveler, to aggravation at her constant demands for stuffed animals and trinkets, seeing her as spoiled. I toggled from sweet satisfaction in the family we’ve built, the three of us forming our own little triangle, to claustrophobia with my constant companions, escaping to the shower and staying under the low-pressure hot water for as long as I reasonably could just for some alone time.

By the end of it, I suppose I could have called the trip a success. We’d eaten well, seen the sights, and come home in one piece. But I felt like a frayed nerve. Was that even worth it? I wondered. My sister texted me, “How was the trip?!” and I couldn’t muster a more enthusiastic response than “fine.”

In her book Between Two Kingdoms, Suleika Jaouad says that every time you travel, there are three trips: the one you anticipate, the one you actually go on, and the one you remember. Before we left, I’d tried to convince myself that a successful trip was one where we made family memories. But it’s too soon to tell which moments we’ll remember as the years go on. Who knows? Maybe the memory of this whole trip will fade into a single photograph of the three of us in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Or we might remember it as the trip Zadie got her feet wet as a traveler, the beginning of a chapter of adventure for our family. Then again, it’s possible that a faint memory of a warm sourdough chocolate chip cookie will be the only thing that comes to mind when my daughter hears the words “San Francisco.”

As I sank into my familiar bed that night, letting out a huge sigh of relief, I realized something: no matter how adventurous or mundane, memorable or forgettable, with kids or without, travel always gives one consistent gift––a renewed appreciation for home, for your own soft place to land.

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Joy Netanya Thompson lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Motherwell, Kveller, Sojourners, and elsewhere. Connect with her on Instagram @joynetanyathompson and sign up for her newsletter Midweek Joy.