This month marks a decade of single parenting, leaving me a milestone to reflect on the unique gifts and challenges which come by nature to those of us who fly as the solo adult in a sea of parenting chaos. There are many ways I approach my time and strategy with our little tribe differently than you might if you have a husband or wife to share the journey, some of which you would never want to replicate, but there are some I will keep even when I have a partner to share the role with me. The way we travel is at the top of that list.
I can no longer count on all of my fingers and toes how many people have said “I could never travel like that with my kids,” or “your kids couldn't possibly be old enough to walk that far with a pack,” or “you are lucky you got those kids, mine would never...” In a sense they are all right-- they can never have those experiences if they never jump off of that ledge of fear and try.
Travel is our highway to joy. A straight path to deep connection. A known place in our souls is tapped when we are amid the unknown of a new adventure, just the three of us in this big, wide, wonder-filled world. When we travel we feel our place: at once insignificant among the many cultures or vast mountain-scapes we encounter, and also as the most important people to one another. When we travel, we know we belong in this fabulous clan we've been gifted as family. Travel has become my number one elective spending priority. My children value it so much they no longer ask for material gifts for Christmas and birthday gifts-- they build those wishes around experiences.
These travel experiences have given us such a rich foundation for our relationship I want other families to have them. These comments of doubt from other parents have amassed in me over time so deeply I found myself sitting outside our tent on a rural Michigan beach one morning, while Sam and Caroline slumbered, reflecting on what it is that I do differently. The answer came: I travel like a single mom.
That is no excuse for you though, everyone can travel this way. For you who want it-- here is my single mom's guide to adventure:
Plan a kid-friendly activity once each day but don't limit yourself to ONLY kid stuff, this is your vacation too. Give them as much decision making as you can in this process. Pick 3 things you would enjoy and let them pick their favorite. If you've decided you are hiking, let them choose the trail.
Look for one activity that will hit it out of the park for them. Sam now has a reputation for getting stuck at the various stands of brochures in hotel lobbies and rest stops-- you know, the ones that advertise amusement parks, fudge factories, haunted houses, and other parental nightmares where you can find the masses of Americans standing in long lines drinking soda. These are totally not my thing when we are adventuring-- they have a place for us in a different area of life-- but for my sweet son who is the classic target audience for these brilliant marketers' work, he needs something flashy on his trip.On our last adventure I found a family company which runs dunebuggy tours near Saugatuck. Fast, open-topped four wheeling up and down nature's roller coaster? Yes, please! It hits all of Sam's fantasies. When you find this sweet spot of adventure, let them in on it as soon as possible-- let them look forward to it all week-- that way when you are needing a little parental R&R by eating at a brew pub with nice salads instead of the hot dog stand with mini golf, they know they'll get their fun too.
Talk to them about budget. They don't even have to know how to add to do this. Start young. I have always given my kids this information, hopefully in age-appropriate ways-- “we can choose to spend our money doing one of these three activities, but not all of them” was my preschool approach; now, it's “It costs $124 for all of us to get in to this tower for a view of the city, tomorrow we will be in a park where we can spend $42 for us all to get in to all-day ziplining and rock climbing, that will leave $82 of activity budget for other things as well, how would you like to spend this family money?” This means they are not victims of the budget, and you are not the bad guy for saying no. They get to choose, and live with that choice when they run out of budget. By the way, this also promotes really great business negotiating skills when siblings have to agree.
Have your kids read every day. It works best when they can find some quiet space to do this and they really get into their books. Sometimes their reading is done in the middle of everything though, and that's ok too-- it gives them a chance to practice finding quiet in the midst of chaos-- a skill we all can use throughout life.
Stop saying you can't afford it. There is always something you can do to get away-- even if “away” is in your own back yard. Camping is cheap, but I had absolutely no extra money when I was first divorced, so I called a friend who had land a few minutes from home, and he let us pitch a tent there for a few nights. Eventually, we could afford to stay in a state or national park campground.
Don't stay 4 star, even if you can afford it. There are a few important things you notice when you have to travel on a single mom budget. When we could afford the Marriott, I noticed something-- it wasn't as much fun. Why? Here's the deal-- people staying in nice hotels expect to have nicely behaved children surrounding them. Napkins on the lap, quiet voices, no running, please-don't-even-throw-that-ball-in-the-pool kind of nicely behaved. There is a place for that in my children's lives, but if you really want to give them a vacation, you will find a window into their deepest selves if they can be just that-- themselves-- in a relaxed and real way. Don't get me wrong, there are boundaries, especially when it comes to respecting others, but we can run and play and laugh in these places in ways we can't at a hotel. The other benefit of these places is that other families are doing exactly the same thing-- and the kids will find friends and build little communities which will go their separate ways in a few days.
Find ways to care for yourself daily--it will make you a better parent. My kids are old enough now that I can go for a run around the campground in small loops while they sleep, or they can play in the water at the beach while I read a book. That wasn't always the case, so I found other ways to make sure my needs were always met. I woke early to write and have a quiet cup of coffee, I stayed up with a glass of wine and a book after I tucked them in, and I practice gratitude every day.
Protect them, but don't shelter them. Let them fully experience the adventure. Typically, at least once each trip, we find ourselves dramatically off-plan. To be fair, since our plans are pretty loose anyway, it would be more accurate to say we find ourselves in a place we don't want to be. Once we were in a foreign country with no access to cash for 4 days (and no place that took credit cards). I realized the kids expected me to pull out my magic wand and fix it. I couldn't in the way we all wanted, and I was honest with them about it. We ate peanut butter sandwiches and drank water while everyone else was having hot meals, but we did it happily-- grateful we had at least found a grocery store that took our card, and when we returned to the big city ATM that took our card, we danced circles with one another--in a way that made people stare at this family who had seemingly just hit the slots at a seemingly-normal ATM machine. Sam and Caroline will never forget that moment.
I will never forget the lesson they really took from it-- life doesn't hand you solutions, it hands you problems in a rough and unpredictable way, and you use your brain and other tools to find your way to those elusive solutions-- amazingly for them, this is true even when you are the Mom. My kids know that life happens, even to me, because they have walked through these problems with me until we reached the solution. I keep them safe from life's biggest bumps, but it really isn't my goal to make sure they never fall and scrape their knees. In fact, I hope they do fall while I am still here to hold them while they cry, and then ask them what they learned when it is time.
Go without screens. All of you. If you are in a place that still has cell service, turn it off, at least for a good chunk of the day. I limited myself to 20 minutes of total screen time a day when I was with the kids this summer. It worked magic on me, and on our relationship. Those screens are walls around our true selves, and it makes it very hard to engage with the person behind it. Just when I started thinking it was a good time to check out on my screen, one of the kids would come up with a random question about the world, sending us out of the quiet and into depth of curiosity together. Don't miss those moments of quiet-- they are precisely what brings you into the next awesome level of relations with your treasured little people.
Finally, let them look forward to it! Just like adults, planning and looking forward to a vacation together can be nearly as much fun as taking it. Little people and big people alike need to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When you are working on a project at work that is keeping you away from the family longer than you'd like, or back-to-school stresses are piling up, those are great times to let the kids know there are fun times in the making!
There you have it, my ten elements to a fabulous family adventure. Plan your first one next weekend... and let me know where you're headed! I'd love to see your dreams come alive, and hear your entertaining not-so-ideal moments as well. I'll laugh with you, and we'll build a little online dreamers community of deeply connected families.
Jump off the edge! Plan your adventure!