Five years ago, I was in Bogotá, Colombia, standing in the a plaza, my five-month-old baby warm in his baby wrap, with a dozen Colombian middle-schoolers surrounding my husband and me.
“Mira! Ojos azules,” one little girl exclaimed, pointing at my son.
Look! Blue eyes! It hadn’t even occurred to me that traveling with an infant would so drastically change the way the world reacted to us.
But then again, I also never thought I would be traveling through 40 countries over the span of five years, with at least one child in diapers the whole time.
A few years earlier, I had left a career in software to travel and transition to writing, photography, and filmmaking full-time. Though we lived in Boston, we already did most of our work online. My husband worked remotely as a graphic designer for an advertising agency and could continue that as we traveled; I intended to pick up freelance writing work and figure out the rest as we went. The plan was to travel the world and rinse off years of stale corporate life. We started in Spain and eventually backpacked through Mexico and Central America.
However, a year into our grand adventure there was a twist: I found out I was pregnant. We had spent years mapping out multiyear treks that would cover as much of the world as possible. Those daydreams never included kids. A little stunned, we continued to camp through the Rockies, the Yukon, and Alaska, a trip we had planned before I was pregnant. My bump was growing and at least one thing was clear: we were going to have to have this baby somewhere. We landed in Bend, Oregon, by chance: the name sounded familiar, so we drove down to check it out and promptly fell in love with its rugged scrublands. We lived there for a while, but when my beautiful son Cole was born, the travel itch returned.Was it really possible to travel with a baby? Was it deeply irresponsible to even try? Click To Tweet
At this point, we had to make a choice. My husband and I had lined up the funding for an independent documentary that we would film across four continents. It was an ambitious, multiyear project that would have us traveling to Colombia, Nevada, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Dubai, Spain, and Rwanda. We could choose to work on this project or find full-time jobs and settle down somewhere. Looming questions threatened everything: Was it really possible to travel with a baby? Was it deeply irresponsible to even try? But the choice was simple to me. I had wanted to travel, and I was stubbornly determined to not let becoming a mother change me.
We left Oregon ready for the logistics of traveling with a small child. We considered every parenting decision from the perspective of how it would impact travel. We decided to co-sleep since even folding cribs were too bulky to carry, and we were uncertain that we’d find them in hotels. There would be limited access to washing machines and even less access to dryers, so cloth diapers were ruled out. We assumed that keeping formula and bottles prepared would be tough, so we hoped to exclusively breastfeed, and luckily my body cooperated. We found ourselves choosing a parenting approach that involved the least amount of stuff. After he was born, we packed a baby wrap, clothes, and some diapers, and we were on our way.
In the beginning, I had one goal in mind, which was to prove to myself that I could keep doing my writing, photography, and documentary work—all while traveling the world and raising my son. Women are so often asked to sacrifice their identities and lifestyles for their children. But I didn’t believe I needed to give up my newfound independence, and I knew that the creative work I found so nourishing would also help me nourish my child.
When it comes to traveling internationally, people always want to talk safety first. “How can you be so brave?” they ask. How can you make sure that your children will get what they need? What many can’t understand is how much traveling has added to our lives, and the doors it has opened for my children and for us. They can’t see the way weathered men in sarongs would smile at me. Or how many times I was offered a seat or how many homes I got invited into. I went from being the woman behind a camera to the women behind the baby. How people opened up when I pointed a lens their way.
It opened a world for Cole, too. By the time my son was one year old, we had traveled through a half-dozen countries. We celebrated his birthday on the beach in Goa. My son learned to walk, but he also learned to eat spicy curries in Malaysia. He learned which street foods he loved best (there’s a special place in his heart for anything resembling a pancake). He picked up local words like “hello” in Spanish and “apple” in Greek.
It wasn’t always easy, or romantic, to raise a son on the road. He lived his first year largely in the arms of someone, and the absence of baby-proofed spaces and the constant travel meant we lived in a state of constant vigilance—whether we were on a bus or waiting in line at a visa office. So much of our parenting became figuring out ways to entertain him for hours while carrying all our stuff and waiting somewhere. You don’t realize how much waiting there is in travel until you travel with children.
Still, it felt worth it. We traveled like this for another year, throwing colored powder at the Holi festival in India, releasing lanterns at Loy Krathong in Thailand, island hopping in Greece, riding the metro in Paris, eating churros in Barcelona, and pushing a stroller through the medina in Morocco.
As someone who grew up on food stamps, giving my child this kind of education felt priceless. The fears I had about what this would do to him melted away. It wasn’t just the travel that benefited him, either. We worked, but we were both “stay-at-home parents” from my son’s perspective. I’d spend the mornings with him, giving him his makeshift bath (often in a baby inflatable pool set up in the shower, a trick we picked up after months of trying to shower a wiggly infant), and then we’d go out to the market to pick up whatever fruit was in season. My husband would get up before us and work, putting in his six to eight billable hours before noon. By lunchtime, we’d come together as a family and do whatever was planned for that day. At night, I’d work (while my husband was on baby duty), often staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning. The next day I’d sleep in with the baby, and we’d start all over again. It cost us about a third as much to travel as it did to live in the U.S. because of the strength of the U.S. dollar and lower cost of living in many of the places we traveled, so the pressure to earn, earn, earn that we felt back home had been lifted completely. Our rent in Boston was $2,000; we’re currently renting a place in Mexico for $600 a month.
Eventually, we began to mold our travel around our parenting, rather than the other way around. In Thailand, my son spontaneously said the Thai word for “thank you” and we were amazed and suddenly inspired. We were doing all this travel anyway—wouldn’t it make sense to give our child a boatload of languages along the way?We got to witness an entire generation of bilingual kids, switching between Arabic, English, and French as easily as changing a channel Click To Tweet
Just before his second birthday, the filming completed, we changed our travel objective and moved to Beijing to learn Mandarin. Instead of hopping around from city to city, we rented an apartment, hired a Chinese nanny, and tried to immerse ourselves in the local language and culture. Later that year we ventured to Beirut to study Arabic. We swapped out his inflatable swimming pool for a bathtub when we moved into a proper house with a small garden. It was there that we got to witness an entire generation of bilingual kids, switching between Arabic, English, and French as easily as changing a channel.
By his third birthday, with nearly 30 countries under his belt, Cole was joined by a little sister, who was born in Mexico. I gave birth at a private hospital by the marina, and when we took the baby home, we had a crib waiting for us at our beachside hacienda. Her place of birth granted her Mexican citizenship, making her a dual Mexican-American citizen. My son made friends with local kids and attended a bilingual preschool for a while, where he picked up not one but two novias (girlfriends).
I have no idea how much that early exposure to languages changed his brain, but the research indicates that even minimal second language access can improve executive function in children, which is tied to improved academic performance. Today, both kids are active Spanish-English bilinguals, which is enough for us.
I’d love to say that it was some great sense of adventure that propelled me to travel so much with young kids, but mostly I just loved being able to see the world, spend time with them while they were little, and to be able to make a modest living writing about it. A year after my daughter was born, we packed up again, this time for Europe, where we biked from France to Croatia, camping along the way.
It rained every afternoon for the entire month we were in France, despite it being the middle of the summer, and I battled to change diapers inside a soggy tent, do laundry in restrooms, and keep my kids warm when the temperatures dropped. But every morning, my husband and I would get up at 5 A.M., break down camp, and start biking. The kids would sleep in the bike trailer as we pedaled, often leaning on each other adorably, and the French countryside unfolded around us, with wine vineyards and ancient castles as mileposts along our journey. If we passed anyone, they always said “Bonjour!” so heartily I couldn’t help but to bellow it back.[media-credit id=2 align=”alignnone” width=”768″][/media-credit]
For us, the word settle doesn’t hold much meaning. So many people tell you that your life is over after you have kids. It’s been a revelation to find out that, for us, it was just the beginning.