It was an otherwise magical day. Except for the poop.
We’d traveled a long way from home to accept an invitation we never thought we’d get. From our small hometown in Tennessee, my entire family was now standing on the White House lawn.
We had all dressed up for a photo with the First Family. All the Obamas were present, including their dog, Bo. Our infant son was looking dapper in his gray pinstriped wool Janie and Jack knickers, suspenders, and tiny newsboy cap. My husband had filmed a video with President Obama in the Oval Office after discussing how to create a better world for children.
We were basking in the wonder of it all when it hit me—the unmistakable knowledge that my three-month-old had just had a blowout.
I hadn’t planned on walking around our nation’s capital with a poop-soaked outfit in a wet bag in my purse. I hadn’t planned on any of this. Sometimes the best adventures can’t be planned, though.
We thought our first year as parents was going to be low-key, never imagining that when our son was only seven weeks old, we’d have a YouTube video go insanely viral. Not wanting my husband to miss out on any of our son’s firsts, we decided if he had to travel, we’d all come along. This led to spur-of-the-moment trips all over the country. I’d gone from uncertainty about how to take this newborn to Target, to figuring out what a baby should wear to a movie premiere or a sudden visit to the White House.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about traveling with family.
No matter their age, kids feed off your energy; if you are stressed, they’ll become stressed. Whenever you travel, many things are out of your control, but you are always in control of how you respond. I always try to stay relaxed and make everything fun, and about 90 percent of the time my kids respond positively. (The other 10 percent of the time they are hangry or need a nap.)
Your expectations can make or break a trip, so really think about what you want to get out of the trip when you begin planning it. Are you looking to pack in as much as possible and conquer tons of landmarks? Or do you want a relaxing vacation where you experience the location more like a local? You don’t have to visit historical monuments or touristy locations just because everyone else says you should. Make sure you’re planning things that will create the travel experience you want. Seek out the places you and your family will really enjoy. When I was a kid, my parents did a great job of listening to my siblings and me and incorporating things we loved into our family road trips. Whether it’s visiting a local guitar shop, eating a certain type of food, or just finding a playground, try to include at least one thing in your trip specifically for each family member.
We always approach every trip with the attitude that we’ll come back. When you think you’re visiting a place only once, you might try to cram in as much as possible. Not only is this an exhausting approach, but it’s also hard to really experience a place if you’re rushing through it. When traveling with kids, I’ve learned it’s way more enjoyable to slow down and just focus on doing one new thing each day. You get a feeling of accomplishment when you complete the one activity, and then anything else is a bonus! And in the event that the activity wore your kids out, you don’t feel disappointed that you didn’t get to do the other things you had planned. This also gives you an excuse to plan future trips to that location!
Share as much of your trip plans as possible with your kids in the days and weeks beforehand. Look through the photos on the hotel’s website together and find videos on YouTube of the places you plan to visit, so they will know what to expect. You can also check out books and movies from your local library that show places you will be going. Before our last trip to New York City, we watched the films Wonderstruck and Night at the Museum, so our kids were thrilled to finally visit the American Museum of Natural History and find specific things they had loved in those movies.
For us, all rules are off when flying with kids. At home, we’re strict about naps, snacks, and screen time, but when traveling, our focus is mainly on the other people around us, and making sure our kids aren’t being disruptive or annoying to the other passengers. You are in survival mode, and you do what it takes. That may mean giving them a lollipop during takeoff and landing, or letting them play on an iPad for the entire four-hour flight.
One huge help in our travels with kids can be summed up in two words: grocery delivery. If you are staying in a hotel for a few nights and have a refrigerator in your room, make plans ahead of time to order groceries and schedule a delivery to your hotel shortly after you arrive. The few times we’ve been able to do this have given us a ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ level of assistance. Just as our kids began to whine about being hungry, the delivery arrived. If you have picky eaters, it’s super helpful to have some staples on hand that you know your kids will eat.
Find a way to document your trip, but don’t stress about it. I was a professional photographer for years and always brought my huge DSLR and multiple lenses on trips so I could capture my experiences. When traveling with kids, it just wasn’t practical anymore, so I tried switching to a smaller DSLR, then a small mirrorless camera, and the last few trips I’ve brought only my iPhone X. Whatever camera you choose to bring, don’t experience your trip solely from behind it. Try to balance capturing your adventures and actually experiencing them.
If traveling with children has taught me anything, it’s to be prepared. Be prepared for the diaper blowouts. Be prepared for the spills. Be prepared, because there’ll be situations you never imagined. Yes—it can be a challenge, but it’s wildly rewarding. You’ll find yourself packing more in your bags and moving a bit slower, but if you do it with the right spirit, you’ll be prepared to experience all of it with fresh eyes.
Just don’t forget the wet wipes.