“You’re ruining my life!”: a post about family dynamics and long term travel

In our family, we spent years, literally most of the kids’ lives, talking about our big trip. Much in the way that some kids grow up knowing they will go to college or take over the family business or follow a certain religion, our kids knew we would take a year off to travel. This was not up for discussion. However, much like these other life-defining paths, once it became closer and clearer in meaning, it took on a new perspective and was questioned. And then, once we were actually out there, thousands of miles and a significant number of time zones from home, it got real. 

We had a teenager and a pre-teen with active social lives who had been removed from their milieu. The twins were just nine years old, but they had friends they missed as well. There were phone calls and video chats and other electronic means of communication, however there were also things happening back home and my kids were not physically there to join in. There were changing relationships and our homeschool theater group shows and holiday parties and Girl Scouts and birthdays and my kids were absent for all of it. Even the twins had times of sadness and I felt massive pangs of guilt every time. The kids didn’t dream of travel, I did. They knew about it and they liked some parts of it, but they ultimately had no choice about going. Every time the homesickness set in for the kids, I felt their sadness and I had to remind myself of the benefits of this trip. I didn’t have to look far to see the upsides of travel and I could always bring myself back into enthusiasm and optimism about our life at the moment. That doesn’t mean that it was easy to encourage them to enjoy the trip. It certainly wasn’t easy to see them unhappy. 

Fiercely could be brutal with her criticism. Going on sixteen and normally of a calm and positive disposition, Fiercely had moments of misery and suffering. She lashed out crying more than once. We had taken her away from her friends, her sisters were driving her crazy, we demanded too much schoolwork, why were we in [current country/ area] anyway?! We listened to many complaints at times. We gave her what choices we could, which often resulted in her staying ‘home’ while the rest of us went sight-seeing. 

Cleverly thrives on solitude and having her own space- almost impossible during the trip. With our tight budget we were often, for long stretches of time, in one hotel room together or on a crowded train. She began drawing and has developed admirable skill after spending hours almost every day with paper and pencil. She created, and sometimes viciously defended, her own personal spaces as best she could while traveling with five often intrusive people. 

The twins, age nine when we left, were fairly pleasant travelers. They were game for most activities and I can’t think of an instance of them boycotting anything. They did have sad moments of homesickness and missing their friends, which were heartbreaking to witness. The challenge with them was the bickering between themselves and with their sisters. 

Sometimes all of the kids just wanted to stay in the hotel room or apartment. It was usually a comfortable place with wifi. Outside were the world’s wonders, yes, but also it was hot, or raining, or cold, and there were pickpockets and squat toilets and no one speaking English. There was a lot of walking to do, and strange food, and no internet and a lot of things we might like but couldn’t afford. They often preferred to stay indoors and text about our exotic location rather than experience it. 

We had trying conversations about life after the trip. I, for one, was open to living abroad for a year or more. If that didn’t work out, I was interested in moving back to upstate NY where we had a nice farmhouse and some land, rented out at the time to a difficult tenant, rather than to our house in Philadelphia, rented out to lovely tenants who wanted to stay. This occasioned vehement pushback from several family members. “You said one year!”was a frequent comment. “Isn’t this enough for you?! How can you complain?We’re in Kat! Man! Du!”. In truth, it wasn’t enough for me when I considered picking up with our pre-trip lives exactly where we left off. It appears I like novelty and change as opposed to tradition and familiarity. As time went on and a job abroad did not materialize, going back to Philadelphia seemed to be our fate. And it has worked out very well in almost every way. The kids joyfully reunited with friends and the neighborhood in general and to be honest I sulked for a while. Now the situation was reversed. I was the one who could get cranky about our current situation. I was the one questioning our lifestyle and our choices and sometimes viciously defending my personal space. And so our family moves on. 

The thing that sticks in my mind when I think of our family and our dramatic escape from- and then return to- our lives is that many things do not change simply due to geography. Our good and bad coping strategies were present during times of stress and boredom worldwide. Our joy was wide and our frustration deep at intervals similar to those in years past, though the background could be quite exotic. When we were trying to get Russian visas in Beijing, while negotiating entertainment options on cruise ships and while bumping along on night buses in Myanmar, we remained ourselves in the big, big world. In terms of family dynamics, perhaps that is the most surprising, and most comforting, thing of all.

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