Holidays with children just aren’t the same as life before parenthood

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t a worthwhile, albeit different, experience

I was somewhat of a late bloomer when it came to being bitten by the travel bug. Two consecutive years of ‘lads’ holidays’ didn’t count as they were void of culture with my youthful and ignorant perspective at the time. With the same mindset, I also eschewed the idea of a gap year, travelling before starting university. It’s a decision I lament but I simply couldn’t appreciate what travel could afford me when juxtaposed against what it would actually afford in financial terms.

It wasn’t until after university that I started traveling but once I started, I was gripped with Wanderlust. With the end of one trip came the initial planning of the next one. As the list of places I visited grew, so did the list of places I wanted to travel to.

It was the same for my wife. Before we became a couple, she went backpacking for several months, travelling throughout South America and Asia Pacific. Subsequently, our mutual love of travel continued with shared trips and experiences.

We would visit long haul and short haul destinations, soaking up culture and seeking adventure and new experiences. We’d take long walks nonchalantly exploring the local town, both on and off the beaten track, and were always keen to meet locals and like-minded travellers.

There was also the escapism and chance to relax that travelling provided and we most certainly embraced. Most of our trips would feature a beach or a pool where we could both bask in the sun for hours, taking intermittent dips in the water to cool off. We were no strangers to hours of cross-country journeys via train and coach as we travelled between cities to visit must-see and lessor-known landmarks.

For our honeymoon, we travelled through Central America and the Caribbean, combining backpacker-esque experiences with the more traditional honeymoon stays at luxury, adults-only beach resorts.

The following year, we took a similar trip but this time travelling through Southeast Asia. We visited Malaysia, experiencing the rainforest in Borneo and the tea plantations in Cameron Highlands, while also enjoying the modern city of Kuala Lumpur. We went to Singapore and lazed on the beach in Ko Samui in Thailand before returning home via Hong Kong. It was exactly the kind of trip we typically sought.

The year after that, our son was born. And consequently, our holidays were no longer the same.

Becoming a parent changes your perspective. You become less carefree and more pragmatic. And arguably rightly so. Therefore our approach to travel was always bound to change. Our holidays, at least for a while, would now be family-friendly, risk averse experiences that didn’t require any further travel once in our destination. In many ways, they presented the antithesis of the type of holiday that for so many years we had both enjoyed.

When our son was 8 months old, we went on our first family holiday. It was our first experience of intentionally seeking family-friendly accommodation. In fact, previously, we’d avoid it. Even as a parent, does anyone really want screaming, excitable children, high on sugar, running around while you’re trying to relax or enjoy a meal?

No one can be blamed for actively avoiding that scenario. Yet we had now traded wandering into town on a whim to sample local food and drink with eating at the hotel restaurant. And mealtimes had to be mindful of our son’s schedule and sufficiently before bedtime. Because while you might be on holiday, your child’s schedule probably won’t be.

But the contrast between holidays with a child and travelling before becoming a parent didn’t end there.

After years of overpacking, I had perfected the art of the light-pack and the last-minute pack. Taking only what I would use, rather than packing for endless eventualities, and comfortably managing to get everything into a small case, I would smugly watch the scales at the bag drop-off desk confirm that I was well within the airline’s baggage allowance. Or better still, I’d circumvent the desk completely as the contents of my carry-on backpack was everything I needed.

Now, an entire large suitcase would be dedicated to my son. Nappies, swim nappies, wipes, formula, baby snacks, bath toys, several books, a selection of toys, Calpol, Nurofen and enough clothes for any accidents or meal time mess meant the days of light packing were over. He may as well have had an entourage given how much we needed to pack for him.

Getting to the airport too wasn’t with the same ease it once had. Where we’d previously take public transport as the quickest, most convenient and cost effective route to the airport, we had now had too much luggage, not to mention a pushchair in tow. And carrying that much meant we couldn’t risk a hurried journey to the airport. Where we used to drop our bags and go to the gate, now we’re one of the first there when the bag drop counter opens.

Ever felt a flight was dragging until you reached your destination? Try keeping a toddler occupied for hours as he refuses to go to sleep on a flight that’s just shy of 5 hours. That’s exactly what our son did on our recent family holiday.

I went through my repertoire of nursery rhymes, games, books, ebooks and walking up and down the aisle as we became acquainted with several passengers on the flight. We’d even timed the flight to coincide with his nap time but it was to no avail. When did he decide to fall asleep? As we disembarked the airplane.

As I write this, we’re on our return flight as he sleeps on my lap and I’m grateful for the respite that just wasn’t forthcoming on our outbound journey.

In contrast to our first family trip abroad, on this holiday our son was walking (or rather mostly running), talking and full of personality and curiosity. It was important that we allowed him to embrace the freedom and experience of a new space and the opportunity to roam. We also had to balance that with not becoming one of those parents who assumes their family holiday equates to not controlling their child and allowing them to ruin any modicum of relaxation for other holidaymakers (the kind of parent that receives disdainful side-eye from hotel guests wishing they’d booked somewhere else).

The carefree approach to travelling we’d once taken was no longer compatible with travelling with a child. On previous trips, I’d usually wake up, go to the gym and then meet my wife for breakfast. My only regard for the time was what time breakfast ended. Even then, I didn’t really care as I could always pick something up later. How times have changed.

On this trip, I still endeavoured to go to the gym but aimed to be back before I expected my son to be awake (to avoid leaving my wife to get him ready by herself). And most of our days were spent by the pool or the beach. Not sunbathing with a book while listening to music and sipping on a cocktail or a beer. Instead, I’d spend the day in the pool with my son, exiting when he’d had enough or for a snack or lunch, and returning when he was ready to re-enter in the fickle way children fleet between activities. And with a toddler, we’d be uber-conscious of safety.

There’s arguably less immersion in local culture than there used to be. However, we’d still visit local attractions and go on walks as a family to the town, where we would sometimes eat as a departure from going to the hotel restaurant.

There’s no doubt in my mind that for now, holidays with our son just aren’t the same as they were before parenthood. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a worthwhile experience. It just means they’re different.

In the instance of both our family holidays, I was lukewarm towards the idea of going while my wife was in favour of it. Her line of thinking was that it would be nice to get away to a warmer climate and to provide new surroundings and experiences for our son. He’d welcome being able to play in the pool or digging in the sand at the beach. Not to mention, she rightly asserted that we needed a holiday.

My opposition was based on her own rationale that we needed a holiday. However, taking our son, and being subject to the same constraints of everyday parenting, wasn’t a holiday in my opinion. It was parenting business as usual but in a different location and with the added effort of travelling with everything a toddler requires.

On reflection, we were both right. Of course we remained on duty as parents; there are no days off from parenting. Furthermore, there was definitely an effort involved that was alien to previous holidays but our son had a great time. He loved being in the water and playing in the sand and was undoubtedly stimulated by both the nuances and greater contrasts with home. As a family, it made for vivid memories that my wife and I were able to create with our son; just as we had created memories as a couple when travelling together before he was born.

Travelling is no longer the same as parents. Our trips may not represent the same adventure and discovery they once did for us. Although in a different way, they provide adventure and discovery for our son as they expose him to new surroundings and experiences; something that wasn’t a feature of my wife’s or my childhood. Sure, they require a lot of effort and don’t exactly provide the extent of relaxation we were used to from so many holidays as a couple before our son was born. Nevertheless, the trade-off is the opportunity to build shared memories and experiences as a family.

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