One of the touchstones for our parenting philosophy – or at least for balancing our wanderlust with our parental responsibilities – is a photo two friends, both of whom had recently given birth, shared before we had kids. In the picture, they are standing side by side in a wooded area, with huge smiles on their faces, their infants asleep in the carriers on their chests, and about half a dozen lemurs climbing all over them. The photograph was taken at Vakona reserve in Madagascar, which we subsequently visited.
Another couple of years would elapse before we were ready to have kids, but that photo planted a seed in our minds that we have tried to nurture ever since Munchkin was born. Our itinerant careers lend themselves quite easily to frequent travel, and we resolved not to let parenthood derail our passion for exploration. Instead of foregoing travel opportunities, we adapted our travel style and have endeavored to see as much of the world as we can with our little ones in tow.
Although we missed the carefree ease of backpacking and definitely overpacked for our initial trips with Munchkin, at first it was not too difficult to stick to our conviction. Living in Eastern Europe, we collected stamps from ten different countries in Munchkin’s passport well before his second birthday. A few were easy driving trips, but we also took Munchkin on multiple long distance flights, including a 12-hour odyssey from Istanbul back to the United States that tested our mettle.
Things got a bit more complicated once Junebug entered the picture, but we pressed on, smugly foregoing beachside resort vacations preferred by many similarly situated parents in favor of more adventurous touristing. The two-and-a-half-week road trip we took along South Africa’s Garden Route when Munchkin was four and Junebug a year-and-a-half, still ranks as one of our all-time favorite vacations.
This is not to say that there weren’t a few rough patches here and there – our jet-lagged jaunt through the Southwest just a few months after that South Africa trip being a prime example – but the challenges were manageable. There were the inevitable meltdowns, but they were not any more frequent or intense than they tended to be at home. If anything, we found that running the kids ragged while exploring a new city or letting them run wild on a mountain trail translated into longer nap times, better eating, and more manageable behavior overall.
At least that was our outlook until our most recent trip to Japan. Now we’re not so sure. With the benefit of hindsight and a few weeks of distance, our memories of Japan are largely pleasant. However, the trip was significantly more challenging than any of our previous vacations and made us seriously question our commitment to traveling with our kids. We saw some amazing sights, ate great food, and generally enjoyed our time in Japan, but our day-to-day – especially at the outset – was brimming with aggravation.
As the older sibling, Munchkin, now five and a half, set the tone, and the tone he set was distinctly combative. He adamantly refused to listen, constantly picked fights with his sister, and continuously threw defiant hissy fits. He’s always been a spirited child, but the only other comparable stretch of similarly problematic behavior we can point to was immediately after S arrived with the kids in Manila.
Jarred by the move halfway around the world, with our family temporarily split, no school to provide structure to his day, his friends left behind in the States, and few new playmates, Munchkin rebelled. He kicked a hole in our apartment wall, grew catty in competing for S’s attention with Junebug, and generally made the transition a lot more miserable for everyone than it needed to be. It took several months for him to stop acting out. Once school started, he grew accustomed to our new apartment and made some friends, and D joined the rest of the family in Manila, Munchkin settled down, so we were unpleasantly surprised to see the return of this difficult behavior on what was supposed to be a fun family vacation.
Of course, he was not the sole source of our frustration; Junebug had her difficult moments too. What made this trip particularly challenging, however, was the extent to which Munchkin endeavored to wind Junebug up. He would torment her relentlessly, snatching her stuff and teasing her about it, turning everything into a contest and deriding her, goading her about every little thing. There is a fair amount of competition for our attention when we’re at home, but he took things to a whole new level of maliciousness when we were in Japan. We were unprepared for the intensity of the resultant sibling strife.
And during the rare moments when they actually got along, Munchkin endeavored to rile Junebug up and cause as much havoc as possible. Admittedly, taking our two wild children sightseeing around Kyoto probably was not an optimal choice. As soon as we would enter a shrine or temple that exuded tranquility, our kids would smash that sense of peace and calm to smithereens. It felt like trying to coral two little bulls in a china shop, sometimes quite literally so. Once, we tried to take a break from temple hopping by getting some drinks and deserts at a cute teashop – a quiet, snug locale with low tables and tatami mats…The kids nearly tore the place apart in a matter of minutes. It was the kind of behavior that is not acceptable anywhere, but was particularly appalling in Japan given the culture.
To be fair, we could have scheduled more of our time in Kyoto around kid-friendly activities, but even when we tried to put our children’s interests first, Munchkin would inevitably find something to get grumpy about. For example, in Nara, whose “sacred deer” we thought would be a good distraction for the kids, he threw a two-hour-long hissy fit that ended in tears on the footsteps of a crowded temple.
It was only once we got to the mountains, midway through our trip, that Munchkin eased up somewhat and the balance between exasperation and enjoyment swung toward the latter. The first half of our trip was so painful, however, that we have seriously considered not bringing the kids for our future travels in the region.