The Magic and Mayhem of Traveling with Young Children.

By: Jen Shoop

Ed note: I apologize if the images on my blog are not appearing for you! I am working to get to the bottom of this now!

We’ve just returned from a weeklong beach vacation with extended family, and I am still digesting the magic and mayhem of traveling with young children. There were gem-like “golden moments” at every turn. I watched my husband fly kites with my children on the beach and had that strange other-worldly sense that I would forever remember the particular cast of light, the joy on my daughter’s face, the smell of salt water and sunscreen. My daughter learned to swim — fully — on this trip. She has been taking lessons for weeks now, and had mastered components of swimming (dunking her head, holding her breath, kicking, freestyle arms, etc), but finally it all came together during her weeklong stint with a pool at her fingertips. Magic, as I said.

At the same time, I observed on this trip that, in spite of knowing the contrary to be true, I still persisted in the hope that there would be long stretches of solitary reading, card-playing, and strolling on the beach, and so I think my expectations of family vacation remain doggedly misaligned with the realities of caring for young children while visiting a new destination. To be fair, I did manage to read 1.5 books, play a round of “Oh Hell!”, and go running along the delightfully flat North Carolina terrain three times. But, on the whole, relaxing this trip was not. My son was sick for half of the trip and my daughter is prone to motion sickness, so there was a lot of Doctor Mom on call. But even setting aside these ailments, I noticed that young children need their parents more than usual when traveling — they need to be reassured of their new surroundings and sleeping arrangements, introduced to and supervised (occasionally policed) in their interactions with other guests, acclimated to new rules and routines. I’ve heard the phrase “vacations with children is just parenting in a different location,” but it seems more accurate to say that vacations with children require 1.5x my usual parenting energy.

I recognize these complaints are drivel. Traveling is a luxury, period, but especially after the forced inertia of the pandemic. I write this keenly, as Mr. Magpie and I have not vacationed much in our married life together. Before children, we found that nearly all of our potential vacation time was claimed by obligations — weddings, family reunions and special occasions, holidays, group outings. These were fun and festive but they never had the hazy freedom I associate with “vacation.” It felt like we never had sufficient time left over to plan something just for ourselves, doing what we wished. Beyond that, I traveled so much for work in those days that I craved and prioritized the stasis and quiet of home on the weekends. We took one long trip to Spain before we had children, and it was heaven based solely on the grounds of autonomy: we could fly when we wanted, stay where we wanted, eat how we wanted, beholden only to ourselves. We were the anchor. Once our children were born, because we lived far away from grandparents (in Chicago and then New York), it seemed impossible to get away just the two of us, and we shied away from traveling with the children. I saw other families make it happen — often several times a year — and marveled at their courage. I have often thought to myself, “Where there is a will there is a way,” and I suppose I lack the will? Put differently, travel has not been a top priority for us as a family.

Perhaps that will change, now that we are out of diapers and travel no longer requires as much bulky gear. This most recent trip, I could not believe how “light” we traveled — no travel crib, no stroller, no big bag of diapers, no clutter of bottles. I want to expose my children to new places, cuisines, experiences, and maybe it gets easier the more you do it, and the older the children get.

But perhaps it won’t change overnight. And that’s OK, I tell myself, perhaps convincing myself? I’m not sure. The older I get, the more I realize that a lot of the things I feel like I “should” be doing relate to the implicit values of those around me. For example, I wrote earlier this year that I felt a budding sense of guilt that my children had a long, slow summer ahead — that I should have signed them up for more camps, lessons, activities, excursions. I realized this guilt began to take shape while answering the common, innocuous question: “What are your children doing this summer?” I’d answer tentatively and then feel a shiver of dread as I’d listen to my friends share the active itineraries of their own brood. I felt, I suppose, that I was not doing enough for them. But why? I had an instinct that I wanted my children to have long, buggy days in the backyard, rainy afternoons in the local library, popsicles and scooters in the cul de sac. I do not know how long we will have a full-time nanny to look after them in these pursuits. There may be summers ahead where camp is the only option. There may be summers ahead where the chaos of last summer’s move no longer colors our world. But for this summer, my hope for my children was a barefoot, placid, catch-fireflies-in-jars kind of season. And it took some soul-searching to realize that it’s OK to have objectives and priorities for my family that differ from those around me. The same goes for travel, I think. It’s OK that we prioritize other things right now — financially, logistically, experientially.

It’s interesting how frequently my emotions around parenting get tangled up with expectations — ones I’ve set for myself, ones I sense from others. I wish I were better at “just letting things be,” going into experiences with lower or less-fixed expectations, slicking off the perspectives of others. At the same time, I cultivate those expectations because I care — I want the best for my family! — and the opinions of my friends and family matter greatly to me. So for now I will just need to exercise the routine of “returning to center” whenever I am feeling adrift: reminding myself why I’m doing what I’m doing, recognizing that different is not “less than.”


+”It’s their day, too.”

+Love is…making a salad for someone else?

+Parenting is emotional because we care.

+Portraits of a heart.

Shopping Break.

+Just ordered myself this tinted lip balm.

+The number one item on my fall shopping list. You can get a similar vibe for under $60 with this.

+Vilbrequin on sale! Mr. Magpie owns a few pairs of these high-end swimming trunks, including this nautical pair.

+I am obsessing over chunky, oversized striped knits for the season ahead and I found this Toteme and this Self-Portrait heavily discounted…

+These woven earrings are SO fun. Also love this $20 pair!

+You need a clog for fall. This J. Crew pair is cute, and this shearling-lined pair from No. 6 is a great upgrade pick. I ended up with these Fabrizio Vitis!

+Speaking of clogs: one lucky fellow pixie-foot lady will be in heaven to realize that my favorite clog boots are only $120 (usually $400)!

+The only conventional skincare/makeup step I skip is a primer…do I need this step? I already have such a full dance card when it comes to beauty regimen. But this is getting good reviews.

+Attractive bedding options at reasonable prices. I did want to mention I’d read that Target’s affordable 400-thread-count sheets were top-rated as a budget pick for high quality, straight-forward white sheets and I bought a back-up set for us and can attest to their quality. Pretty damn good for the price if you’re looking for traditional white sheets that feel soft and breathable but don’t break the bank.

+This felted octopus is beyond adorable.

+Easy chic jumpsuit.

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18 thoughts on “The Magic and Mayhem of Traveling with Young Children.

  1. I second what others have said about waiting for children to be older to travel more! Though I’m not a mother, I traveled a lot as a child. My mother is very adventurous, and we traveled frequently with extended family or met my father, who traveled often for business, wherever he was. She pretty much always flew alone with my brother and me, starting once I was about 4 (I’m the youngest). Again, I’m not a mother, but I urge you not to feel guilt about not traveling more with your children because, at their ages, they likely won’t remember much at all. I have very fond memories of traveling with my family as a child and I’m SO grateful my parents waited until we were older to take us along. It’s a win-win: I have beautiful memories and my mother probably delayed a lot of grey hairs by waiting until we were more self-sufficient. Also, at 23, I don’t remember any of the “bad” (tantrums, getting sick on vacation, delays, storms, etc.) and we all look back on our trips so fondly.

    You are an excellent mother and your children will be grateful just to have you.

    1. Thank you so much for the reassuring note! Sounds like you have such great memories of childhood travel — so special. I love that you described your mom as “adventurous.” What a cool trait for a mom.


  2. Yep. We are recently returned from a beach trip as well. Slightly behind you guys in that we still brought a portable crib and piles of diapers and a stroller (actually wish I had brought the double, as we like to accompany the grandparents on morning walks and both girls tired of riding scooters sooner than expected!) but it is *slightly* easier. Also the girls shared a room for the first time and the novelty never wore off so they were up quite late and the 2 year old learned to climb out of the pack n play, eek! But we ate lots of ice cream and climbed a lighthouse and swam, so overall a success! And I did manage to finish one book and start another, and started season 2 of Only Murders. I recently read an old article about vacations with kids, here it is in case any other magpies find it amusing: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/vacation-or-trip-a-helpful-guide-for-parents_b_7789310

    1. Same boat!!! I like the idea of calling the trip “overall a success” — we saw wild horses, played in the waves, made sand castles, learned to swim, etc, etc. All in all a really great time with lots of happy memories for the kids. But behind the scenes…mom and dad are tired!


  3. Like others have commented we also did not do a ton of travel with our daughter. In the beginning, even car rides were a huge challenge that it made me more nervous for plane rides! We probably started doing a bit more road travel (not too long, anywhere from 3-6 hours’ drive each way) when she was 3+ and it STILL can be a challenge. I try to take the perspective of “taking the good with the bad” (or maybe “not so good” is better… “bad” just sounds so negative). It takes a lot of mental preparation (for both her and me) to go on a trip. We try to keep to a semi-normal routine but talk to her about being flexible and adjusting when our first choice isn’t possible or available, as she can be a bit rigid in her thinking. I have also learned to accept that no longer can I choose the most appealing restaurant menu based on my or my husband’s preferences alone, sometimes we just have to choose the one with a kid-friendlier menu. But overall I am so thankful we have had the opportunities that we did and see her face light up at new experiences (watching dolphins in Maui was a highlight this year!) and listen to her re-tell vacation memories.

    I’m in the same camp with summer activities. I know that my kid is one who benefits from a good amount of down-time and free play time, so while we signed her up for morning summer activities at her preschool, I didn’t want to overschedule her with so many other classes. I figure she will have the rest of her life to experience a lot of structure. I love how you described your children’s summer: “barefoot, placid, catch-fireflies-in-jars kind of season.” And “different is not less than” — 100%!!

    1. Thanks, Mia! I love the mindset of “taking the good with the not so good” and accepting that this is a season of life, and accommodations are required! “It’s their day, too” comes to mind here…


  4. Yes, yes, yes. I remember our first beach trip with a baby realizing that nap time would keep *someone* inside every day, and while I didn’t mind the quiet time to read, it was also kind of a wild sacrifice compared to the vast freedom of vacation as a non-parent. This year, we invited some family on the beach trip, hoping that more hands would help with toddler wrangling. This was true, but presented its own challenges (more “hosting” overall). But overall I’ve still never wished things were different, and so far we haven’t been inclined to travel without kids. I do tend to keep a “life is long” view and think about the years ahead when travel will be vastly different yet again. I have such fond memories of very simple road trips with my family in elementary and middle school — even college visits were framed as “vacations” and I loved them. Maybe it really is all about expectation setting!

    1. I agree – perhaps its about setting expectations lower, or re-framing things, or mentally walking through what an actual day will look like with more precision and honesty.


  5. I feel these words so much! We have a 5 1/2 month old and just returned from our first vacation with my family..a 9 hour road trip to one of the Finger Lakes for a week. I *knew* traveling with a baby would be different but somehow still felt blindsided and if I’m honest even a little resentful that vacation as we knew it won’t be the same for a very long time. We’re gearing up to join my husbands family for a week and the beach next week and now I’ll at least have adjusted my expectations. Very grateful to be able to travel and I know we’re in a sweet spot (she’s not walking yet!) but felt very unprepared for this aspect of parenting. Would love to hear any tips you have!

    1. I was also unprepared – and if I am honest, it still catches me off guard (as evidenced by this essay). Perhaps that’s the downside of not traveling more frequently – you let expectations get in your way and don’t have as much real life experience ground you going in. I am actually gearing up to take my children away again next weekend. It’s a shorter drive and a shorter trip but I know it will be similar. One thought that’s beginning to coalesce for me, based on reader comments and my own nature, is trying to set a realistic “relaxation” goal ahead of time, i.e., “my goal will be to read one book this trip, and I’m going to do that by asking my husband to look after the kids for an hour or a day while I sit out back” or “my goal is to have one evening where I ask my MIL / sister / friend to watch the baby while I grab a cocktail at the pool” or whatever it might be. Or maybe it’s starting happy hour earlier or having a pina colada at lunch or something that you normally wouldn’t do that just makes the day feel more special / different/ vacation-like. I’ll put more thought into this but I do think setting a more realistic goal of what “relaxation” looks like at this stage and figuring out a way to achieve it is a part of the process…


  6. Just wanted to say we had a very bad experience with some Crate & Barrel sheets (they just RIPPED straight down the middle of the fitted one!) and the Target sheets are the ones that have held up great. I won’t complain that they’re also much more inexpensive!

    1. Seconding this – we’ve tried a bunch of bougie brands (Parachute, Restoration Hardware, Brooklinen, etc.) and they’ve all either torn within months or felt inadequate/uncomfortable for the price. We kept finding ourselves subbing in our backup Target sheets, too, and just ended up getting a fresh set of those as our primary pick!

    2. +1 on Target’s Threshold sheets! They hold up well and get even softer in the wash. I had also tried Crate and Barrel’s organic cotton sheets for my daughter’s bed and found that the Target ones get softer in the wash.

    3. I’m so glad I mentioned these sheets!! — these observations/reports from other Target sheet owners have corroborated what I thought!!


  7. Chiming in to show solidarity – we have made a similar decision re travel with young kids. We’re just going to keep our powder dry until they’re older and more self-sufficient, can take advantage of new things and remember more, and we can enjoy more with them.

    Similarly, we are sticking to close by beach weeks for the present. Ours is upcoming and I’d appreciate any advice gleaned from yours!

    1. Definitely in the same boat! I wish I had better advice except to say I really had to shift gears, mentally, and remind myself that my job is to look after my kids and that’s just what it is right now. My “relaxation goals” are less important than their care. Period. So rather than get all bunched up and frustrated, I had to just know, going into the day, that I would be needed heavily throughout. It also helped to let off some steam a little bit to my husband – ha! We would have pow pows at the end of the day just sort of sighing in solidarity. It is hard! It feels good to share the burden with someone else and acknowledge how different things are right now.

      I’m sorry if those “tips” come off as negative — there was also so much magic and I really tried to be present in / drink in the beautiful bits. But trying to be practical and prep myself for our upcoming (briefer) trip!


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