How Travel Made Me A Better Parent

Time, space and a more calm central nervous system changed the way I parent.

We were so happy to arrive in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

The sun had just tucked itself into the horizon. Aiden and I had been watching the sunset at our favorite beach spot – filled with running dogs, playing kids and tourists just grateful to watch one more beautiful sunset. We dusted off our sandy feet and began walking back to town and towards our favorite taco stand. Aiden was steps ahead and moving fast.

“Hey, wait up,” I called.

He stopped and turned then said “Mom, you never waited for me when I was small. You just told me to walk faster.”

“Oh, come on, that’s harsh. You were probably dawdling and we had somewhere to go.”

“Mom, I was toddler. I was five years old. I could never keep up with you.”

I stopped in my tracks and literally broke down in tears. It’s not that I didn’t remember behaving that way; It’s that I didn’t want to remember. That mother was harried and stressed. I felt like I never had enough money or time or patience, and by running fast everywhere – to the market, to the park, down any street – I was hoping I could catch up with myself. I could catch up with a calmer, slower life that would allow me to be the mother I wanted to be, one with more time and the ability to wander down a street aimlessly with my toddler.

That was the mom I was before I dropped everything, left my job, and took my son traveling.

I didn’t know at the time that the decision I made to travel the world for a year – initially to recover from the sadness of my mother’s sudden death – would also make me a better and more patient parent, and a better friend, to others, but also to myself.

After one year, we stayed on and settled in a small town in Mexico where Aiden attended school, I worked remotely, our lives slowed down. It felt like one giant exhale that my central nervous system had been waiting on for years.

I left US in 2016 nearly a year after my mother’s death from an aneurism, and after working in an extremely toxic and dysfunctional work environment. I was broken. My health was suffering. And I hadn’t had quality time with my son for months. It was all I could do to stay standing. So we left, intending only to travel one year.

During this time my son and I, and an elderly auntie who asked to join, climbed the pyramids in Teotihuacan, Mexico; we fished for piranhas in the Amazon River, and learned about sustainability in the Galapagos Islands. We slid down ancient rock slides in Peru and climbed with llamas to Machu Picchu. We took trolleys high above Colombia’s neighborhoods and hiked through its national parks. We ate tacos, tried grasshoppers, looked for waterslides, and met other travelers along the way. We searched for local art, good chocolate and ice cream in every town. By the time the year was over we had changed and we weren’t ready to go back to the same life.

In fact, we came back home for a month but everyone was too busy to see us, and playdates couldn’t be arranged. Just days before his school was set to begin, Aiden and I had a heart to heart about how we wanted to live. Then we rented out our house, packed up our car and our dogs and drove back down to Mexico. We had found a community of wonderful expats. More than that, I had connected with a part of myself that I wanted to keep alive. In Mexico I wasn’t as stressed about always making money because the cost of living was lower. I could afford more activities for me and my son, so there was a wider range of things to participate in: I took dance, Aiden took guitar. We splurged on nice dinners and met up with friends as often as possible.

I had a serious surgery and was surrounded by friends willing, and possessed with enough time to help me through it (note: in Mexico you are required to have someone in the hospital room with you). Not to mention the cost of the surgery, which was only a fraction of what it would have been in the US. I had no fear that if there were complications, I might lose my house.

We returned to the US due to Covid and during the lockdown I was still able to maintain my calm. Once things began to “get back to normal,” the familiar stresses also reemerged: there was not enough money for too many things, a focus on materialism and always “making it.” Groceries, inflation, health insurance (God forbid one of us gets sick), activities, STUFF. It all felt oppressive.

Since then, our trips have been shorter. We’ve been diving with Manta Rays in Bali, rode camels in Egypt, and celebrated the Day of the Dead in Mexico. We’ve walked along the Mekong in Cambodia, climbed every step of the Eiffel Tower, and drive for miles through the deserts of Morocco. Our life has been rich, and my son has grown into a sensitive, aware, confident and caring young man.

While at home, I spent my days writing a book about families who traveled, sometimes permanently, and the ways their quality of life improved. My son has connected with friends here in the US, and I’ve promised him we can stay through his high school years. Inside I yearn to be back in another culture where my life slows down and where time feels more abundant. Where markets offer fresh foods for a fraction of the price up north, and where community and family connection can be seen in any park.

In Mexico I loved to watch young children pushing their abuelas (grandmothers) in wheelchairs into the main plaza for an evening stroll. Or holding their hands as they crossed the street, watching families laughing together on a beach (playing obnoxiously loud music, but that’s a different story). I do hope that one day Aiden’s children will be as gentle, kind and patient with me as the children I see out with their families.

I’m not a perfect parent, by far. But I’m better than I was. I hope one day my son sees the effort I made for him, for our relationship, and for our quality of life. I only wish we had done it sooner, because travel made me a much better mother.

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Wandering through Sacsayhuamán near Cusco, Peru. It became one of my favorite archeological sites.

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