Friday, February 4, 2011

Bring the Baby, She'll Bring the World

by Benjamin Doerr

Last winter, as we prepared to return to my wife’s homeland of New Zealand for two months of summer bliss, we found ourselves repeatedly faced with the same question from friends and strangers alike: “Are you taking the baby with you?”  Call me old fashioned, but who leaves behind a six-month-old for two months, while they bask in the glory of southern hemisphere summer? 
Deb and I are seriously committed to travelling.  Pre-baby, even pre-marriage we made a deal to focus our extra time and any money we could tuck away on getting out there.  Just after we were married we set off to India – our first of many adventures together – and fell in love with the world!

In 2009, as the reality of having a child grew steadily larger everyone around us began making statements about how having a kid is sure going to slow our travels.  At first we agreed.  We had thought all the travelling we had packed into our pre-child life would sustain us through the kid years.  We were so wrong!

The thing is, if you have the travel bug, you have it.  There’s no medicating it with a few babies.  As pregnancy settled in and a malaria-soaked trip to Southeast Asia was preventatively canceled (anti-malaria meds and pregnancy are not the best mix), we resolved to share our wanderlust with our children right from the beginning.  So, 5 months after our daughter, Aria, was born we set out on an epic cross country trip to Montana, Florida, Georgia and California (all by plane) before heading south to New Zealand – with baby in tow!

If you ask me the secret to travelling any kind of distance by plane with a baby, and then staying in unfamiliar places - I can tell you only this: it’s not really any harder than staying at home.  Little babies are easy…and then they’re difficult…an then they’re easy again.  Deb and I always joke that babies are bi-polar (is that inappropriate?) so you can’t really predict their mood at any point.  Yes, it can be easier to adjust to these new mood swings in your life within the comfort of your own home.  But I see it like this: Why let that stop you from seeing the world?

As for flying, everyone will tell you that the pressure hurts the baby’s ears and this is why they cry.  Pretty much any pediatrician can tell you that this is not always true (babies cry for a lot of reasons), and in our experience Aria has never had any ear pain at all.  When she was still nursing (up to just under a year and a half) she would nurse during take off and landing.  Which, combined with the noise of the plane more than often lulled her into a snooze.

When Aria was 8 months old we decided to go see the spring cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan.  Again, we were asked the question of whether we were taking our baby.  It came clear to me at this point that it’s not that people really think we would leave our baby behind; they just can’t process what it means to travel with a baby.   It seems scary, so for the most part people just don’t do it.  This doesn’t surprise me in a nation where less than 30 percent of the population holds a passport.  But, much of what makes travelling interesting and challenging is the necessity for flexibility and adaptability.  Travelling with a child doesn’t ruin the trip, or make it impossible, you just have to shift how you do things.

With an 8 month old that was still breastfeeding we decided that our strategy for Japan would be to hold to our travel-light mantra of the pre-baby days.  With Aria happy as a clam in the Ergo carrier, we didn’t even take a stroller.  We walked long distances, travelled on trains and buses, she took naps and Deb even nursed her all in the Ergo.  It was brilliant!  We realized that pre-walking babies (especially those happy in a carrier or sling) are so transportable; and staying in “Japanese-style” rooms wherever we went meant that we all slept together on futons on the floor, and the room was basically padded.  Perfect for a little tike that is just starting to pull herself up.

Long plane rides (8+ hours) have become undeniably harder as Aria gets older and more mobile.  She was up and trotting before her first birthday, and plane rides are no longer the breastmilk-induced snoozefest of the early months.  Walkers like to walk, and plane rides don’t really accommodate this, especially post 9/11, where every time you get up to pee someone looks up quickly to make sure you’re not trying to light your shoe.  But with a squirmer, you just have to do the laps.  And for the most part, people smile at your cute little kid as you pass them for the 20th time in ten minutes.  Aren’t a few laps around the plane worth it?

We think so and knowing full well the tides had shifted we packed up last fall and headed out again.  This time it was Europe for family time in France and friendly visits in England and Scotland.  Aria managed pretty well on the 9-hour leg from Chicago to Paris, but all hell broke loose in those first Parisian nights.  For anyone who has experienced it, you know that East bound jet lag hits you like a ton of bricks.  Most of us would prefer to lash out in frustration and scream our way through the insomnia of those first few nights.  That’s exactly what our toddler did. 

Through the paper-mâche walls of our Paris hotel, Aria lived true to her name and methodically woke the entire neighborhood on the hour, every hour.  Dealing with your toddler’s “night terrors” is one thing, but when you feel exactly the same as your toddler does, it becomes difficult to make rational decisions.  At one point, I got up out of bed, put her in the Ergo (where she would usually nod off), and climbed the hill to Sacre Coeur, to view the cityscape at night (the middle part of the night).  Aria stayed awake with me and we chatted in a mixture of broken French and Toddlerese all the way down the hill to the Moulin Rouge as I wished with all my heart she would just go to sleep.  I stopped to buy a crepe from a street vendor…

…and (ahh!) here was the moment of enlightenment: On any other night this would have been a disaster.  My child will not sleep.  We are all beyond fatigue with jetlag.  But, I’m standing in the streets of Paris, overlooking the city and it’s lights – the Eifel Tower like a giant steel Christmas tree – with a delicious crepe in my hand and my daughter is now smiling at me repeating the few French words I’ve taught her on our little night jaunt.  This is seeing the world, and this is sharing it with your family!

Looking back over the last year of travel with my wife and daughter, some of my favorite memories come from the times I took Aria out in the Ergo to sooth her and give Deb some resting space.  In New Zealand it was early morning walks on the beaches and surrounding hills of Northland.  In Japan it was the discovery of a mountain temple, tucked away in the woods – under a waterfall no less.  We stumbled upon it one misty morning, as a monk finished is chants high up the cliff, in a cave.  In France, it was getting to see the charming streets Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood in the relative quiet of the middle of the night.

In a way, Aria has shown me these moments, and I surely would not have discovered them without her.   No, international flights are no longer movie watching marathons; sleeping arrangements get tighter and the sleep gets shorter, and you have to carry a bit more luggage.  But all told, the enrichment and the joy we gain through our travel experiences far outweigh the burdens. So, as we get ready to welcome our second child into our world this April, we hold fast to the commitment to travel, to see and to share the world together.


  1. Thank you for sharing Ben, I love the way you write about your family and the world. Makes me belief there is more possible than we usually think, as long as we're open to a different point of view :D. Always welcome when ur travels bring you to South Africa! xxx Sabine

  2. Oh Ben... you know we talk about you guys all the time, motivating our travels :) Thank you for being such amazing and inspirational parents! ~Mary

  3. "less than 30 percent of the population holds a passport..." is this seriously true??

  4. "less than 30 percent of the population (in the US) holds a passport..." is this seriously true?