“What are your plans for today?” I hesitate to respond. We are on vacation. A new place, a new adventure. Our to-do list should be miles long, our explorations endless.
“Nothing.” It’s an honest answer. It’s also a lie. We have a plan. The plan is to do nothing.
My children are travelers. My husband is an academic and when he attends a conference, we frequently tag along. We also have family on the other side of the country. We are fortunate enough to be able to visit at least once a year. When we plan a trip, we build a long list of things we want to do and see. There are people we want to visit, museums, zoos, parks or gardens, landmarks, special events. It would be impossible to do them all, but before having kids I would make it my goal to try. To squeeze in as much as possible in the short amount of time. To make the most of every second. I wouldn’t want to miss a single thing.
After countless excursions and years of traveling with children I always find myself forgetting our most important travel item: down time.
At home, our lives are slow and simple. We have a few set activities we do each week with the occasional play date thrown in here or there. Other than that, my children stay home. They read their books, play with their toys, and explore the outdoors and the local playground. They eat when they are hungry, sleep when they are tired, play together, and give each other space. I can tell when we are being overloaded. When we plan too many activities during the week, my children stall when getting dressed in the mornings. They sit in the playroom and instead of choosing something to bring along in the car, they beg for one more playtime choice at home. As a stay-at-home mom, I read into their behavior and adjust for their needs. Most of the time the activities are for me anyway. Play dates with my mom friends because I enjoy their company, trips to the library to have something to show when asked, “what did you do all day?”
I shouldn’t expect our travel days to be so different. Even though our location has changed, my children have not. They are the same people with the same basic needs. Down time is often the most important one.
It’s so easy to look at an “empty” day and struggle to find the value. When we have limited time, we look to fill it all. We want to move at the speed of light. The speed of light is not the speed of childhood.
I approach travel and life with the same gusto that I do a plate of enticing food. I cannot wait to gobble it all up. I fill my plate and the moment it’s been cleaned, I fill it more. I struggle to pace myself.
My children savor. They don’t rush through it all. Every bite, every moment, every step of the journey needs to be examined, talked about, filed away. Every piece is purposeful. They tell me when they’ve had their fill.
After a day full of new experiences and adventures, they need a break. On those days, we never leave the hotel room. My kids are too busy building a fort or testing out the bounce of our hotel bed and the battle capacity of the overabundance of pillows. Their rapidly-firing brains are processing so much new information. They need to navigate situations where less is expected of them, where less is unexpected. The laws of couch cushion physics are the same no matter which state we are in, no matter whose home. While all beds do not bounce the same, they are all equally inviting. No matter the stress of a new situation, a battle with a pillow always offers the same physical release.
Like most parenting lessons, this is one I learn, forget, re-learn, forget, and surprise myself every time that I need to learn it again. This trip, I have plans to take it slow. Completely at their pace. While exploring all the shops on a new street in a new place may be on my personal agenda, exploring the new cracks in a new sidewalk on a new street may be more up my toddler’s alley. I am planning to make space for every crack in the sidewalk.
I look back over our to-do list. I check off the things we have been able to experience so far on our visit: a trip to the zoo, a visit to the science museum, a date night for mom and dad. I am looking forward to making plans to do a few more: play date with close family friends, beach trip, maybe another date night. Before I put my notebook away, I add the word “nothing.” I check it off. On the next line, I add it again. We can always make time for more.