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Abi Cotler Headshot

Traveling With Small Children: Is It Worth the Trouble?

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In the summer of 2008, my husband, twenty-month-old daughter and I subleased our place in San Diego and took off for Australia and Indonesia for three months. What else do families do with severance checks from Corporate America, we thought. The economy can't get any worse without it's brain exploding out of its skull, right? Impossible.

I covered the trip on my former blog, The Family Edge, illustrated by my husband Ian's photography. It chronicles verdant landscape blurring past koala-bear yield signs and bright petals against Bali's island green.

But the blog's glossy hues and prose don't tell the whole story. As much as that trip sits on our pedestal of family lore, it wasn't easy. Sure, with every year that passes, memories of the hurdles dim, such as the eighteen hour flights without sleep, that awkward plastic tub we carted around because Bali bungalows have no bathtubs ("Nooo shower, Mama, nooo").

Still we knew when we planned our recent camping/road-trip of big trees, cool waters and old friends, that the road in road-trip could be slow and bumpy-- especially with a new baby. And I won't claim we didn't think, more than once, about circling our wagons and heading back home.

But moments of brightness spurred us on.

Moments like the hike in we took in the Santa Cruz Mountains to spread the ashes of my beloved dog, Kai. By this point, our three-year-old, Ginger, was sicker than we realized, with a high fever and pale complexion. But when Ian questioned the wisdom of dragging her up there, I flew non-stop to what we call "Denial Isle" and stayed awhile. So we made our whiny way along the baking, redwood-covered ridge to the rocks where Kai and I used to counsel each other. At some point, though, I had to face the hard truth that we weren't going to get Ginger all the way there. I needed to ditch my goal, find a new one, and get my poor little girl back to a bed.

Just then, Ginger said something that broke the situation wide open for me. We'd been circumspect about exactly what was in the little hardwood box lodged with Kai's photo in a backpack we carried. It's for the ceremony-- to remember Kai Girl," we told her. I knew Ginger understood when she begged on the trail, "Why can't we just do Kai's offering over here?"

Kai's offering? It was a word neither of us had ever used. She must have picked it up almost two years ago in Bali watching the daily rituals of the women of the island, their slender hands cradling folded coconut leaves of flowers and incense.

But it was a perfect term for the occasion and with it, we were reminded that: yes, raising children is hard work, and yes, traveling with them can seem like a working vacation. But the added meaning of these experiences, when they're shared with your children, is vast.

Before we left for that long trip overseas, some of our friends commented that it was a shame we weren't waiting a few years so our toddler could remember the experience. Recalling the word offering is proof that Ginger does have detailed memories of the trip.

But I was curious to know just how much of it she would actually retain into adulthood. I found that studies show much of the conscious memories formed before three are soon forgotten due to the immaturity of the hippocampus area of a small child's brain. This prompted Freud's theory that when we lose these early experiences, which he termed "infantile amnesia," they are repressed into our unconscious where they're left to skulk into adulthood.

So perhaps Ginger will soon forget her concrete memories of that trip, but what of what's called her stored memory capacities, the capcity that allows newborns to recognize music heard in the womb, or nine-month olds to remember how to play with a toy they saw used a day earlier?

It's not as if they forget everything, we thought. On the contrary, our toddler seemed to be sponging up information about her world at a shockingly fast rate, like it, or not. And sure enough, when we returned from our travels, we found that the experience had changed who she was at the core for good.

For example, when we left, Ginger carried a shyness about men that bordered on phobia when it came to those unlucky guys with facial hair. This was much to the dismay her lovable grandfather and his proud, Irish mustache. But the culture of Bali is so gaga over babies, traveling around with our curly-headed girl often felt like being in the entourage of a rock-star. So, with the gentle Balinese men being no exception to this fawning, slowly Ginger began to change her prejudices. When we returned, her Popi soon got his first hug and kiss ever, mustache and all.

Another, hilarious influence came out when we went to temple for Rosh Hashana services just after we got back. "Will there be dancers there?" Ginger asked, picturing all the dance we'd seen at the Indonesian temples of stone and jungle. How disappointed she must have been with a bunch of overdressed Jews and a wise, yet decidedly non-theatrical Rabbi.

Even on our recent camping trip, there are countless ways in which we came back changed. On a small but important note, we now know that Baby Kyra doesn't need to be even loosely swaddled to fall asleep anymore--a bonus for the hot nights of summer still to come. In fact, every time we've traveled we realize we can cut out some vestige we'd thought our kids could never (fill in the blank: sleep, eat, feel secure) without.

Now, I'm not recommending everyone jump right in their cars and scramble for the crags of Patagonia, babies in tow. With travel, as with most activities, we weigh the benefits and our love of the thing against the price paid in work, worry and loss of sleep.

Even now, since our return from camping, there are mountains of blankets and tennis shoes tipping over in our living room, and Kyra has gone back to waking up before dawn. Still, if you ask us if travel with small children even is worth the trouble, we'd say yes. Maybe their brains won't remember much, but their souls will.

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