I have shared more adventures, big and small, with Pam than any person outside of my family. We met in middle school, remained close in high school and college, and served in each other’s weddings. We have never lived more than twenty miles apart, text constantly, and know virtually everything about each other. Our bond has grown stronger as our families have grown, too.
When Pam asked, “Why don’t we six go to Alaska?” I was not surprised. My family — my husband Jeff and our two boys — hang out with Pam and her husband, Dave, frequently. What surprised me was the inexplicable dread I felt as she spoke.
Before long, Pam, Dave, and Jeff had outlined a twelve-day itinerary that included flying to Anchorage, driving to Denali, returning to Anchorage and embarking on a seven-day cruise through the Inside Passage. I had outlined a mental image of my own that included the kids getting car sick en route to Denali, the kids wearing out on scenic hikes, the kids getting seasick on the cruise ship, and the kids suffering meltdowns during long, late dinners. Such difficulties had occurred on previous vacations, but they had never ruined them. Why did I feel so anxious this time?
My fears had everything to do with Pam and Dave. The only casualties of previous turmoil had been my husband and myself, not dear friends who worked hard and were entitled to a trouble-free break. Jeff and I were deserving, too, but I believed that I had a realistic grasp of what a long trip with children would look like. I preferred traveling closer to home with other parents who understood the challenges of a family vacation. I felt nervous knowing that Pam and Dave were spending hard-earned money and precious time off on a trip that could prove slower and more inconvenient than they anticipated.
Finally, I fessed up. I detailed for Pam all that could occur – the good, the bad, and the apocalyptic. “We know that!” she laughed. “We know it will be different with kids. That’s the point!”
Months later we pulled away from the jetway, and I crossed my fingers.
So what happened? Thomas, then six years old, wore out on the first hike, plunked down onto the mud, and cried the rest of the trek. He also lost his “all-time favorite” hat in Denali and cried the entire drive back to the hotel. On the cruise, Devin, then four years old, suffered from stomach troubles, screamed in our cramped bathroom for an hour, and cried the rest of the night. Two days later, he suffered from exhaustion and cried throughout much of Dave’s formal birthday dinner, only stopping when he fell asleep in his pasta.
Still, my boys barely remember these episodes. Instead, they still recount in detail the two sea lions atop an iceberg that floated by our stateroom, the shattering sound of a glacier breaking off into the bay, and the grizzlies, caribou, and puffins they spotted. Each time my sons relive their trip, I am reminded of what we gained from vacationing with friends who do not have children.
Friends without children can help parents challenge their own assumptions of what activities are and are not kid-friendly. We would not have watched a beaver at work had Pam and Dave not invited us to consider a hike more challenging than usual. They gently pushed us out of the frenzied cruise buffet and into the ship’s nicest restaurant, where we enjoyed a more intimate ambiance and more time to linger over a freshly prepared meal. Pam and Dave prompted us to take a longer Juneau excursion than we had originally considered. As a result, we were treated to an up-close, breathtaking experience with breaching humpback whales.
Our children were encouraged to try new things, too. It is easy for Thomas and Devin to fall into family routines, but the presence of “new blood” pumped new life into their sense of adventure. Thomas presented a brave face when we encountered a gigantic moose on foot. Devin gamely agreed to an intense banana boat ride to Ketchikan island, and when the rain drenched him as we hiked through the rain forest, he laughed instead of cried.
Friends without children can help ease some of the pressure felt in the incessant job that is parenting, in part because they are not distracted or drained by their own kids. When Thomas started to melt down upon learning that the mini-golf course had unexpectedly closed, Dave quietly called him over to try out his “fancy” camera. A new voice, a new approach, a new toy – Thomas never mentioned golf again. At breakfast, I harped on Thomas to eat over his plate. As he grew increasingly irritable, Pam asked him what he most looked forward to when returning to school, and the rest of our meal went smoothly. Watching Thomas and Devin interact with my friends helped me realize that I spend so much time directing my boys’ behavior that I sometimes forget to simply chat with them.
Traveling with friends also helped our kids consider people and needs beyond their own. They know that Pam and Dave do not share their enthusiasm for trains, but they saw our friends happily board the White Pass Railroad anyway. When we returned to our cabin, we discussed plans for the evening. It was encouraging to hear Thomas ask, “Should we see what Pam and Dave want to do?” He clearly wanted to reciprocate our friends’ kindness.
Finally, traveling with another couple brought a freshness to our conversations. Daily discussions, at home and away from home, so often center on kids. So, while I loved watching my sons admire the mountain scenery, I was equally happy when we put them to bed and sat on the balcony with Pam and Dave. It felt like a vacation within a vacation to breathe in the ocean air, sip champagne, and not expound on the merits of Minecraft or Ryan’s Toy Review.
While I still appreciate the benefits of traveling with other families, I also realize I had underestimated what children can do and enjoy. Before Thomas and Devin were born, Jeff and I journeyed to Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. We put off starting a family because we could not imagine traveling with children. I wonder sometimes what we might have shown our boys by now had I not been so fearful. Still, I remain grateful to my friends for helping me focus on the benefits to be experienced on a family trip instead of the obstacles to be survived. Without their influence we might not have tackled last summer’s four-hour, knee-deep mud hike in Kauai, or booked our upcoming snorkel trip to Central America. Now I scroll through travel sites with a confidence that tells me, “We can do that. All of us.”