Travelling without my kids showed me the pain of leaving and the joy of going

written by Heather Kang July 17, 2023

Right after I turned 18, I moved to the other side of Canada. I couldn’t get out of my small Ontario town fast enough. The whole world awaited, and while I waited to find the moment to see all of it, I made my first move: as far as I could go without immigration paperwork. Fast forward and I did indeed go further: a round-the-world backpacking trip at 26 morphed into a stint as a travel writer that kept taking me out there and a career in the travel industry that I still can’t shake more than two decades after I first left home.

But while travel has played such a big role in my life and work, it might surprise you (because it still surprises me) that I now live just down the road from where I grew up, married with two little kids, aged seven and four. The fresh 10-year passport I got in 2015 is mostly empty, pushed aside to make way for two babies followed by a pandemic.

Travel for me over the past few years has been restricted to a particular radius from home, decisions guided more than I’d like to admit by the best hotel bathroom lighting for silently chugging a plastic cup of wine while willing a toddler to fall asleep on the other side of the door and side-eying my husband who got the good seat in the bathtub. Travel involves packing for three and knowing at all times where the nearest bathroom is and how to say chicken nuggets in the local language (just kidding, neither kid has ever been outside of North America). Gone are the days of deciding where to go based on which flight is leaving soonest, and gone are the long nights in sticky-floored backpacker bars.

And I’m glad those days and nights are gone. They were exactly what (and when) I needed them to be. But somewhere along the way, I’ve started to wonder if being a traveller really is a part of who I am, or if it was just a moment in time, spurred by the convenience and freedom of having that option readily available at a moment’s notice.

Working in travel has kept those questions front of mind, and when I started a job with Intrepid, a few months shy of my youngest’s first day of kindergarten, it came with the opportunity to go, once a year, nearly anywhere. Intrepid staff get a free trip each year (with some conditions). Though I had hundreds of trips to choose from, I found myself only mildly concerned with deciding where I should go. The more pressing question was if I should go.

The prospect of leaving my daughters and husband at home so I could go travel for funsies (okay for worksies, too, but really for funsies) was wrapped up in a load of guilt and a little bit of anxiety. None of my mum friends had ever hopped on a plane to go away by themselves for a while. The longest I had ever been away from my kids was three nights for a weekend getaway with a friend. In my world, you just don’t see mums of young kids travelling for themselves by themselves… ever.

When you Google mum guilt, which is a thing, a lot of the results have to do with working. For working mums, it sometimes feels like you’re pulled between being a good mum and being a good employee, so mediocrity on all fronts is the happiest medium available. But often, working full-time is a necessity for mums. Necessity is a great antidote to guilt.

If we need scientific evidence to encourage us to guiltlessly have a career, what hope is there for those ambitions that aren’t work?

Still, many mums grapple with these feelings. In her book Ambitious like a mother: Why prioritizing your career is good for your kids, Lara Bazelon attempts to relieve some of this guilt by citing evidence that the kids of working mums fare no worse than the kids of stay-at-home mums, and the daughters of working mums are likely to find more success than their mums.

Well, that’s good news, mums. You don’t need to feel bad about your full-time job. But if we need books and scientific evidence to encourage us to guiltlessly have a career, what hope is there for those ambitions that aren’t work? That aren’t borne of the necessity to pay our bills and feed our kids? Ambitions beyond the scope of motherhood and career become selfish pursuits. I’ll be the first to list off the values and benefits of travel, but travel is peak luxury and leisure. At its core, it’s unnecessary.

So, when I booked myself onto Intrepid’s 10-day Best of Switzerland trip, it didn’t come with the electric shock of excitement that a freshly booked trip used to give me. It felt wrong. I worried that 11 straight days of solo parenting was too much of a burden to put on my husband (he assured me it wasn’t). I’m a nervous flyer at the best of times, but motherhood had found new ways to spike my anxieties. It occurred to me much more than once as I prepared to go: what if I die? What if something terrible happens at home while I’m an ocean away? All because I wanted to get away for a bit? See the world? Do I even have the right?

It felt selfish. And while on a logical and very rational level I know that it’s not, or that selfish isn’t bad, and I know a happy, fulfilled mum is a good mum, you can’t pour from an empty cup, a-heheheh *mouth-fart noise*, it still felt weird.

Before I had kids, my older sister, who has carved so many paths for me by doing big things first, told me about a quote she’d read when she became a mum. It says that deciding to have a child is to “decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” She shared this with me in an email about her first child’s first day of daycare. And I remembered it on the first day I dropped my oldest off at daycare and sat in a coffee shop down the road, clutching my coffee and staring into space for the 45 minutes I’d agreed to leave her there as a test run.

This is the whole gig. You create these creatures and raise them and gradually set them off into the world and they go further and further away until they’re on their own. It starts in those very first days, the two of you strung up in a web of hormones in some dark corner of a room you’d never noticed before. It’s a drawn-out act of release, letting go, sending off. It’s very much a one-way arrangement. I’ve rooted myself in this adult life as a parent, bolted to the ground through a house, a mortgage, a career, an unshakeable need to shoot roots deep into the ground and build a safe haven. You go. I’ll be here.

I’ve rooted myself in this adult life as a parent, bolted to the ground through a house, a mortgage, a career, an unshakeable need to shoot roots deep into the ground and build a safe haven.

In the lead-up to my trip, the nerves settled in. My flight was leaving at 6 pm on a Saturday, and earlier that week I asked my mum if we could drop our kids off at her house that afternoon so my husband could take me to the airport on his own. I said it might be too hard on the kids to be there. She said of course.

She likely knew before I was ready to admit that the kids would’ve been fine. I was the one at risk of crumbling at the airport while saying goodbye. Instead, I hurriedly hugged my kids and handed them off to my parents in the driveway and immediately dropped my sunglasses over my eyes despite being in full shade.

“Okay, I’ll see you guys soon!” I said, pretending to be enthusiastic, my voice wavering just enough for my mum to see right through me. She encouraged the kids to head inside, and she gave me a hug.

It was a similar hug to the ones she and I would exchange in the airport fifteen, twenty years ago while she said goodbye to me as I flew back across the country to the city I lived in or headed off on a trip abroad. Every time her eyes would turn to spouts and she’d quietly crumble and send me off.

And off I went on a journey by train through the Swiss countryside into old cities, between cow-dotted hills and over mountain passes. Standing in the shade next to the river in Lucerne on Day 3, our Intrepid leader rounded us up and described the walk she planned to take us on through the city streets up to the old city walls and its medieval towers. Out of nowhere, I was hit by an electric shock of excitement, the kind you have to quiet your feet for lest you break out in a tippy-tappy happy dance. And no, I’m not especially fond of old city walls or medieval towers, but this feeling was as surprising as it was familiar.

It’s a feeling I often felt years ago on my solo travels. It would arise in the most mundane moments, waiting for a bus to arrive in Lagos, Portugal, going to bed in a hostel bunk after an evening of chatting with strangers in Sarajevo – once it happened while hovering over a toilet in a Nairobi bus station. In all of those moments, the same thought overcame me: how wild it is and lucky I am to be here, in this moment, doing this, right now. I came to consider it the physical sensation of the travel bug taking hold.

It kept happening throughout the rest of the trip. While staring out a train window into Swiss gardens, grabbing lunch to go from the supermarket, noticing the distant ring of cowbells in a mountain meadow. Me? Here? Now? What are the odds!

To be honest, there was no profound positive impact on me or my kids when I got home. They were more impressed with the stuffed Bernese mountain dogs I brought home for them than with hearing my stories or seeing my photos. Daily life and routine resumed immediately, though the restorative power of getting away from it all for a bit shouldn’t be underestimated.

Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland

These days, one of my favourite photos of Switzerland is the desktop background on my work computer. Whenever my four-year-old wanders into my home office and sees it, she asks me where it is. I tell her it’s Switzerland. I show her the barely visible walking paths on the side of a mountain and on the valley floor that I walked along, past waterfalls and through meadows. I tell her about the cowbells and the flowers. Every single time, she tells me she wants to go there one day.

Maybe motherhood isn’t so much about being the body from which the heart departs. Maybe it’s about setting your heart out into the world and being the body that says, look, my heart, this is how you go.

Heather travelled on Intrepid’s 10-day Best of Switzerland trip.

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