My husband and I love our kids, but historically, we've also loved leaving them at home when we travel. A vacation with kids is a trip, not a vacation, amiright? Sure, we've taken our girls, both under age six, to visit cousins in California, and there's a semi-annual family get-together in Mexico. But in general, there's just something about chasing them through the airports that screams Not Relaxing to me.
But when my friends post snaps to social media of themselves on vacay with their kiddos, everyone harmonious and smiling and nary a sunburn or mosquito bite meltdown in sight, I can't help but wonder what I'm doing wrong. How come their little ones can make it to Barcelona without asking "Are we there yet?" so many times that their mommy starts to weep?
So when the folks at Adventures by Disney invited me to Anaheim, California, for a behind-the-scenes look at Disneyland—with a plus-one of my choosing—I immediately saw it as an opportunity to dip my toe into the world of vacationing happily with kids. Because my guest needed to be age four or older, the decision regarding whom to take was already made for me. I waited until the morning of our trip to tell our six-year-old she was skipping school that day, and going to Disneyland instead. That moment of glee kicked off four days of pure, exhausting fun. But not only for the reasons you might think.
One + one = fun
Of course, hugs from Chip and Dale feel like winning the lottery. And no first grader ever frowned at the sight of a Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream sandwich. But for me, the fun I'm talking about came in far less expected forms. First, there was the logistical ease of flying with just one kid. Navigating the airport was half as stressful as usual. And even though our girls usually get along fabulously, there are inevitable clashes and bickering…not possible when you're out and about with only one. As a result, I found myself enjoying every little moment of getting there, from holding hands on the subway en route to the airport to sharing a snack of gummies during takeoff. I felt calm and in control, not frazzled and scattered. My resulting patience levels were off the charts.
Joy Malik-Hasbrook, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at The Center for Connection in Pasadena, CA, says my breezy attitude was likely the result of my feeling more regulated, meaning that because my various emotions were in check—thanks to the lack of kid drama—I felt more in control and able to focus solely on my travel buddy.
"Multitasking is overwhelming for our brain, and taking care of more than one child can feel like multitasking," Malik-Hasbrook explains. "Since your brain felt less distracted, your body and mind were working together in a more regulated way. Without regulation, one small stressor can turn into a huge tantrum—for the child or the parent. You were able to be more intentionally present for your older daughter, and that feels soothing for kids."
For parents with more than one child, traveling with only one, or even just spending one-on-one time at home can serve as an antidote for a modern-day parenting affliction called "Continuous Partial Attention," explains clinical psychologist and Parents Scientific Advisory Board member Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen. The term was originally used to describe the obsession so many of us feel to be always-connected—picture a friend checking her phone as she attempts to listen to you chat over coffee. Mogel says a similar phenomenon can play out amongst siblings who feel they must constantly vie for a parents' eye or ear. In our little twosome, though, "your daughter didn't have to worry about feeling like you were half-listening. I bet she felt seen, and I bet she felt heard."
Mogel couldn't be more dead-on. Multiple times on our Disney trip, my daughter threw her arms around me in an embrace out of the blue or told me that she loved me, which isn't her usual M.O. Also, more than once she blurted out, "Well, Mom, you did it. You really did it." I'd ask her what she meant and she'd say something along the lines of, "You knew that I really wanted to spend time alone, just you and me, and you made it happen."
When our tour guides told us we were going to take a nighttime spin on Radiator Springs Racers, I was expecting a tame jaunt through a faux-mountain backdrop narrated by Lightning McQueen. After all, you only had to be 40 inches tall to ride it. I had no clue that it was, in fact, a roller coaster. But I soon found myself careening around banked curves and losing my stomach on 40 mph drops. The thought went through my mind: "If I'm screaming like a little girl, what is my actual little girl thinking?" But as we pulled back into the station, she turned to me with a mile-wide smile plastered across her face and yelled, "That was AMAZING! Can we go again?!"
Our girl had discovered a passion for rollercoasters…one we may not have unearthed for years, considering we hadn't planned on scheduling our inaugural family Disney trip until our youngest was at least in kindergarten.
Mogel says stumbling upon these sorts of hidden interests is a happy benefit of spending QT together. "You discovered she loves roller coasters, and you did it without having to have your husband stand on the sidelines with the other sibling," who is too small to ride. Armed with this new knowledge, she suggests, we can now make a point to tailor future trips. This aligns with her advice to "let them lead" on trips. "They sit in school all day long, [everything is] so scheduled and adult-led. So you let them lead, and you become enchanted with their enchantment."
Sara Fenske Bahat, 42, of San Francisco, says both she and her husband have been taking one-on-one trips with their 10-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter for a few years now. They were initially inspired, she says, by a seasoned husband-wife duo who offered them the following advice when they married: "Spend time in every configuration of your family."
"They assured us that every time we changed the configuration——one parent, one kid; both parents, one child; one parent, both kids—we would learn more about each other," Bahat recalls. While she admits that the advice went unheeded for the first five or so years of their parenting lives (See: Aforementioned references to sunburns and airport floor apple slices), it's now an opportunity to let their kids—and themselves—indulge in their favorite pastimes while encouraging some lovely parent-child bonding.
Last year, for instance, Bahat and her politics-minded son flew to Chicago to attend a political conference together. "He's tall enough to ride those rental bikes they have stationed around big cities, and we rode from a downtown museum along the lakefront," she describes. "If my daughter had been there, it would have been a very different trip [because she isn't old enough to have the stamina to do all of that.]"
The duo grabbed Windy City hot dogs, chatted, and shared lots of laughs. At 10, Bahat says, he's in a short-lived age sweet spot "where he can be giggly and carefree, but also engage in and have discussions about more adult themes, like politics. As he enters his pre-teen years, I'm convinced that making that time to listen to and hear him is increasingly important."
All bonding, all the time
Memories are born on any vacation, true. But it's all that time alone that made for some unreal bonding opportunities. Mogel and Malik-Hasbrook point out that you don't need to fly across the country to experience similar one-on-one bonding moments, or to reap the other benefits of traveling solo with one kiddo. "It can just be a bed and breakfast one town over," Mogel notes. Staycations work, too, or even just an afternoon of connection. Malik-Hasbrook calls it "'special playtime," and you can do it daily or weekly, even if it's just 15 minutes. It's time to be present with your child." Her own five-year-old, for instance, loves mommy-son trips to the Dollar Store.
If your other child or children express sadness or jealousy over an upcoming trip with a sibling, Mogel recommends resisting the urge to respond with, "Don't you realize all the things you get to do?" Instead, be empathetic and tell them you're looking forward to your future trips with them when the time comes. Doing so, she says, cements an important lifelong lesson: "Fair is not always equal," which can help them develop their tolerance muscles. Also, drive home the point that the child or children staying at home is essentially getting a one-on-one staycation with the other parent. "The home is a different place" when the other siblings and parent are gone, Mogel says. "He or she can lie in bed with that parent and read at night without an interloper," for example.
For us, our vaycay as a twosome ended up offering unparalleled mommy-daughter bonding, bookended by crazy easy plane rides. Six months later, when she and I snuggle together before lights out, I'm still brought back to those nights we spent sharing the hotel room's double bed. It was there, deliriously and deliciously tired from a long, sweaty day spent screaming on roller coasters, trading Stitch pins with new friends, and cooling off with lemon ice, where I found my own happiest place on earth.