As Boston-based writers covering fashion, travel, and food, Mike and Alex had no intention of changing their jet-setting lifestyle once they had kids. But they did have to learn they had new limits, as a recent trip abroad proved. Read on to hear how they make cultural awareness an initiative -- at home and while traveling the globe.
Alexandra Hall and Mike Blanding, both 30-something.
Meet the kids:
Cleo, 18 monthsWhat they do:
Both writers, Alex jokes that Mike writes about people saving the world while she covers the handbags they carry. Mike is a freelance writer and author, currently working on a book about globalization and corporations, while Alex is the niche publications editor at The Boston Globe, where she edits and launches new projects like BoMoms.com, a Web site for local moms, and Fashion Boston, a high-end fashion magazine. "It's nice that we're both in the same field because we can talk about how a story is progressing, our frustrations with a source, or writing a lede. And we know what the other is really going through," Alex says.
How they met:
As editors at Boston Magazine, they worked about five feet away from each other. "We fell in love there and kept it quiet for three months before we started a whispering campaign, telling selective people who we knew would tell everyone else. We also told our boss and he was cool with it," Alex says.
"We worked together for three years, and got married our last year there. Then we both left the magazine. I have to say that it's nice not to work with each other now. We can come home and actually say 'How was your day?'"
Jamaica Plain (known as JP) is a diverse, bohemian area of Boston. Near Jamaica Pond, the houses are largely made up of roomy old Victorians that have been converted into two or three family condos.
"It's one of the most racially and culturally diverse areas of Boston, where people of different cultures actually go to the same restaurants," says Alex. "It's important for us that our kids aren't just growing up around people who look like them.
"Our house is a Victorian gingerbread -- it's an adorable, converted, renovated three-family condo. We have a great yard with garden space (Mike does the veggies, I do the flowers and herbs), a big hammock, a slide for the kids, and plenty of space to run around. We're quickly growing out of the house though (it's just two bedrooms). And when we finally do have to move, we'll really miss it."
Their adventurous spirits are reflected in their home decor. Rich colors and eclectic souvenirs from their trips cover the walls and floor. "A lot of the decor is from travels we have taken individually, before we started traveling together. So then when we started creating a house together, we wanted to build on that theme. It makes us feel at home in the world," explains Mike. "It's great to look around the room and know the story behind each piece. I can sit on the floor and play Thomas the Tank Engine with Zach, while seeing pieces of art that I bought in the Yucatan."
Although Mike and Alex have been to temples in Cambodia and Thailand, the Buddha in the corner hails from Provincetown, Massachusetts, a purchase they made to celebrate their first year of dating. "We were there having our last brunch before getting on the ferry back to Boston and I went for a walk to find a gift for Alex. I found the Buddha and maybe it was a result of too many Bloody Marys but we bought it and carried it through town with us -- and onto the ferry. We were heckled the whole way. We even had policemen bowing to us. It was really funny and such a great memory."
How do the kids feel about the worldly decor? Well, Zach has climbed up on the Buddha's lap a few times, one of his first words was "Buddha," and he loves looking for Buddhas when the family visits the Museum of Fine Arts. Cleo's favorite item is the wooden elephant and she loves to make her elephant sound (which Mike describes as pretty much just a raspberry noise) when she sees it.
"They are so used to seeing them, they almost don't notice," Mike says of the kids' reaction to the quirky artifacts. "I was reading a book about safaris to Zach once and asked him 'Do you see any zebras or giraffes in this room?' And he looked all around and didn't see the wooden heads (bought in South Africa on Alex and Mike's honeymoon) on the wall. Then he got really excited when I pointed them out."
"The decoration of Zach and Cleo's room was really all me" says Alex, who needed a gender neutral theme since they were going to share. "Since we went on an African safari for our honeymoon, a safari seemed an appropriate theme. And they both love it. We spend hours talking about the different animals, what sounds they make, what they like to do, where they live, and what they like to eat."
Cleo was part of a nanny share, which meant that a nanny came to their house every morning by 8:45 and watched Cleo along with another family's baby, and the families split the cost ($15 an hour). Sometimes the routine was easy, sometimes not so.
"There are days when, as my husband puts it, being a parent of a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old is very much like someone flicking you on the forehead over and over, and over and over, and over and over again. And you aren't allowed to get mad and yell, or even be annoyed. Because they're not necessarily doing it on purpose. But that doesn't matter, because the effect on your psyche is the same: exhaustion, self-pity, and the feeling of having been sorely victimized.
And here's the worst part: Just when you think you're at your wits' end, your torturer wins you over by saying something funny, loving, or adorable."
Now, Cleo and Zach go to a neighborhood Montessori only four blocks away -- each kid costs $1,200 a month. "I went to Montessori so I really wanted to look for one for them. They really teach kids to love learning," Alex says.
Although Alex says the admission process at this school is low key compared to other areas of Boston, Zach and Cleo still had to interview for spots. But "if they like your kid and you're not a psychopath, you're pretty much put on the wait list."
Part of the Montessori ideology is teaching kids to take care of the Earth. "They teach self-discipline, self-respect, and respect for others," says Alex.
As part of the garden program, the kids plant flowers and then tend to them. They also learn to be respectful of critters great and small. "They're toddlers and want to smack things like ants around. But the school teaches them to imagine they were an ant, so they have respect for the ants and leave them alone."
"When we first started dating," says Alex, "we would write about travel a lot together. We fell in love traveling together. So once we got married and started a family, there was this stigma that we would need to stay home. But we felt that these trips were keeping us human. It's what we love to do and we would really, really miss them if we gave them up. So instead, we found ways to take the kids with us.
"At first it was easy because we only had Zach and he was such a mellow baby. But once we had Cleo and started testing the boundaries of where we could go as a family, we started to realize our limitations.
"Here we are in the London Victoria Railway Station. This was one of our first trips as a foursome and we were heading to a friend's wedding in the countryside. I was beyond exhausted, because Cleo had been screaming until 4 a.m. the night before, and we had to catch an early train. We almost didn't make the wedding."
"We recently came back from a trip to Paris and Morocco. We chose Paris because it's one of our favorite cities and we felt it was very kid-friendly. And Morocco was a place that Mike and I have always wanted to go, so we went for it," says Alex.
"We stopped in Paris first because it was an easy flight from Boston and we could adjust to the time change for two days and then move on. It's a city built for kids. They ate crepes 24 hours a day. Zach loved the Musee d'Orsay which is an art museum inside an abandoned train station. And I know that something inside Cleo will remember the carousel."
"I loved that we were just kicking back on a street in Paris against the Seine and a melting sunset. It was ethereal. But there were, of course, things we couldn't do with the kids -- no late, late nights at wine bars around the Bastille (which my husband and I certainly did last time we were there, pre-kids), and no big shopping trips (I can barely even get dressed in the hotel room with them running around, let alone try on clothes in a dressing room). But we did hire a sitter twice, and had a dinner date in the hotel restaurants -- once at the Plaza Athenee and once at the Park Hyatt. The restaurants at both were incredible, utterly romantic, and made us feel like we were still a couple -- as well as parents."
"Once we hit Morocco, that's when the limitations came in," says Alex. "Hotel features that are cool when you don't have kids become death traps with them. There was a plunge pool that wasn't protected, prickly cactuses along the walkways..." even hagglers wrapping Zach in a snake -- yikes! "It just made everything harder."
The marketplace in Morocco was a picture pit stop for this family. "If it was just Alex and me traveling, we would have looked at this marketplace as a touristy spot, and probably avoided it, but we knew that the kids would get a kick out of it, and that it would be worthy of a few pictures," says Mike. "I really wanted Zach to experience live animals too. With the snake, he was fascinated, but digging into me at the same time. It was fast enough for a picture and then it was gone."
"Zach loved the idea of the camels," says Alex, "but once he was around them, he was a little squeamish. Then Mike got him up on top of one, and he was hooked. To this day, he still talks about the ride he had.
"I think Zach's most vivid memory from the trip was the plunge pool at the riad where we stayed. He loved swimming in it, and meeting new friends around it. That's the thing that his trips with us really bring to him -- a sense of new people and new places, and new smells and new things to look at. Kids his age just love stimulation so much, and being able to engage his senses in so many new ways is something he still talks about -- the monkeys he touched, the lamb tagine he ate, the sand at the beach in Essaouira -- and that I think will stay with him for a long time."
"You think that he's forgotten about these trips because he's so young," Mike adds. "But we'll be in the car on a weekend road trip and pass a radio tower and he'll say 'Is that the Eiffel Tower? Are we in Paris?' and we'll know that our trips together had more of an impact than we thought."
"There's no 'pick up and go' with two toddlers, because everything still revolves around naptime. So here is an example of us going to the local marketplace knowing Cleo might fall asleep, but also knowing that there may be no other time we could see it that day given our schedule. So we went anyway, and the monkey handlers in the square all crowded around us to try and get us to pay them something to pet the monkeys, and before I knew it, our snoozing daughter had several primate visitors."
"One day we went to Essaouira, a beach town on the east coast of Morocco," says Alex. "We really, really needed a day to chill. It was actually one of my favorite parts of the trip -- easy, the kids loved it, and my husband and I finally got a day to relax ourselves.
"We loved this trip, but when Mike and I came home, we felt like we needed our own vacation. We've definitely realized that there are places we can take them, and places we should just go to alone."
"It was an adventure, it wasn't a vacation," Mike adds. "The sheer carting them around on planes and cars is so exhausting. There are some really wonderful memories, but there were also some logistical nightmares.
"I have a fantasy of how we'd travel differently in the future," he says. "Maybe rent a small house and create a home base of operations -- and then take day trips. It's really fun to expose them to all sorts of cultures and sights. I know they might not remember everything now, but I can just imagine looking through these pictures with them one day and getting to reminisce about it."
While travel is amazing, there's still nothing like being at home on Jamaica Pond where Zach and Cleo can race around feeding the ducks while other visitors rent rowboats and small sailboats or fish for trout.
"It's a very popular trip in our house. We may go once a month or more when the weather is nice. It still can be a bit of an expedition. A walk around the pond takes 20 minutes without kids, but an hour with them," Mike says.
"When Cleo first came home," says Alex, "Zach really didn't understand that she wasn't just a doll. And because I spent so much time nursing her, he went through a phase where he had to separate from me by focusing all (and I mean ALL) his attention on his dad. That was incredibly hard for me, because while I loved my time with Cleo, I had to watch my darling boy act as if I didn't exist anymore. It was awful. But slowly, I worked my way back into his life, and now we're as close as before.
"Now he's really starting to see her as a playmate. They can actually play together for up to 15 minutes at a time without fighting, and the other night, we actually heard them laughing together in the other room. My husband and I just looked at each other with pure, unadulterated joy, realizing that somewhere in our future, it really would be like this."
Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation.