Flying the Coop: A Few Thoughts on Leaving the Kids at Home

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photo: Blair Beakley

By the time you read this, I’ll be 5,000 feet down in the Grand Canyon, rafting the Colorado River from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch. My husband and I have been dying to do this trip for years, but it was only in the last month that the stars aligned and a couple of spots opened up on a commercial dory trip with O.A.R.S. and my mom agreed to babysit our daughters. I’m a big believer in serendipity—listen up, it’s trying to tell you something. In this case, leave the kids at home and reacquaint yourself with the person you were before they were born, the one who had seemingly unlimited time and zero conflicting loyalties, a bottomless supply of travel funds with which to finance spontaneous junkets to the farthest, most exotic ends of the earth, and no fear whatsoever of dying in freak ways or getting malaria. Yeah, right. 

It’s easy—but maybe not all that productive—to idealize who we were before our offspring crashed the party. We may have had a longer leash, with less at stake, but we also didn’t feel the sweet, irresistible pull of home and pudgy fingers clinging to our leg while we’re trying to fry an egg or get out the door for a trail run. Parenthood may be the biggest adventure of all, but we still need to shake loose its talon grips and get gone. On our own, for adventure as we used to know it: a three-hour mountain bike ride, a long weekend reliving your dirt bag climbing days in Yosemite, or a week’s surf safari in Costa Rica. Because no matter how dedicated you are to raising intrepid outdoor kids, sometimes you need to leave them at home to do it.

This begs the question: Do you have to be a ripper to raise a ripper? Thankfully, no. But it helps to be sane and grounded, with a healthy perspective, and your own interests and goals, and if that’s best achieved by going out and letting your formerly-awesome-but-now-maybe-merely-OK adventure self rip from time to time, without having to tote along a backbreaking supply of diapers, wipes, battery-operated white noise/miracle-napping machines or worry about whose feet are cold or whose stomachs are grumbly, then by all means, go.

Arguably, doing so make you a better parent. “Everyday is an adventure when you’re a kid, but we’ve forgotten what that feels like by the time we’re adults,” says Mark Jenkins, an incurable explorer and father of two who traveled incessantly when his girls were young (and wrote about it here). “Getting out on your own trips helps you understand what your kids lives are like.”

Plus, it helps you set a good example. “Don’t be annoyed that your kids don’t do what you say,” says Kate Reynolds, a family counselor who teaches mindful parenting classes at the Santa Fe Center for Mindfulness. “Be worried that they will do what you do.” In other words, modeling the behavior we hope to see in our kids is the best way to bring that behavior into fruition. If you want them to love to ski, then ski. And not just with them, but on your own, with your friends. Letting them see that it’s important to you increases the odds that it’ll become important to them. 

“I hate parents who push their kids,” says Peter Sturges, owner of Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School and father to 20-year-old pro kayaker and award-winning adventure filmmaker Rush Sturges. “It’s clear that it’s really all about them.” Sturges has the cred to back up his tough talk: When Rush was 10 and didn’t want to go to Otter Bar’s kids’ kayak camp (which Peter had designed around Rush), Peter said, “OK, you don’t have to.” But then a couple of instructors showed up and asked Rush to help them carry boats to the river and, says Peter, “the rest is history.”

Maybe this is all an elaborate justification for the fact that in two days, I’ll be leaving my three-year-old and 14-month old daughters behind while Steve and I go off on an adventure of a lifetime. Packing my gear, I feel that old delicious buzzing anticipation I used to get before a big trip, but this time it’s tinged with other emotions, too: guilt, sadness, doubt, and a little bit of irrational 4 A.M. anxiety thrown in for good measure. What happens if I get appendicitis in the Canyon? Is that a chicken pox on Pippa’s chin? Am I going to get Listeria from that cantaloupe I ate the other day? Are we selfish to leave? 

As adventures go, this isn’t exactly an extended, dangerous, or far-flung expedition. The Grand Canyon’s practically in the same time zone, and we’re going with guides, who’ll row us downriver for a change and carry sat phones in the unlikely event of emergency. But what I’m starting to figure out that even when we leave our kids safely at home, our sense of parental responsibility comes with us. It’s nice to think our tolerance for risk increases without little ones in tow, but the reality is, not so much.

A few years ago, before my daughters were born, I went to Iceland on a work trip with other journalists. One day, we rode bikes from one part of the island to another. It was a long, windy ride on a busy road, and there was quite a lot of traffic. One woman, who had two young children, confessed along the way that these sorts of activities stressed her out, now that she had kids. “Hmm, that’s . . .  interesting,” I said, when I what I really meant was weird, or wussy

But now I get it. Kids change everything. We’re not the same adventurers we used to be, and leaving is isn't so simple anymore: Sometimes you’re desperate to go but impatient to get home. Other trips, it’s gut-wrenching to say goodbye and disorienting to return: I’ve just been cat-skiing fresh powder for five days in British Columbia, doing yoga, and eating gourmet meals—what do you mean I have to come back and be a mother? But we go because we want to and we need to, because adventure makes us more mindful of this wild life we live, and with any luck a little bit of that awe and gratitude will rub off on the kids, and home feels a little bit better, and richer, for having been gone.

Five Tips for Making Leaving Easie

1. Get a good babysitter. 

2. Plan shorter, faster, more efficient trips. Climb Kili in seven days, not nine, and skip the safari on the way home. Save leisurely travel for beach vacation with the kids (an oxymoron?). 

3.  Don’t tell them you're going too far in advance. With young ones, a few days out is plenty of warning. “Little kids don’t have a great sense of time,” says Jenkins. “When you do tell them, explain why it’s so important that you go. Talk about play—kids can understand that.”

4. Don’t worry so much—your kids are going to be fine without you. “It’s one of the modern myths that we should be with them all the time,” says Jenkins. “Kids need to be around other people; it’s mentally healthier for it.”

5. When you do worry, because you will, don’t worry about worrying. “I’m not saying it’s not emotionally stressful,” says Jenkins. “It is.” Accept that it's part of the deal; then get going. 

—Katie Arnold



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