When I tell people how much I’ve traveled with my mom (300,000+ miles so far—and counting!), I usually hear a shocked response along the lines of “How could you spend that much time with your mom?” Even people who get along great with their parents are often aghast at the thought of traveling with them.
Now I won’t kid you: traveling with Mom can be hard. After all, she’s still my mother—and she still knows how to push my buttons (and I know how to push hers)! That said, Mom and I both love to travel, and outside of a few momentary conflicts, we truly enjoy each other’s company.
1. Let go of your hot buttons.
When traveling with a parent, you’ll spend a lot of time in close quarters together, and aspects of their personalities (and your own) can burst forth. We all have hot buttons, and because of our shared history family members are the ones who best know how to push them (both intentionally and unintentionally).
When your buttons are pushed, resist the urge to fight. Just let it go—let go of being right, of having the last word, of proving how smart you are. After all, we’re adults now, and part of being a grown up is letting go. (Right?) So count to ten quietly to yourself, leave the room, or just close your eyes and take a deep breath. The more you practice these self-calming techniques, the better off you’ll be when you really need them.
2. Understand that your role has changed—and is still changing.
As your parents age and need more assistance, you start to shift away from your usual role as the child in this relationship. The effect on your psyche can be not only profound but surreal, and is further compounded when a parent strongly resists this shift. (I’ve experienced this myself: Mom doesn’t want to be treated like a child, yet I’m slowly taking charge of the things she and Dad used to handle.)
It’s a careful balancing act: adopting the decision-making role while not actually assuming the parent role. Be careful not to treat your parents like children. They deserve your respect for their parenthood status, and treating them any differently (even if you’re making all the decisions) is a recipe for disaster.
3. Recognize that you will ALWAYS be the child.
Although I’m now 47, when I visit Mom in Indiana she still asks the same questions that annoyed me when I was younger and living at home: “What time will you be home?” and “Can you call me if you’ll be late?” and “Why do you choose that particular lipstick?” No matter how old I am or how our roles shift, I will always be Mom’s little girl.
I can’t make her stop thinking like my mom, but I can change how I react to those questions. The issue here isn’t one of her needing to trust me as an adult; rather, it’s about me letting go of the emotional baggage that defines the parent-child relationship. So instead of being angry when Mom reminds me to “be careful” (aren’t I always?), I try to remember to celebrate the fact that she still cares.
4. Bring along a healthy dose of patience and humor.
The key here is to remember that on a trip your parents are out of their element and might need some extra time (and patience from you!) to handle all these temporary changes in their lives.
For example, when I travel with Mom everything needs to s-s-l-l-o-o-w-w down. We start our day later, we take more breaks, and we stick to regular meal times (critical to maintaining Mom’s pill schedule). I’ve come to realize that this pace benefits me, too: exploring tourist sites on a more relaxed schedule lets me better appreciate what I’m seeing!
I’ve also noticed that as Mom has aged, she’s become less tolerant of cultural differences (a characteristic that makes me a bit anxious when we travel). As someone who lives alone, she’s also used to extreme quiet. Throw in my brother’s twin 26-month-old girls, toys that constantly make noise (thank you, Thomas the Train), and Baby-TV (the Chinese version of Cartoon Network), and my mom is ready to jump out the window. Making light of these situations helps keep Mom calm and having a good time—while also preventing me from going over the edge!
5. Relax and smell the flowers (and plan activities on your own).
Remember, you’re on vacation. The goal—for both you and your parent—is to relax and get away from your regular routines. Before you start your trip, do some research and identify activities that you and your parent can do together as well as activities you can each do on your own. Being in contact 24/7 while on vacation can tax even the best of relationships. So give each other a bit of space and some time alone. Take a walk by yourself, get up early and enjoy a solo breakfast, spend some time in a local gym—find activities that you and your parent can enjoy separately. This time apart can help make the time you’re together that much more special.
6. Understand that your parents’ input matters.
I treat my solo vacation time as an opportunity to be completely self-absorbed and do only what I want to do (clearly, I’m single and have no children). When I travel with other people, I have to shift my expectations to include their input as well. And when I travel with Mom, I have to adjust my outlook even more.
When I’m traveling with friends, I’m fine with them chiming in on where to eat and what we do throughout the day. Interestingly, I don’t always give the same respect to Mom’s input. At times, for example, I feel like she’s imposing, and I think, “We should just do what I want to do.” When those feelings arise, I have to remind myself that vacation with Mom is not just about me; instead, it’s something we’re sharing together. I owe it to her to ensure that she’s comfortable and happy when we’re traveling together—and that I’m not suffocating her into submission. Her input matters. If it doesn’t, then I shouldn’t take her on vacation with me at all.
So when you travel with parents, ask them what they want to do and then incorporate their ideas into that day’s plan. Valuing their contributions is another way to show your love for them.
These days, I prefer to travel light so I can avoid those annoying fees for checked luggage. If airlines could figure out a way to check my emotional baggage, though, I’d happily pay for that convenience! Until then we all have to learn how to handle our emotional baggage ourselves. It’s not as difficult as it seems, though. Just pause, take a deep breath, and remind yourself how lucky you are to be going on a trip with your parent.
Now get out there and make those vacation plans!