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Quick thought exercise: Imagine a Scattergories game with the list topic “romantic trip with partner.” I’m quite certain that no one in the history of the world has ever written “wrangling screaming children on airplanes,” “copious amounts of chicken fingers,” or “being asked every five minutes, ‘Are we there yet?'” This tiny sample of the realities of hitting the road with young kids points to why romance and family travel typically make incompatible bedfellows.
But I’m here to argue the opposite — it really all depends on how you define “romance.” If you’re limiting the concept to quiet candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach, then I am out of luck for at least the next decade. (My kids are currently five and just shy of three.) But — stay with me, people — I no longer believe it’s axiomatic that family plus travel equals no romance.
After a recent string of family trips to Turks and Caicos, Wyoming, and Miami, I’m now convinced that we need to rethink what romance looks like when travel suddenly means having to attend to the needs of small humans. To be sure, I haven’t always seen the glimmers of romance in family travel. While my husband and I have traveled to different continents with our kids, I used to think of it as parenting, but with different scenery.
Travel, though, is my love language, (and also one of my beats as a writer), so the fact that my husband, Andrew, is willing to go along with my idea to take a 12-hour journey to a remote part of Wyoming (it’s worth it for Brush Creek Ranch) is, in my book, a grand romantic gesture. Another grand romantic gesture: Switch airports, from JFK to Newark, in the depths of COVID-19 restrictions, with two toddlers in tow, so we could try and salvage a seriously frayed planned trip to Anguilla. (We had no such luck.)
What’s romance if not the feeling of accomplishment — and yes, exhaustion — that comes from arriving at your destination after having weathered meltdowns, endless security and border control lines, or extreme snowstorms that added four hours of driving to our Wyoming trip? Romance is the feeling of “we are in this together.” Our family trips often remind me that Andrew and I are the same way when it comes to travel perseverance. (Many of our loved ones find this absurd, and they aren’t wrong.)
I also take solace in the fact that if Andrew and I are still speaking to each other after a day that involved multiple COVID-19 tests for two toddlers, 14 hours of travel, bumpy boat rides, tantrums for the entire duration of a four-hour flight, and deplaning post-journey soaked in pee, then the spark is still there. Right?
Overall, though, these trips have brought us closer as a couple. While that might sound counterintuitive given what I just described, those nightmarish ordeals are fleeting moments. The big picture is that traveling has made us feel connected to our life before kids, which involved a lot of globe-trotting. Parenting can be become an all-consuming identity. For us, travel helps break a certain monotony that is endemic to raising young children who thrive on routine.
There’s a reason people suggest a change of scenery to spruce up a relationship or spice up life: because it works. I promise that you will be more positively disposed to your partner and entire family if you are staying in an oceanfront suite at The Shore Club in Turks and Caicos or Acqualina in Miami’s Sunny Isles Beach, both of which have accommodations tailored for families. And you want to know what is decidedly not romantic? Cleaning up after your children at home. What’s slightly more romantic? Cleaning up after your children while looking at crystalline waters or snowy mountain vistas — and counting the minutes until turndown service.
At its core, travel is about seeking different and varied experiences. This jives with a whole body of research that found couples who try new things are happier together. The memories from these family trips, while hardly perfect in the Instagram sense, remind me that life, even in the thick of toddler parenting, still has novelty, fun, and excitement. Recently, we reminisced about how our 2.5-year-old son had a 10-minute “conversation” with an iguana on the aptly named Iguana Island in Turks and Caicos (part of a kid-centric trip excursion arranged by The Shore Club), or how our daughter danced for more than an hour to the live band that was playing at the Cheyenne Club in Saratoga, Wyoming.
One thing about having young kids is that it’s hard to be spontaneous — everything takes a certain degree of planning, usually around sleeping and eating schedules. When we made a very last-minute plan to go to Miami and checked into the Acqualina resort at 8 p.m., I felt less irritated with Andrew than I had on the plane. It hit me that we had pulled off this small act of spontaneity. We were actually in Miami. We got to the hotel and ordered pizza. We all hovered around the table eating it in our pajamas. If that isn’t romance, I don’t know what is.
My overall epiphany is that romance happens in these very unexpected ways when you travel with kids. For example, romance is when the chicken fingers arrive at lightning speed, as they did one night at dinner at Il Mulino in Miami, allowing us to have some approximation of an adult dinner. To find these sparks of romance in family travel, your love language suddenly becomes dropping off your kids for the evening, as we did recently at The Shore Club where they set up dinner and movie for the children. Romance is when the kids’ club at Acqualina can keep your child entertained with inventive arts and crafts for an entire morning. It’s when you leave for 50 minutes of bliss called the “Stress Relief Back Massage,” a.k.a. what every person whose 35-pound toddler still wants to be carried at all times needs. (Presumably this is not the sole demographic for this new treatment at Acqualina’s spa.) At Brush Creek Ranch, the love language was the staff at the activities barn offering to take the kids sledding.
In short, it’s amazing how far toward bliss a beautiful new location and fun novel activity can take you — not to mention good service and a clean room — even with slobbering and bawling toddlers in tow. And when all else fails, remember that reminiscing about surviving a category 5 tantrum in a faraway locale can still bring a parent couple together — even if didn’t in the moment — because it’s worth a laugh and memory after arriving back home.