The Truth About Solo Parenting And International Travel With A Toddler

Warning: very long post ahead.

During five and a half weeks of traveling through France and Switzerland with my two-year-old and without my Darling Man, I learned a few hard cold facts about solo traveling with a toddler.

The biggest, most glaringly obvious fact was that a certain degree of planning is required to ensure the parent’s sanity and the toddler’s well-being. Which is a fine fact to learn when you are already a week into the long-planned cycling and camping trip when you discover that you’re all on your own because the French government is a racist pack of heartless bastards.

*Ahem* Back to the topic. Traveling overseas as a solo parent in charge of a toddler.

I think there are two types of people who undertake this type of travel. There are the single parents who have the toddler taming mostly under control and feel confident enough to take their show on the road. And there’s the second group, consisting of the usually coupled-up travelers who set off on an adventure despite being terrified of having sole responsible for a toddler (Nearly typed terrorist there. How Freudian.)

You don’t have to be an expert in quantitative analysis to realise that I fell into the second category. I’d only really looked after Miss M on my own for about four months before I went back to work full-time. (The first nine weeks didn’t really count because I was at my parents’ house.)

So I thought I was quite brave heading off to the Bangkok International Airport with Miss M for a few days in Cairo, a few days in Paris, then a train trip to Provence, where I expected to meet up with the appropriately visa-ed up Darling Man.

But that’s not what happened. (And no, he’s not a gangster. That’s what most people think. There is no chequered past, just a Vietnamese passport.)

And because I am in this terrified-of-toddlers category, I decided not to proceed with our cycling and camping plans. I was a bit bereft and bitter. Plan-less after more than a year of planning and disorganised after so much organising.

So here is the brutal, smelly truth about solo travel with a toddler. Learned as Miss M and I traveled through some of the most beautiful parts of France and Switzerland by train and bus, staying with friends, in a home exchange house and in a tent.

Toilet Training Will Stink More Than Usual. You May Even Retch. Or Worse.

I’m quite squeamish when it comes to being peed on, handling poo and being smeared with food. I hate it. I thought I handled the pees and poos quite well until we started toilet training. And then we started traveling and I met some quite disgusting-smelling toilets. Got up close and personal with them, actually. And I did NOT enjoy it.

During our five weeks in Europe, I squatted beside toilets in trains, planes, boats, parks and seedy cafes. And some of them were in dire need of some toilet duck and a vigorous scrub. I can forgive poor aim on a train, or on a plane if there’s turbulence, but in all other cases – well, what the hell is wrong with people??? At least there was always soap at the wash basin.

People Will Yell At You For Things Beyond Your Control

You’d think the sight of a toddler throwing her guts up in public would elicit some sympathy, wouldn’t you? Not in all cases, sadly.

When Miss M had a coughing fit that escalated into a vomit-athon in the main street of Nyon in Switzerland, an old lady yelled at me in French. She yelled for quite some time with some angry gestures, then went inside a store and yelled some more.

A few moments later, a boy emerged from the shop carrying a one-litre Evian bottle and a roll of paper towels. “She says you must clean,” he said, pointing to the angry lady and then to the vomit on the footpath.

Sheesh. To rub salt into that particular wound, on our way home we walked past a street cleaner that was heading towards the street we’d just cleaned.

You Will Be Subject To Random Acts of Kindness That Will Make You Tear Up

People will offer you help. Whether it’s an offer of a pram, help carrying the pram down a set of stairs, help carry the baby around or an offer of a lift to the supermarket – take it. And then try to pay it forward so you can make someone else’s day.

You Will Have To Forget About Fine Dining

Unless you enjoy eating on the run, prising strong toddler fingers off expensive-looking knickknacks, holding down the entire table setting with one arm (heaven help you if there’s more than one glass!) and being smothered in red wine jus. And red wine. And daubs of mashed potato.

Ignore this point if you have a friend who is willing to eat tag-team with you. And if you have a friend like this, don’t ever ever let them go. Seriously. Take them home and tie them up in your basement. Just remember to let them out to pee every few hours.

However, if you are really lucky, you will get some pretty damn good dining in. Especially if you find a Moules et Frites cart.

If You Don’t Organise Some Babysitting You Will Go Insane. (This Is Actually A Little-Known Law Of Physics. And Psychiatry.)

Before you get on the plane, you should have a list of babysitting options. You should have plans and bookings and backup plans.

Do NOT do what I did and just turn up with a toddler and ask around for babysitters. It’s likely you will simply get a helpless “well, I don’t really know anyone” type of answer. And when you are approaching the end of your tether, you get a kind of pleading desperation in your eyes that make people walk away quite quickly. So there is no time to ask a follow-up question.

So organise some babysitting. Every parent in the world knows that you need a break from a toddler now and again. And not just after they’ve gone to bed and you’re a twitching shambles of a human being.

You Will Survive (Even If You Start Chanting “This Too Shall Pass” Out Loud When You Thought You Were Just Thinking It)

You WILL survive. I did. And I’m planning to go back for more. I’m thinking we should do a girl’s only adventure in Mongolia next.

You Will Have To Relax Some Rules

Too many protest poos in their pants? Revert back to nappies for the duration.

Screaming on the bus? Break your no sweets rule.

Won’t eat? Let them drink milk. (And MAN I should have said that loudly when we were at Versailles!)

Will only eat chips/French fries? Feed them only chips and French fries.

And if someone gives them a lollypop as you walk home for dinner … let them eat it. And let them rub it in their hair.

Unless you want your holiday memories to be screams and temper tantrums (yours) and the smug little face of the toddler that won. I say give in before the fight. Just while you’re on holidays, then go back to proper parenting. (Giving myself an eye-roll here. As if I know what proper parenting is.)

You Will Have To Ask For Help. Probably More Than Once.

And yes, I should follow my own advice. I didn’t try hard enough to find a babysitter because I only asked people once if they could help me.

But, apart from the babysitting issue, I did swallow my pride and ask for help as we traveled around. I asked friends if I could stay with them. I asked them if they’d come with me to tourist attractions they’ve probably already seen 800 times. (Like Versailles.) And once I accepted the fact that I did need a bit of help in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language … asking for help didn’t seem so difficult. And the help was wonderful and it made our travels so much better. (Everybody blow a kiss to JM in Paris RIGHT NOW. He is the world’s best tour guide.)

Your Child May Be More Demanding Than Usual (And Yes, That Is Possible Even Though You Don’t Think So Now.)

As the weeks wore on, and we were hit by cold and flu bugs, Miss M’s need for attention escalated to impossible levels. She wanted attention from me all the time. Even when we were sleeping in the same bed after a day of being together. Every. Single. Minute. We even showered together. But she just wanted more. She wanted to be pressed against me during the night. She wanted to fling one leg over me during the night. She wanted to use me as a pillow. She’d butt her head up against my armpit if I moved and created any space between us. She’d demand milk during the night (after refusing to eat during the day). It was pretty darn annoying when all I wanted to do was get a good night’s sleep so I’d be fresh for the next day of exploring.

One of the the weirdest things about this is that she’s such a confident little girl. During the day she was perky, happy and outgoing. During the night she was 90 centimetres of evil tyrant.

Your Child Will Be More Inappropriate Than Usual

Closely related to the above point. Your child will act up in public, even if they’ve never really been an acting up child before.

And the acting up will occur in a posh shop in one of the poshest suburbs of Paris. Of course. When you’re already drawing attention to yourself for wearing sneakers instead of stilettos.

You Will Spend More Time At The Playground Than You Thought Was Possible

Yes, you will be in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, with all kinds of adult-y types of entertainment nearby. Whether it’s museums, art galleries, funky bars, beaches or bare-chested workmen, it will all be just out of reach until your little one has had 600 gos on the roundabout and 18 hours on the swings. And then another turn on the roundabout. And a fight with another kid over who owns the bicycle the other kid rode in on.

And then… just when you think you’ve reached the right balance between enough and too much stimulation, you’ll pick them up, tell them you’re going to the museum/art gallery/funky bar/beach/work site and they will start crying. And then you know they need a nap and you won’t get your adult-y entertainment today.

You Will Seek Out McDonalds Instead Of Delicious Local Food. Just To Get Five Minutes Of Peace.

This one doesn’t really need explaining.

Although if you’re in France and you see a Moules et Frites (mussels and chips) cart, see if you can tempt your toddler with authentic French French fries.

Even Though A Happy Meal Costs The Equivalent Of US$25, You Will Order One

You will do this for the four seconds of peace the food will bring. And the bonus four seconds of peace the toy will bring. You will pay $25 for eight seconds of peace even though you know the toy will break or get lost at the nine second mark. Because sometimes you just need some peace. And a bit of a sit down.

Your Child Will Ask To Go Home Repeatedly During The Best Travel Experience Ever. (And When You Get Home That Child Will Ask To Go Back To Where Ever It Was You Just Came From.)

Prepare for it and deal with it. Because toddlers are not logical and the world is not fair. (If ONLY we could go back to France for another few weeks.)

You Will Reach The End Of Your Tether. And Then Find There’s An Extra Bit Of Tether You Didn’t Know About.

Trust me on this. I always thought you reached the end of your tether and disappeared in a puff of inky black smoke and a scream of rage. You don’t. You just kind of dry your tears, blow your nose, wash your face with cold water and keep going. And say something reassuring like “Yes, Mummy berry happy”.

You Will Need To Be Patient With More People Than You Expected Because It Won’t Just Be Your Toddler Who Is Difficult

The old lady who yelled at me for being in charge of a vomiting toddler is a case in point.

You will have to be patient with people who give your picky-eater toddler chocolate or sweets just before meal times. You will have to be patient with shop assistants who give your child something expensive to play with when you’ve only popped your head in the shop to ask directions. You will have to be patient with Europeans who shut their shops at lunchtime.

You Could Get Sick. Plan For It, Then Do A Happy Dance If You Don’t Get Sick.

Getting sick in a foreign country is horrible. And it’s even crappier when you are trying to look after a sick toddler. And even crappier than the sick toddler is the sick toddler who recovers before you do or the active vigorous bursting-with-health toddler who doesn’t get sick at all. Because you are on your own and toddlers don’t understand groans of “pleeeeeeeaaaaaaaase just let Mummy sleep for 10 minutes?”

So, plan for sickness. Take a full medical kit and don’t forget the Baby Panadol/Tylenol. Especially if you’ve discovered Baby Panadol puts your little one to sleep. (Shhhh, don’t tell the parenting police.) Try to have someone on Skype-standby to deal with tearful middle-of-the-night tears (yours). Tell your person they may need to go through their full lullaby and nursery rhyme repertoire a few times in the middle of the night (their time) if you need a break. And then maybe you can get that nap you need. Maybe. But don’t count on it.

Demand some sympathy from your person because sometimes sympathy works better than a nap for making you feel better. If it comes from the right source.

Your Demanding Misbehaved Terror Of A Toddler Will Still Look Like An Angel When Sleeping.

But you already know this if you have a toddler. They are always super-cute and angelic when they sleep. Take four seconds to enjoy the cuteness … then go do something for you, whether it’s sleep, drink wine or stalk your high school crush online.

The Nights Are Lonely

Single parents reading this will either be nodding in agreement at this one, or angrily shouting YOU DON’T SAY or even GET STUFFED YOU PATRONISING JELLYBEAN.
But this piece of advice is really aimed at non-single parents who are contemplating solo parent travel. Especially travel in a country where you can’t understand what’s on TV.

Your Child Will Sleep. Maybe Just Not When Or Where It’s Convenient

No further explanation required.

You Will Have The Most Amazing Time

Believe me. In spite of all the challenges, you will have fun with your sweet baby as you have adventures and explore new parts of the world. You will create some wonderful memories, you will bond and you will have stories to share for the rest of your lives. And maybe, like me, you will end up feeling more confident as a parent.

This post is part of a Family Friday blog hop organised by SixSuitcaseTravel. Follow the hop to discover more great family travel writers!

Family Travel Friday

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7 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Currently on a year-long World School adventure with my two kids, seeing what this wonderful world can teach us.

13 Comments

  1. Tiphanya says:

    While reading you I was thinking “I have to cancel” and then “thank god mine doesn’t walk yet”.
    I’m still a bit afraid of my coming trip, even if it’s only for 2 weeks. But more than ever (and your conclusion help me to keep saying it) I want to do it. Now. Even if she’ll remember it only thanks to the pictures. Even if we’ll travel again next year, and the year following and the year following…
    But maybe I should ask my boyfriend to plan 2 days off when we’ll come back, to sleep as much as I want as soon as we’ll arrive home.

    • Barbara says:

      Oh, Tiphanya, I’m glad you didn’t decide to cancel because of me. I think you’re going to have a great time. And getting your BF to give you two days to sleep sounds like a FABULOUS idea. Do it!

      And happy travels.

  2. Thank you for joining our Family Travel Friday. Traveling alone with the first one is a full learning experience! What works, what doesn’t work, etc. Then when you have the second you think you’re already only to realize that their personality is totally different and what worked for the first one doesn’t work for them!

    Wishing you more great travels with your little one, alone and with your Darling Man.

  3. Leigh says:

    Even though I’m longgggg past the toddler stage I can appreciate and relate to so much of what you said. My kids were bad sleepers in strange beds – any bed really – so the thought of actually being remotely awake and being able to enjoy foreign would seem like a blessing.
    Loved your article, my hat goes off to you for even attempting these travels and I totally agree with paying it forward. Good luck as you continue your travels.
    Leigh recently posted..Photos from Heil Valley Ranch near Boulder, Colorado

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks Leigh. Some days it’s just nice to know that it’s possible for a parent to survive having a toddler. Other days are just wonderful. And I am so lucky my little one sleeps anywhere. I just wish she’d sleep on demand!

  4. Allison says:

    It takes a lot of courage to travel with a toddler, especially alone. However, parenting is difficult and disgusting sometimes, even at home, so families who love to travel keep doing so, despite the challenges. It’s worth it for us, and I’m glad this extraordinary trip was worth it for you.
    Allison recently posted..Favorite Photo: Idaho Potato Museum

    • Barbara says:

      Yes, you certainly don’t leave the difficult and disgusting behind when you take a toddler traveling! It was worth all the yukky bits though. We had such a wonderful time.

  5. Revathy says:

    Enjoying your blog. 🙂
    I can totally relate! My daughter is 2 and a half now and we travel a lot. The first time was a little hairy, but now I can’t think of going anywhere without her.
    Can’t get over the old lady who expected you to clean up after your daughter in Switzerland. I think travelling in Asia is much easier with a child because the people are so supportive. Even though I am Indian, I find Vietnam to be one of the most child-friendly places.

  6. […] Kirstie Pelling is co-founder of The Family Adventure Project, a blog and website inspiring families to get out and about, to adventure and have fun together. This summer they’re doing Iceland. You can find them on twitter at @FamilyonaBIke and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FamilyAdventureProject. Relax the rules a bit while you’re traveling so that YOU can relax a bit. You can go back to set bedtimes, set wakeup times and eating five different coloured vegetables a day when you get back home. And treats while traveling are important. When I was a kid, my parents asked us to choose our treat of the day. Sometimes it was an ice cream, sometimes it was a mango, sometimes it was going for an early morning walk with dad. Those little treats are now wonderful memories.Specific tips on solo parent travel with a toddler here: http://www.thedropoutdiaries.com/2012/06/the-truth-about-solo-parenting-and-international-travel-wit…/. […]

  7. I travelled with my little guy for the first time when he was 20 months old. We headed to Hong Kong and China for a last minute business trip I had to take. It was interesting, but empowering too. I could do this! A few weeks after I returned I left my job to go freelance and be a full-time mom at home. Oh how much harder that was!
    Now we are off on a 5 week adventure in Europe. Except that 20 month old is now 3. A horribly, temper tantrum throwing 3 years old! It gets worse before it gets better. And I hear it gets better at 4 years old. On top of that I’ll have his 5 month old brother with me. We will be traveling in Switzerland and Italy for 2.5 weeks before my hubby joins us at our friend’s house.
    I pray that I have a sense of humor when this is all done. I know it’s worth it. Its hard being a mom no matter where you are, but I am well aware of the challenges that are ahead (and oh boy am I with you on just letting them drink their weight in milk!).
    Thanks for the play by play on what I have to expect (gross toilets included!) and the hope that it will be worth it in the end.
    Keryn @ walkingon travels recently posted..Overwhelm Your Ocular Senses at Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco in Portland

    • Barbara says:

      Oh, my, the tantrums. We’re starting to get a few of those. They’re just awful, aren’t they?

      I think you’ll have a sense of humour at the end of it. You’re going to have a fantastic five weeks. Your little one is portable and your big one will see so many interesting things. It will be fun to watch him!

      And Europeans are very friendly – I have no idea why they have a reputation as being snooty. I can’t wait to hear the stories of your trip.

  8. April says:

    Traveling abroad with a toddler must be a challenge. I am already imagining myself brining my kid next month to be with my husband in Florida. I am excited but a bit nervous. Thanks to this, I have an idea on how to make it convenient for the two of us.

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