The Opposite of Parent is… Tourist?

Over the past couple of months, DH and I have been hanging out more often than usual with some couples who do not have kids. For many, it’s a choice; for a few, unfortunately not. What’s curious is that all of them have said how not having kids enables them to travel, along the lines of  “Since we don’t have kids, we can travel as much as we like.”

Sure; kids, especially little ones, make travel difficult, but certainly not impossible. But why is being able to travel presumably undeterred so important anyway, why is it such a big deal?

To me, in the most abstract terms, having kids is really a long-term project with a potential to result in great personal fulfillment. I remember a while ago discussing a study with a friend, where the study conclusion was that humans in general draw considerable satisfaction from personally meaningful long-term projects (although, I assume, the conclusion probably only holds on average, the same as with just about anything in regards to people).  I could certainly imagine devoting yourself to your career,working on the next great  American novel, or doing whatever it takes to become the world’s best viola player as an alternative to having kids. One of my friends trains obsessively for Iron Man competitions. Or I could see deciding to do something like joining the Peace Corps, Doctors/Engineers without Borders,  the Red Cross or UNICEF, or perhaps becoming politically active in order to affect change.

But when people talk about travel, they don’t talk about going to live in China to learn Mandarin or to Africa to help the poor, they talk about being able to take frequent vacations in varied exotic places. I can see how that might be fun, but that’s just what it is — it’s just fun and it’s vacationing, but it’s not very creative or very meaningful (near as I can tell) and it’s certainly transient. Sure, you are drinking from the beauty of mother nature and relaxing, recharging your batteries, but then you come back home and then what?

It could totally be that I have no imagination (I likely don’t have enough money to do travel “just right” so being constantly uncomfortable probably doesn’t help), but I am personally quite sick of travel and don’t see very much that casual, vacation-length travel (say, a week or two at a time) would do for my long-term personal fulfillment. I would say that a good book does more for my well-being than travel (alas, I am very picky about books), as do interactions with students, writing technical papers, and blogging.

I promise I am not trying to be a douche here and stereotype folks without kids. I am trying to understand what it is about travel that makes it such a big deal and so important and perhaps fulfilling to some people. Is this love for serial tourism ubiquitous and many more people would globe-trot for fun if only they could afford it, or do I just happen to know some very happy travelers?


  1. I always dislike seeing the kids vs. travel thing as an either/or. I’ve done a reasonable amount of travel after having children. Some has been my work, some has been tagging along on my husband’s work, some has been couple vacation, and some has been traveling with children (they all have passports). We’re fortunate to have grandparents who’ve covered a lot, and also good jobs to help afford it, but those are practical matters. If you can solve the practical matters, then you can travel. I especially get frustrated with articles that circulate occasionally on “things to do before you have kids” that stress travel and (always) sky diving. You can sky dive after you have kids. I haven’t — but I had no desire to sky dive prior to kids either.

  2. Maybe it is just an excuse that seems socially palatable? I personally don’t want to have kids because I don’t really like kids, I think I would probably be a crappy mom, and there are certain genetic things that I wouldn’t want to burden another person with…not to mention that my ass is big enough. Travel is pretty low on the pro/con list. But, making the statement that I don’t like kids makes me feel like an asshole (and probably I am one). Usually s/o and I just say that we’re happy as we are in the rare instance when something like that gets brought up.
    I like your perspective on the long-term satisfaction of child rearing though, I’ll add that to my list of pros (somewhere above ‘excuse not to have to go sky diving’)

  3. Travel is definitely more expensive with kids. But it’s also more fun with kids– DC is same-old for me, but my son is still talking about when he went (they tagged along for a conference).

    In terms of the travel bug– I think there’s not only diminishing marginal utility to travel but it’s actually a quadratic. Those of us who travel a lot for work don’t find it that much fun outside work. In fact, travel for work seems to be a job perk when people are young and a job opposite-of-perk when people are older, whether or not said people have kids. My (single, childless) sister is still enjoying work travel (the past few months have taken her to Germany, Italy, and Singapore), but she’s also cut down on “fun” travel over time… it’s been easier for us to steal her vacation-time for hanging out at her place with *our* kids than it used to be back when she was in Brazil or Japan or whatever during her vacation.

    My plan for if I didn’t have kids was I was going to foster kittens. Turns out you can do that with kids too if you end up with three kittens and a mamacat in your backyard. (And two toms that you inadvertently catch while trying to get mamacat.)

  4. I think traveling is analogous to studying an interesting subject. My life is more interesting for having studied quantum mechanics, even though I don’t use it in my current job. My life is also more interesting for having studied french, and medieval european history, even those last two things are definitely not useful for my career. I don’t really have a sense of accomplishment now from these things I’ve studied because I’m not actively using them. Similarly, I’ve traveled to quite a few places in the world by now, and those experiences make my life richer and more interesting, though I can’t say there’s anything “useful” or anything to be proud of about having traveled.

    I also think that travel experiences are something that no one can take away from you, whereas, as you’ve written yourself, career advancement requires luck in addition to talent and hard work. My grandparents grew up and spend the majority of their adult lives in a country where people of their ethnicity were systematically denied opportunities for career advancement, so they had to learn to redirect their energies towards other endeavors, which in their case was travel and tourism. When they came to the U.S. they both worked but didn’t have the opportunity to establish real “careers”. But they prioritized travel pretty highly, and they think that their lives are richer and more fulfilled because they have seen so much of the world.

  5. Exactly. I have been wanting a blog post about this for a while, but I hesitated since people get so irritated if you criticize their obsession with traveling. I am happy to see that you see this similarly as me. 🙂

    For some reason, “traveling” is being equated with “having a rich, meaningful, fulfilled life” in our society. One example is in the movie Titanic. After Leo drowns, Kate is shown to have had a life full of travels, i.e. a good, free, happy, interesting, worthwhile life. Maybe in fact back then this was a little bit truer than today. But nowadays where every idiot with enough money can travel to wherever he wants, having traveled a lot really does not equate being an interesting or deep person. You can just buy the trip and fly wherever you want easily and cheaply. It is consumerism. It is mind-boggling to me what about of energy and money and time people spend in order to spend three weeks in some exotic place that they are usually not even truly interested in.

    What kind of difference does it make if one more Westerner has done a safari in Namibia? It is totally meaningless. And the people do not even really inform themselves about the country and culture, they just go there, take pictures, likely misunderstand everything and go home happily and with the illusion of having somehow grown as a person. It is not even that the people at home like hearing your stories or seeing your pictures, since practically everyone has been to Namibia now. If they at least saw it as what it is, pure, self-serving consumerism, like buying an expensive skin cream or an expensive bottle of wine, that would be fine with me, but it irritates me that people are so proud of their travels and that traveling is such a status-symbol. If they even claim that they decided not to have kids in order to squeeze in more three-week trips to Vietnam into their life this is mind-boggling to me (….and I don’t really believe them, I think that is just a socially accepted way of “explaining” a decision that does not need an explanation).

  6. Friends we have who have chosen not to have kids because they want to travel tend to be into more long term travel experiences, e.g. spending six months a year at buddhist retreat or what have you. Now these types of things might be rather self indulgent but I can see how children would not fit with these plans and also that this type of thing could be ‘meaningful’ in a way that just taking lots of short holidays would not.

    As to travel generally, I agree with J’s comment about why travel is popular. Also, I think it depends on where you are travelling from. I come from New Zealand, which is far away from everywhere and culturally we feel a bit like a backwater, and as a result there is a strong cultural interest in travel, and when people do travel they tend to go for longer, because it costs so much to get anywhere. It is also a lot more acceptable from a career perspective to go and work overseas for a bit, or even to take a couple of months leave from a job to do more extended travel. I think its different in the US because there is so much you can do without even leaving the country.

  7. I love to travel… and we still travel with kids. The thing keeping us from traveling more is money and the need to hold down jobs, not the kids! However, I do sometimes miss the more carefree and spontaneous travel experiences we had before kids. I plan things FAR more now that I have young kids, because they do best if we make sure to have playground breaks at least every couple of days, and don’t mess with mealtimes much. When it is just my husband and I traveling and things don’t go well or someone gets grumpy, we can usually just find a place to have a drink and get things back on track. It isn’t so easy to get a 4 year old to chill out! This aspect will obviously get better as the kids get older. And I don’t really mind the planning, it just takes a lot of time.

    I don’t think traveling does anything meaningful for the world, but it sure does make me happy. I love seeing new things, and experiencing different cultures. I’ve found that it makes me see my own culture a little more clearly.

    But really, I can’t explain why I travel, let alone why some people value travel so much. Here is a short ebook from a travel writer that has some interesting ideas on the subject:

  8. I love traveling with my kids. (Note – I always separate work travel and family vacation. It creates too much competition. When I’m at a conference I want to be with colleagues and when I’m with family I want to be with family.) But I don’t find kids the opposite of travel. My kids love traveling. I find that the wonder that kids have at a new place to be special. And as several commenters have said, travel is something that stays with you (and them) forever. Trips with grandparents years ago are still remembered, even for ones when the kids were very young.

    I actually find that some cultures (but not all!) are actually nicer to visit with kids than without because people are friendlier to families with kids. We’ve had opportunities arise because people want to show our kids something. And traveling and learning with kids (we like the historical travel style – ruins and stuff – over the sit on the beach style) opens new views on new places.

    Yes, one needs to learn how to travel with kids. (Don’t overdo the sights. Give them time to sleep and process the new information. Bring food. Don’t push them to eat foods they’re not ready for [they’ll surprise you when they’re ready].)

    But kids and tourism aren’t opposites at all. Anyone who says so has never tried traveling with kids.

    I think that those couples are trying to find something to say when the subject of kids comes up. And when you stretch to find something to say, you often say something stupid.

  9. I have never had a strong desire to have children. If my husband had wanted children we would have done so but he was of the same mind. We talked about it seriously and chose not to. I sometimes feel like I want to develop a broader purpose in life — something to pass on — since I’m not raising the next generation. My work is pretty fufilling in that regard. Maybe I’ll also be that person in the neighborhood who has the kind of garden that inspires people to build eco-friendly landscapes. Or something like that.

    The desire to travel was not part of our decision about having children or not. I like to travel, though like many here I do enough for business that setting up trips for pleasure often falls by the wayside.

  10. I don’t have children because I can’t have children due to medical reasons. However, I never discuss this with other people anymore, because most people are extremelly uncomfortable with difficult medical topics and often prefer to disappear and distance themselves when something of that kind has been revealed. So if I want to have any kind of social life and for people to not start ignoring me, instead of telling the truth about the issue, I find it is better to say something socially acceptable about not having children, like e.g. having time for travel (an easy thing to think about). Perhaps something similar is happening to your friends.

  11. I think people are just making conversation. It is, indeed, easier to travel when you don’t have kids. Many other things are easier when you don’t have kids, such as having a cup of coffee in peace or getting stuff done or taking a shower. For some people, giving up the easier logistics of the no-kid existence is worth it (personally, I am dreading the day when the kids are off to college and I have way too much time to have coffee). For others, it is just not worth it, and that is a perfectly fine personal choice. Travel is just one of those things, and much easier to mention than medical problems or personal dislike of children. I travel with my kids all the time (we have friends and family on different continents) and also travel for work by myself, and I enjoy both. But both require more difficult logistics than I needed to do before I had kids.

  12. Thank you for this post!
    I am an undergrad, and I am just going for my internship in Japan (I’m from Europe). Everyone says “wow”, you will love it, it is soo amazing – and I have no doubt, it will be great. But! I am going there to do really great reserach, get to know the academic environment there, and of course enjoy the time. Of course, I want to see the great stuff in Tokyo, etc. but I have never had the bug for travelling, and I don’t intend to sacrafice every single minute to see and visit everything. I was trying to persuade myself that I should be very excited about the travel part of the internship, but your post came just in time. I cannot see anything life-changing in eg. architecture. I guess it’s just the case of having different priorities. Nevertheless, everyone is trying to do the right thing in their life, and if it’s travelling, then I would say go for it! If it’s children, science, or whatever, we all do it to be happy. 🙂

  13. What an interesting post and a great set of comments. I’m a mother and scientist and lover of travel. I got the travel bug from my parents, who liked to take family vacations to spots of US history. As others stated, I have great memories of my trips, both with family and later with friends and now my own family. These trips are meaningful to me both because of what I learned at that particular trip location (some history, some art appreciation, some language skills, some politics – all of which have a lasting impression on my own opinions and thought processes), but also because of what I learned about my traveling companions. For example, I learned a lot about my parents by having them all to myself, outside of our normal busy schedules. By talking with my fellow travelers about the things we’re seeing and learning, I learn more about them and myself. As another commenter noted, travel with my kids is really fun, because I love to be with them when they learn surprising new things. So while I agree that travel is mostly a self-indulgent activity (that I happen to really enjoy), I also think it does make me a better daughter, friend, and mom, because while I’m on trips I take the time to really consider my own opinions and the thoughts and opinions of my travel companions. Maybe this means I just need to slow-down during my “normal” non-travel life so that I am similarly open to these types of exchanges and learning experiences?

  14. There is a definite “value” we seem to put on travel as a society — like if you’re able to do so, then you’ve “made it” somehow? And I do find that people seem to think it’s kids OR travel…or at least travel when you’re older (retired) if you do have kids. I don’t think it has to be that way, it’s just different to travel with kids, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table (or not enjoyable).

  15. Yup, I agree with the others. I’d say “travel” is a nicer way of saying “I don’t want to have kids because I want the freedom to be selfish and do extravagant things without worrying about others” without sounding like a jerk and by appealing to something that is largely considered virtuous in middle and higher classes. And I say that as a person who also plans on staying without children for pretty much those reasons (among others), so no judgement there 😉

  16. I have to admit, one of the reasons I travel is because it provides happy memories. I figure with a fairly high likelihood of dementia in my future ( my grandmother developed dementia in her 90s) I’d like to make sure I have good stuff to remember.

    But I also don’t subscribe to the travel with kids is too hard school of thought. My husband who took his first overseas trip at 22 used to say that but My parents took us 4 kids all sorts of places (London, Beirut, Bangkok…). With that example we did our first international trip with a baby when she was 12 weeks (to Samoa for a good friends wedding). Sure parts were stressful but mostly it was relaxing. In a way, I like to be out of my comfort zone when travelling. It provides a sense of achievement too – yeah, a 3 hour ferry trip with 3 month baby between two islands in Samoa when it’s hot and I get seasick… I survived fine! Go me!

  17. Well, for me traveling is not just having fun or having something shiny to talk about afterwards; it’s most importantly making a litte step back off my life. That’s how I can really think about it and suddenly figure out more clearly things that don’t make sense or have to change or are poisoning me… During daily life you’re so much into the “todo” process that I don’t succeed to have a look onto the process and what worth it or what could be made more efficient or been dropped… It’s like the break out of thinking that you often need for new ideas to pop up, except it’s not just for the science ideas, but also for life ideas. Every year that has helped me making progress in personal and professional development. And for this I need to be out of my routine, out of my home, and even better, out of my country and its little subtle mind schemes.

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