Traveling without your kids is not a guilty pleasure

Traveling without your kids is not a guilty pleasure. It’s well-deserved!

Living in pandemic times, I often catch myself daydreaming and night dreaming about travel. I look and look again at my Google Photos of all the adventures I have had over the years. While browsing through my albums, I was taken down memory lane to my Spain / Portugal trip a few years ago.

After being a single dad for four years and only engaging in family travel, I finally mustered the nerve to book a tour through Topdeck for a whirlwind ten-day tour of Spain and Portugal. After many spurts and starts and postponements of the trip, I was finally ready to travel. Let me be clear about a few things:

a.          This would be my first trip traveling on my own, ever

b.          I had never partaken in a group travel trip. 

c.          I was anxious, nervous, scared and wanted to just turn back at every junction but decided to push through my comfort zone.

With the help of my travel agent, (Yep, they still exist, and I used one) and after much indecision, the tour was booked from Toronto to Lisbon and return from Barcelona. I would be visiting five cities in ten days – Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, San Sebastien and Barcelona. I was nervous and excited and anxious, so many emotions were crowding my insides.

As the date of the trip grew close, I started to get cautiously excited. On the day of the flight, I said goodbye to my parents, and then beautiful Z and Z. Instantly, the pangs of guilt and anxiety overcame me. If you are a mom, you are familiar with notions of mommy guilt. But let me tell you, Daddy guilt is no less potent. At that moment, I just wanted to cancel the trip, but I knew I couldn’t get a refund and I couldn’t postpone it and the only way forward was to get on that darn plane. I promised the kids some awesome souvenirs, trying my best to maintain a brave front as I made my way through security.

Everywhere I looked at the airport, I saw couples and families, and hardly any solo travelers. Subconsciously my guilt was visible to me in cues of people boarding or buying food at the airport. It was like the universe was conspiring to make me feel like I really didn’t deserve this much freedom away from my children. I pushed the feelings aside and made some last-minute phone calls and eventually, boarded the plane. Alas, turning back was not an option.

I arrived in Lisbon to meet the tour group that was coming in from Morocco. The energy was rambunctious, and introductions were made over a Portuguese dinner feast. I started to feel less alone and more person than dad. My identity over the past while had been forged so strongly in my responsibilities to my children that I never realized who the ‘other’ person was. That person was starting to enjoy himself and the camaraderie with the tour group was infectious.

On Day 2 of the trip, our group congregated at the Praca de Comercio with thousands of others to cheer on Portugal Men’s Soccer Team as they would play France in the 2016 Euro Cup Final. The air felt electric. Touring the city that day, I could see how ready people were for a full-on celebration. Funnily enough, I would be celebrating the final in my Raptors jersey carrying a Portuguese flag.  

As we made our way to the square, I once again felt pangs of despair. I was having so much fun so early on in the trip. I wished the kids were with me. Guilt again. A familiar emotion. Did I deserve to be here? As the thoughts started to play havoc in my head, I pushed them away and focused on the game on the big screen and the sea of thousands of bodies in the main square.

It would be Portugal’s day and night as the soccer match that started in the sunny afternoon ended in the early evening. Champions would be Portuguese, and joy and revelry would fill the streets. Strangers were high fiving one another and cars were honking their horns into the wee hours of the morning. It was pure triumph and a sporting celebration I had never experienced on this level. Day 2 was going to go down in the history books. The trip was already an amazing success two days in, and I had eight more days to go. 

Day 3 was a mess of tired energy from the celebration the night before and Sintra – castle in the clouds with the most magnificent views. Next, we made our way into Porto. Day 4 was spent on a boat cruise and a walking tour of the city. Amidst all the jubilance of the win, I was becoming more and more anxious and contemplating going home. Not because I wasn’t having fun. But the opposite. I was having too much fun. I continued to feel I didn’t deserve this time for myself. I had pretty much gotten to the mindset that I would be grateful for the amount of time I had traveled so far and it was time to go home. I didn’t vocalize my thoughts to anyone on the trip, but they were weighing heavy upon me. 

At the end of Day 4, we were leaving Portugal to head to Madrid, Spain. The night was quiet and all of us were mellow. On the rooftop patio of the hotel, I spoke to my tour mates about my life back home. How it was the first time, I had travelled alone. How I juggled being a dad and a teacher. Everyone listened earnestly despite the range of ethnic backgrounds and age groups from early 20s to late 30s, not to mention the breadth of life experiences. I most surely felt after tonight my trip was complete. I had had enough fun. Even though six days were left in the trip and my ticket was from Barcelona, I needed to urgently get back to my regular life in Toronto. 

While on the bus from Porto to Madrid, one of my new friends, G, came over and sat next to me to see what I was writing in my journal. I told her that I was writing about this wonderful trip and all the memories I had made so far while they were still fresh in my mind. I also told her that I would be leaving our hotel to go to the Madrid airport when we arrived. At first, she thought I was joking. When I told her I was not, she was equally shocked and dismayed.

Why had I spent all the money in the first place if I was only planning on coming on half the trip? 

Why did I not want to see Barcelona and San Sebastien, two beautiful cities that many people only dream of seeing? 

What was going on in my head? She asked me. 

I told her that I was a Dad. She said,

“Duh. you already told me that. I saw the pictures of your beautiful kids, Z and Z.”

I told her,

“No,you don’t get it. I am a Dad. I am not supposed to have this much fun. From the first day of this tour I have been having too much alone time. I’m getting spoiled. And I feel guilty. Like I shouldn’t be allowed. Since I am a Dad I should be responsible and travel only with the kids.”

G started to understand. She asked me if the kids were safe at home. I said yes. She asked if I had been texting and calling throughout the trip so far. I said I had been. She then told me that even though she did not know me that well, that I was certainly entitled to a trip; and that I seemed to be a good Dad and that I should go home from Barcelona, not Madrid, like I originally planned. I sat quietly thinking. Maybe she was right. I had been very hard on myself. I didn’t expect to have so much fun on the trip. It didn’t make logical sense to leave the trip at this juncture. G took my journal and asked me if she could draw in it. I said,

“Yes, but what will you draw?”

She quietly started to draw a pattern from the word “journey”. She took about 45 minutes with the picture while we joked around and lightened things up as she continued to draw in my journal. 

After the picture was done. She said,

“Make sure you call the kids and tell them how much of a great time you’re having and how you’ll see them soon. Then try to be gentle with yourself. You deserve this trip as much as anybody else. Believe that.”

With that, and the drawing finished in my journal, I promised I would be kinder to myself. As parents, we struggle with our self-care and the care of our children. It is a constant battle of wits. This trip was no different.

The rest of the trip was as wonderful as the first few days. When it ended, I knew that I had reconciled being a person that can enjoy his travels solo as well as with his children.

My responsibilities as a dad are not diminished by my care for myself and my passion to travel. Always keep in mind that you deserve to have fun with or without your children. And that in the throes of guilt, you can learn new things about yourself and realize that change is inevitable.

 So off you go, solo or with kiddos, to experience adventures in a post-pandemic world.

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