Why — and How — I Spent My Maternity Leave Traveling With a Newborn and a 6-year-old

·10 min read
<p>Antonio Hugo/Getty Images</p>

Antonio Hugo/Getty Images

It’s a particularly unnerving feeling to pack your days-old baby and your stitched-up self into the car to haul to an appointment — not at the pediatrician for baby’s first checkup, but at a post office outside the city for baby’s first passport. But I knew I had to start the process fast if I wanted to take advantage of this summer: the only few weeks of my life in which my new family of four would have a parent (me) not working, yet still earning a salary.

Spending maternity leave traveling with a newborn, especially abroad, is unusual to say the least. But an employer-paid 14-week leave is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — at least in the United States, the only developed nation without federally mandated parental leave. And what did my newly postpartum, slightly unhinged self want to do with the knowledge that I had limited free-but-paid time left in my life? I wanted to explore the world with my two kids — using this leave not just as an adventure in itself, but as a test case, hopefully, for a lifetime of adventuring together.

I figured: If I could rip off the Band-Aid and successfully leave the state and the country with a 6-year-old and a 2-month-old, it would give us all the confidence to do so again and again.

I am one of the far too few people in the United States who received paid parental leave. But I learned the hard way with my firstborn that spending that privileged time holing up at home and trying to fit myself into a set baby schedule was neither good for my mental health nor for my baby. And while plenty of new parents prefer to focus on sleep training, I knew I wanted to focus on travel-training.

<p>Amelia Edelman</p>

Amelia Edelman

My partner, my older son, and I had traveled to Europe, in the dead of winter, when I was nearly eight months pregnant, so for our first journey abroad as a foursome, we decided to look further south and skip the major time (and major cost) of flying transatlantic. It didn’t take long to land on Belize; the country is wild but safe, and summer is the rainy season so it would be lighter on both tourism saturation and pricing. And when you’re already getting awoken at 5 a.m. by a squawking newborn, why not add some howler monkeys to the mix?

While we waited for the 5- to 8-week expedited processing window for the baby’s passport, we headed off on the first, domestic leg of our parental leave expedition: one month in Northern California. This, I reasoned, would be our family-of-four travel training wheels. Since the second leg of leave was going to be international and more adventurous, I wanted to ensure our first trip was relatively chill and, most importantly, cheap. Enter the ultimate travel hacks: home-swapping and house-sitting.

I set up profiles on TrustedHousesitters and LoveHomeSwap: on the former, which costs $129 per year for a membership, we applied to be potential house- and pet-sitters; on the latter, typically about $13 per month, we showcased our Nashville home for other families looking to swap. The best part: When you arrange a swap or sit, no money changes hands between homeowners. So, during the four weeks we spent in California with our newborn and 6-year-old, we stayed in four different homes, all for “free” (minus those memberships). Yes, it took months of planning to set this all up, but hey, that’s what pregnancy insomnia is for.

I was still earning my regular salary while on leave, and because we weren’t in the Belize jungle yet, my partner was able to keep up with normal remote work as a web developer. Also due to my leave, we didn’t need to hire childcare. Ultimately, our month of traveling cost us that couple hundred dollars for site memberships, plus three people’s airfare (baby flies for free). The rest was the same or cheaper than if we’d stayed home. This left us a bit of financial wiggle room to further hack our newborn travels: We used BabyQuip to rent equipment for the little guy so we wouldn’t have to haul as much cross-country. This was a game-changer; a local mom delivered the baby gear straight to our first house-sit in Kensington, CA, and picked it up from our last in San Rafael, CA, a month later.

Both of those were beautiful house-sits, but the crowning jewel of our California adventure was our house swap up in Mendocino County. We drove out to the coast from Napa and then straight north on Highway 1, winding through the coastal redwoods. We stopped for fresh oysters at the Hog Island Oyster Farm in Marshall (my partner’s dad is an oyster farmer on the Carolina coast, so hobnobbing with oystermen is par for the course on many of our travels). Inevitably, our 6-year-old got carsick along the curlicues of that treacherous-seeming coastal highway, but it didn’t dampen his spirits. By the time we rolled in, hours later, to our home swap, we were exhausted — but not too exhausted to gasp in awe at the cliffside home’s views of the Pacific, waves crashing along Irish Beach just below us. I hoped that meanwhile, back at home, the family staying in our 1940s Nashville house was, if not quite gasping, at least smiling at the oh-so southern porch swing and the neighbor playing blues guitar.

By the time we arrived back to that southern porch after our weeks out west, the baby’s passport was there waiting. He was two months old, and it was time to unpack, repack, and leave the country for the first time as a family of four. Newborn in tow, we headed deep into the Belize jungle.

Because things rarely go to plan when traveling (especially with kids), our connecting flight was delayed. By the time we landed in Belize’s major hub and former capital, Belize City, we had missed our prop plane into the jungle — so our third “flight” of the day became a long drive into Belize’s interior, almost to the Guatemalan border. There, we posted up at Falling Leaves Lodge, a cozy family-run jungle hotel outside the village of San Ignacio.

Here, it began to hit home just what a boon it is to travel internationally with a newborn. Talk about a universal icebreaker: No one could resist baby Sunny’s toothless smile — not the lodge staff, not our tour guides, not random ladies on the dusty streets. Both my kids brought out similar grins in everyone we passed, as people asked how old they were and marveled at how someone so tiny could travel so well.

And baby Sunny, like the rest of us, dove into jungle life surprisingly easily. We woke up each morning in our thatched-roof hut surrounded by roaming toucans and agoutis. We breakfasted on the best guava I’ve ever eaten, plus beans and Belizean fried jacks — all surprisingly kid-friendly foods, it turns out. One day, we poked around a once-abandoned hospital that has been turned into a scrappy artists’ space — where the renowned Belizean band The Garifuna Collective happened to be rehearsing for their international tour. Another day, we hiked through the hushed pyramids of the ancient Maya site of Cahal Pech, which dates back to 12000 B.C.E. — and because it was the “undesirable” rainy season, I was shocked to see that we had these magical ruins entirely to ourselves.

At the Green Iguana Conservation Project, housed within the grounds of the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, baby iguanas climbed all over us. And further into the jungle, at the Chaa Creek Butterfly Farm, we stood among a whirling throng of Blue Morpho butterflies as they slowly decided we weren’t a threat and began, one by one, to land on our heads and shoulders. And who of the four of us appeared to be truly at peace being slowly blanketed by beating blue iridescent wings? The newborn, of course.

<p>Amelia Edelman</p>

Amelia Edelman

It wasn’t all sunshine and mangos, however. We were sweaty and bug-bitten, the term “nap schedule” became laughable, and I got my first postpartum period (surprise!) while in the jungle. Worst of all was when it became clear that our growing baby was going to easily plow through the multiple cans of formula we’d brought along with us; we began scouring various markets looking for more, with no luck. When, finally, I found a can at a coastal grocery store, I found myself sobbing in the aisle with relief.

Honestly, though, I realized in that aisle (while a few Belizean grandmas peered at me with concern) that terrifying obstacles such as almost running out of your baby’s only food source aren’t just par for the course while traveling; they’re par for the course while parenting. And if there’s anything motherhood has taught me, it’s resourcefulness under pressure, rolling with the punches, and realizing that whatever phase you’re in now is only temporary. Oddly enough, these are also the three most important lessons that two decades of travel have taught me.

Of course, travel is an immense privilege. But the misconception that all travel is inherently expensive and difficult (or even impossible) with very young children actually prevents many people from seeking out alternatives that make it less so, whether that’s home swapping, house-sitting, snagging deals for the “undesirable” rainy season, or just tacking vacation onto the more necessary work or family obligations for which you’re already traveling.

There’s also the question of priorities. I know plenty of parents don’t want to dress their kids in 100% hand-me-downs like I do. Plenty don’t want to drive an ancient, dented Ford around town like I do. To this day, I’ve never signed up my 6-year-old for expensive flute lessons or chess club. But he built and played his own pan flute with a musician and mythologist we met on Santorini, and he beat a rug merchant at chess in the souks of Marrakech. He loves how we live, and I’ve witnessed how experiencing different cultures has made him more open-minded, compassionate, patient, inquisitive, selfless…and fantastic at picking up foreign languages. Of course I want the same breadth of learning and experience for my second (and last) baby.

<p>Amelia Edelman</p>

Amelia Edelman

After the wild ride that was our jungle days in Belize’s Cayo District, we planned to spend our final days at Umaya on the Placencia peninsula. This was no thatched-roof hut; the resort gleams with subtle glamour underrun by an air of Belizean ease. But to get there, we had to head out of the interior and towards the coast — in the smallest propeller plane I’ve ever boarded, clutching our blank plastic boarding passes, from an airport that more closely resembled a bus stop. With two kids.

As we lifted off from the jungle, though, with baby strapped to me on the back bench of the tiny plane gliding over the toucans in the treetops, I knew that pulling off such an adventure together was worth every obstacle. And I knew it wasn’t just a fluke of having a two-month-old and a three-month leave. As long as we put our minds to it, we could — and will — manage to have adventures like this throughout our life as a family of four. In fact, we’re only just getting started.