The Unexpected Health Benefits of Travel

One of the most exciting places in the world is the Atlanta airport. Sounds a little strange right? Not if you saw it like I do: a place of endless possibilities and a gateway to the rest of the world. Travel is something so dear to my heart, I consider it a friend. It’s a concept that has allowed me to eat strange foods, witness incredible sights firsthand, both ancient and new, and meet people with completely different cultural and social paradigms that have changed and shaped me for the better. I’ve learned more about history through my travels than I ever did in school, and have felt energy in places that produced a profound impact on how I understand that part of the world and how it relates to everything else. When I was visiting Normandy, our guide took us into one of the German bunkers on the beach and at once I was transported to D-Day. I felt an eerie, unsettling energy that I would have never experienced through films or reading. Travel did that, and it’s why I advocate for it so strongly–not as a future event to be undertaken after much planning and saving, but now, right now while you’re still hungrily curious about the world and physically able to meet the demands in fully seeing it.

I don’t think my affinity for travel is unique, but I have witnessed so many friends and family members postponing that next trip for various reasons, thereby missing out on so much that life and the often not talked about health benefits it has to offer. And while the reasons they proffer are absolutely logical and valid, I can’t help feeling sad about the missed opportunity of discovery, connection to others, and personal growth by foregoing the trip. So my humble advice is to go, just go. There is no better time than now to explore this amazing planet and get out of the ordinary flow of everyday life. Your bank account might take a temporary hit, but the law of reciprocity dictates that the little you give will produce so much richness of experience in return. There is never a time in traveling where you wont learn something from getting out of your routine and embarking on a journey. What you also will find, is that beyond all of the clichés of travel expanding your horizons, there are unexpected health benefits that make it imperative that you take that next trip sooner rather than later.

First, your build a better brain. Psychologists found that when you step outside of your comfort zone, you literally stretch and grow your brain. Learning anything new challenges and activates your brain in a way that following a routine simply cannot. When you travel you may not know the language,  how to navigate a new transit system, or how to order a coffee just the way you like it–you are forced to learn, and by doing so you become smarter. When the brain is on autopilot too often, it actually becomes weaker and less efficient. The novelty brought on by travel zaps your brain into active learning mode, and the amazing memories generated are just the icing on the cake to a fitter, younger brain.

Second, travel deepens your empathy for others. Empathy grows best under specific conditions often correlated with travel: being in the present moment, listening, speaking to and relying on strangers, recognizing commonality in others, and cultivating an interest in others.  Empathy, like anything, takes work, but its a skill that is beneficial to all parties. The more empathetic you are, the more you are able to prevent and resolve conflicts, be understood yourself, and promote healthy relationships. Travel is a powerful tool in strengthening your empathetic muscles, and often it doesn’t even feel like work.

Third, travel makes you happier. A 2016 study by the U.S. Travel Association and Project found that the more time taken off for travel correlated to more happiness at home. The more vacation days used, the lower the stress. The study also showed that over the past 15 years, Americans are taking nearly a week less of vacation. The case for travel could never be more important, especially when your well-being is at stake.

Life-changing travel doesn’t mean taking a trip thousands of miles away: simply going outside of your usual track of work, life, and play can have an impact. Not far from our house is a magical place called the Atlanta Chinatown Mall. Inside you will find a cornucopia of Asian food from different regions in China. When you first approach you’re greeted by a calming zen garden and a crimson bridge crossing a koi pond. The food court is definitely not fancy, but the food is unlike anything I have ever seen or tasted. I have never sampled more authentic Chinese food anywhere else–I generally point to what looks good as everything is written in Chinese, and try something new every time. Recently, my husband and I took our two young boys there, and our four-year old made fast friends with a Chinese boy around his same age. The boys were from very different backgrounds, but bonded over an iPad game and a love for fried rice. It was so interesting to watch them connect, and when the boys parents–who didn’t speak English, came over to retrieve him, there was that mutual understanding that all parents share when it comes to raising kids. We were able to communicate though our facial expressions and share an authentic moment together despite the cultural and language barrier. It made the experience of going out for good food so much richer. 

The Chinatown Mall experience reminded me of one of my first travel memories: running through the San Diego airport away from my screaming mother. Our family of six was on its way to Okinawa, Japan for a two-year stint courtesy of the United States Marine Corps. I didn’t really understand where we were going or why, but I knew it was going to be completely different from anything I had experienced before, and I was excited. When we finally arrived after an uneventful 18 hour flight, I was introduced to an unfamiliar landscape, heavy humid air, and the smell of sea and salt from the ocean. My mother was understandably unnerved when a crowd of other passengers gathered around us while we waited in Customs, and started touching our hair. We were oddities with our bleach blond hair and pale blue eyes and they investigated us with open curiosity–looking back now, it was a fantastic introduction to Japan. The Customs clerk was equally as curious about this strange ragtag group of six, and made each of the kids a different origami figure to take with us, just because he was kind and knew we would like it.

We lived in an area called “The Ville” off base. My younger sister and I had a Japanese nanny, and she would sing us songs that I still remember today and sing to my boys. Because our nanny was Okinawan, we ate how the locals did, and our seemingly mundane errands turned quickly into an education on Japanese, and more specifically, Okinawan culture. We’d walk with our nanny or our mother to the Oki-Mart grocery store down the street and pass the different shops with various goods hanging in the window, usually some kind of poultry in its full form. The air in Okinawa was thick with the tantalizing smells of strange foods, the ocean, and mildew, creating a strange, yet comforting aroma unique to that part of the world. It seemed so stifling at first, but we all quickly adjusted and by the time we left, we didn’t even notice it. We didn’t speak the language of our neighbors, yet there was a bounty of learning and communication happening–as children this was invaluable to our development and growth in understanding, connecting, and empathizing with others.

I have no intention of bringing my boys on an 18 hour flight anywhere, at least not yet, but I know the extraordinary impact that travel had on me at an early age, and I want the same for them. I want them to converse with different kinds of kids like the boy at the Chinatown Mall, to taste food local to our destination, and to see landscapes they’ve never seen before. I look at it as my duty to show them the world, and spark the same curiosity about places and people who I still have today, so that they develop into smarter, more empathetic, and happier adults.

Whenever I travel, I am more awake, present, and alive then any other time. On my deathbed, I’m not going to remember those cool shoes I bought, or the purse I just had to have. Instead, I will remember that amazing meal I had in Nashville with my sister and brother-in-law, or the funny conversation I had with a Moroccan boy in a laundromat in Montpellier, or how unsettled I felt standing in a German bunker looking out on the beaches of Normandy. Travel offers you the unique opportunity to experience new places, food, and people firsthand, but its true gift is discovering who you really are and how truly connected we all are on this beautiful planet.

 

 

 

Love in Marriage When You Have Littles

Update: Red Tricycle published this post! You can find the article and more awesome momlife related content here: http://redtri.com/love-in-marriage-when-you-have-littles/


When my husband, Sam, and I first got together our love was easy. We’d go to dinner, get drinks, or jump in the car on a whim and go camping for the weekend. We knew that when we had kids, things would change, but didn’t really dwell on it. I had co-workers tell me to wait at least five years after we married before having kids, so that we’d have our own time to enjoy each other and our freedom. Of course, me being me, I did the exact opposite and we became parents as soon as possible. If it weren’t for conception issues, I’m sure I would have been pregnant within months of our wedding.

What I learned soon after having Nash, was that love in a marriage is an organic, ever-changing animal. During those early days and weeks, I knew I loved my husband, but when I was the only one getting up every night to change and feed the baby, the only one struggling with Nash all day while Sam went off to work where he had long lunches and happy hours, our love began to deteriorate.

I realized I didn’t need or want a romantic partner, I wanted a partner that could work and relieve me from some of the drudgery of parenting. My husband hadn’t had to go through 10 months of pregnancy like I had, and wasn’t yet mentally prepared for taking care of another life. I understand this now, but at three in the morning after being around a crying baby all afternoon, that logic didn’t translate. We went through a period of struggle those first several months, and there were times I wondered if our marriage would ever feel like it used to—happy and free, not an endless debate of who changed the last diaper, or whose turn it was to wash the bottles for the next day. I wanted to love and be loved, and not feel forced to make it work because we had decided to have a baby.

To give you some background, I grew up in a home where my mom did everything. My dad worked 18 hour days as a Marine, and was often deployed for months on end, so my mom had no choice but to rise up and take care of everything. I am still amazed at her strength and selflessness. I know myself and my weaknesses well enough to know that I would not have been able to do it with such grace and love. I’m still amicably called a shark in our family, and for good reason. But I never had the impression that mom resented the fact that dad was gone so much working, in fact she carried on like it was normal. If she ever felt like things were unfair, I still don’t know it. Growing up that way didn’t make me want to be like mom, however, I resented the idea and fought it every day which didn’t make things easy at home.

Our marriage, after surviving the first real rough patch following Nash’s birth, began to get better once he was older and began to form a true bond with Sam. It was then that our love changed again. I saw Sam as someone who loved Nash as much as I did, and would spend hours with him after work playing, reading, and goofing off. Then after Nash went to bed happy and tired, Sam would cook dinner and we’d drink wine and talk. As rough as the beginning had been, this new stage of intimacy was so unexpected and fortifying. I looked at Sam with new eyes, or maybe I just saw who he had become through the transformative power that becoming a parent has on someone. I was smitten all over again, and with someone familiar but also completely new.

If there are any take-aways from this, is that in any relationship, there are highs and lows, but that if you can hold on to each other and push through the tough times, you will be so rewarded in the end. I’d never dreamed that I’d feel as close to another person as I do to Sam—in fact as much as I moved around growing up, I never really felt that I belonged to any place or person. Sam has been the avenue to finding myself and a home, and all the hard times and arguments were the resistance needed to realize that and find true peace and happiness.

 

Why Diet Trumps Any Workout Regime

As we near the end of February, and the New Year’s motivation to head to the gym begins to dwindle for so many, it is important to emphasis the critical role diet plays in a person’s actual weight. I am by no means discounting the massive and documented benefits of creating and maintaining a vigorous and ever changing workout routine, however, you can also absolutely lose weight by not doing any exercise whatsoever.

The reason I can so confidently say this is because I did it. When I was a freshman in college I was out on a run and incurred a stress fracture. Besides being incredibly painful, it relegated me to a life of zero impact exercise. The only treatment prescribed was rest, and even if I wanted to disobey the doctor’s instructions, the pain was so intense, that I would not have lasted long. At first I was petrified that I was going to gain weight and never be able to get it off. Afterall, I was running 15-20 miles a week and just barely maintaining my then heavier frame of 135 pounds. What the hell was going to happen to me now that I couldn’t do anything?

My solution came slowly and timidly. I started to eliminate items from my diet that I had never really thought about before. The first thing to go was soda (duh). It was surprisingly easy. The next step was a vast reduction of bread and simple carbs (eg cereal, pizza, pasta). Next was milk and processed foods (ie anything in commercial packaging). I replaced these old favorites with raw vegetables, fruit, protein and complex carbs. As I systematically cut out known calorie and fat dense foods, I immediately began to feel clearer and lighter. The oddest discovery of all was when I removed milk my seasonal allergies virtually disappeared. They have not returned since.

The biggest impact of all, and the reason for this post, however, was that I ended up losing 25 pounds and did zero cardio. I would do an ab workout 3 times a week, but that alone would not have produced such results. I had to laugh when I thought about how much I had been killing myself, at times not even remotely enjoying the workouts–all because I thought it was what had to be done in order to maintain the status quo, and maybe even lose some weight. It became clear that it was so much easier to just cut out the processed junk, reduce calories intake, and revamp my diet with foods high in nutrition and low in calories.

Eventually my stress fracture healed and I went back to running, but not because I had to. It genuinely felt good. Since this little experiment, I no longer feel the need to punish my body during a workout. If it doesn’t feel enjoyable I simply let up a little and continue to push on a lower gear. I know now that working out is not about weight, it’s about how it makes me feel emotionally, and that elicits so much more joy in the whole experience.

The Mommy Wars

The issue of whether a woman should continue to work after having children, or resign herself fully and completely to being a stay-at-home mother (hereafter”SAHM”), has always been hotly debated. Even before I was blessed with two wily and vivacious sons, I heard the shots being fired back and forth on television, radio, movies and books about this pressing issue. SAHM advocates proclaim the sheer unbelievable selfishness of mothers who would place their small, defenseless, children in institutions to be raised by strangers, rather than sacrificing their ambitions for the good of the family. On the other side, working mothers routinely lambaste SAHM’s who chose to leave their burgeoning careers, by saying they are throwing away years of advanced education and financial independence in order to play patty cake and coordinate carpools and play dates. “Why what if she and the husband divorce, then she’ll be sorry with her shortsighted choice! And forget getting back into her chosen field, that door is closed!”

As you can probably guess, I chose to continue working despite the very real pangs of guilt of putting my (then) little babies in the care of other adults. However, my emotions aside, I logically understand that my children are better served learning curriculum with their peers in a structured classroom environment, rather than staying home with me all day bouncing from one random activity to the next. I have witnessed my oldest in class, without him knowing, and he is much better behaved and far more focused than he is at home doing the same type of project with me.

With that said, I do not want to disparage the mothers who choose to stay at home. At its core, the decision to give up financial independence and prolong any career advancement is innately personal. Whatever the reasons are behind her choice, it should remain exactly that, HER choice. I take issue with those on either side who self-righteously place blame and condemnation on a woman who is simply doing what feels right for her and her family. How she defines that and lives with that day in and day out, is her burden to bear, and an unkind, and (probably jealous) condemner, is not going to change her mind about her current situation. Rather, it will only causes a greater divide between two sides that should be working together and excited that both options are in fact available.

It seems strange that this topic is still relevant. I feel as if it has been talk-showed to death, however just today I was reminded through a friend’s indecision on social media and the responses that followed, that it still continues, and that women have not resigned themselves to living and letting live. Perhaps, it is because we are all dealing with our own form of guilt. There is no genuine winner. The working moms feel like they are not being present enough during their children’s formative years, and the SAHM’s feel as though they have sacrificed everything and will be left an hollow vessel with nothing to offer once everyone is old enough to take care of themselves. The truth, is that when we place our value in people and things outside of ourselves, we will never be happy. That holds true for careers and/or children. Happiness, as we all know, is an inside job. So make the choice that is right for you, and feel confident in that decision. After all, we are the ones that have to live with it, no one else.

Momming is Hard

I have a confession. It is not what mothers are supposed to say. It is “wrong”. But I believe in living an authentic life, and so with that, comes revealing things that you normally would not in order to maintaining a shiny veneer for your family, Facebook friends and colleagues. My big, dirty secret is that I am a working mother, and I would not have it any other way. Well, unless that meant I could keep my kids in daycare AND not work, in that case, sign me up.

See, doesn’t that come across as backwards, mean, and lazy? I imagine readers thinking why would she even have kids if she was not going to raise them herself? What is the point? I would see it that way too…before having children.

Now I know what mothers have known for a long time, but perhaps never really talked about because there was simply no advantage to revealing weakness, especially if it did not change your circumstances. But I can freely say, with absolutely zero reservation, that being a mom is HARD. Not the love part. Loving your children is the easiest, most natural inclination there is (thanks mother nature). I loved my two the moment I found out I was pregnant, and meeting them at the birth only confirmed my adoration for these little souls. However, I am not talking about maternal love. I am speaking instead about the day-to-day GRIND of being a mother. It is an entirely different and savage animal. It takes patience (something I am self-aware enough to know that I intrinsically lack), fortitude, physical strength, mental and emotional balance in the face of obstacles, and of course sheer willpower to do what needs to be done even though it may be the last thing you want to do at that moment.

For example, last night my oldest son Nash did not want to go to bed. I was exhausted after my reveille at 4am with his younger brother. Nash sensed my weakness and instead of complying with my firm, (yet obviously not convincing enough) demands that he go brush his teeth, use the potty and go to bed, he happily said “No mommy”. Mommy looks tired, the iPad could be mine all night, teeth brushing be damned! (So I imagine he said to himself). And it could have turned out that way, I was that tired.  But then I would feel like I was failing, and he is only four for Gods sake, and I need to get it together and get him to listen to me!!! (So I imagine the range of emotions coursing through my body put to words in the milliseconds after he said no). After a brief, albeit boisterous, back and forth, Nash did what I asked him to do and was asleep within minutes of laying down. Goodnight.

I use this mundane, everyday experience, to illustrate my point. It is such an honor to be responsible for another life, one that you had a part in creating, but the long days of doing what has to be done in order to keep life going, is incredibly tough, and I am so thankful that I have a full-time job to release me from that drudgery, at least temporarily. And in that space I grant myself through work completely unrelated to motherhood, there is room for reflection and growth. I believe, because it is absolutely true for me, a mother who creates space for herself to nurture her selfish desires and curiosity about life, brings so much more richness to her and her children’s lives, and the result is that everyone benefits from it in the end.

I am incredibly happy to be a mother. Everyday I am challenged, I learn something new about humanity, become more empathetic and grounded, and release any remaining vestiges of my ego due to some embarrassing event at a store or restaurant. I am a better person because I am so tightly bonded to these other humans, but I am not ashamed to admit that come Monday morning after a long weekend with the kids, I am ready to drop them off at school with a kiss and get to work so I can think without distraction, or take a sip of hot coffee without having to break up a fight.

Motherhood is a wild, ever-evolving time in the life of a woman. It comes with so many challenges, ones that no one can really prepare you for. My little sister is thinking about having her first baby, and even though I feel like I’m constantly telling her about what new craziness I’m experiencing with my boys, I am so excited for her because I know her life is really about to begin. She will be elevated to another dimension of stress, sleeplessness, and aggravation, but with that also comes the emergence of a love for another person that I know I had never experienced before in my life. It is truly indescribable but also so incredibly simple, you just love them completely. I tell my sister that it is this instinctive, powerful drive that keeps me going when motherhood gets tough, but I also tell her to not quit her day job.