“Do you want to go with your dad?”
The question catches nine-year-old Emmeline off-guard. She turns to me with a raised eyebrow. Her dad is at home, on the other side of the world. For him to accompany her into London’s Princess Diana Memorial Playground would be something of a feat.
It’s not the first time I’ve been mistaken for the father of my partner Caroline’s three daughters. It’s an honest mistake – we look like a family – but ironically, whenever it happens the assumed paternity acts as a stark reminder that I’m not a father at all.
I can never fill the shoes of their dad, and I don’t want to. As their mother’s partner, I need to forge an entirely different relationship with them, and that’s something we worked hard to get right. We didn’t rush into anything, least of all moving in, in an effort to slowly acclimatise the girls to the new normal.
And ultimately, perhaps the most important part of that process was travel.
Think about it: a long time spent close together, often in uncomfortable and unfamiliar places, and in transit, everybody’s usually at their worst.
It’s also a wonderful adventure full of shared experiences, often in amazing places we’ve only read about. Everyone’s horizons are broadened at once, and when we’re having fun, everybody’s usually at their best.
In other words, a great trial run for living together further on down the line. That was the theory, anyway.
What we didn’t factor in is that the five of us will experience the new dynamic in different ways. The kids are getting used to seeing their mum with someone new, so they’re working out which way the authority shifts (to Mum), who to turn to when they’re upset (to Mum), and who to beg for cash in the gift shop (me).
They also notice the differences between travelling with Dad: maybe Mum’s happier, maybe he doesn’t hire the same type of car, maybe we don’t have to wake up as early. It’s a radical departure from what they’re used to, and it’s hard to imagine how that must feel for them.
Meanwhile, my partner is looking after the kids’ needs and looking out for how they’re adjusting. At the same time, she’s trying to observe how I’m coping with having been thrown full-tilt into the parental experience and making sure I’m alright. We’d travelled before together without kids, but the first time with the girls became a much more stressful experience for her.
For me, the shift from travelling solo to suddenly travelling as Fake Dad was much more jarring than I’d anticipated. Check-in takes three times as long. Plane trips are no longer laid back chill time. Even a walk down the street in a foreign place means eternal vigilance. I’m looking after my partner and looking after the kids but trying to work out exactly how much looking after they need.
And more than anything, I become aware of the lack of alone time not only for myself, but for my partner, and for us as a couple. I’m exhausted by bedtime, and my sleep is sound even if my days are not.
Without the early years of babies, infants and toddlers (the girls are nine, six and four), there’s no acclimatisation. It’s just suddenly on. You haven’t been warmed up for the tantrums, the fights, the endless, odious Baby Shark. You don’t yet know their personalities well enough to know how to handle every situation, and even if you think you do, personalities change during travel.
You’re mistaken for Dad at every turn, whether it’s by well-meaning tour guides or snide onlookers silently questioning why I can’t control “my” kids.
But rather than let these unforeseen stresses drive a wedge between my partner and I, they bring us closer together. At times I had to concede I didn’t know what I was doing, that I didn’t know how to handle certain situations, and we’d tackle it as a team.
The most important thing in challenging situations when travelling with children is to remain a united front. They’re looking up to us for direction, and if we’re split, it adds even more uncertainty and stress. We remain solid throughout the hurried check-outs, the frenzied transit days and the broken glasses at the restaurants – the sort of in-the-moment problems that are inconsequential in the long run.
After all, the positive moments – teaching a four-year-old to snorkel in Hawaii, watching the girls experience snow for the first time in Finland, or going on scary rollercoasters as a team in South Korea – are rewards in themselves, and last a lifetime.
By the trip’s end, the girls have a clearer idea of our dynamic.
And so do we.
“Do you want to go with your dad?”
The Princess Diana Memorial Playground, at Kensington Gardens, is so absolutely for kids that the sign on the gate reads: “Adults may not enter without children”. Emmeline is slightly hesitant about climbing to the crows nest of the big playground pirate ship, and the park staffer has sensed her trepidation.
She looks back at me. I raise an eyebrow – it’s up to her.
She smiles. “Nah, it’s ok,” she says, with perhaps some level of tacit agreement, and scrambles up the rope ladder.
Soon her sisters have joined her at the top, laughing and waving down at me. They’re excited – we’ve got two hours to kill before we meet up with Caroline, and the playground is massive. They can’t wait to get into it, and knowing what’s ahead of me – two hours of pushing swings, filming slo-mo videos at slippery dips and playing hide-and-seek – neither can I.
By the time Mum returns from her “me time” in town, she can’t pull us away from the tyre swings.
Emme was right: it is ok. And on the taxi ride home from the airport, collectively exhausted but happy, there’s a strong sense that it’s going to be ok for a long time to come.
Michael Wayne is a freelance travel journalist and videographer.