Karen (aka @travelmadmum on Instagram) and her family are the first in our series of #Mastersoftravel - a celebration of families and individuals who are integrating travel into their working existence, driven by a constant wanderlust and a belief that the standard 25 days holiday allowance just doesn't quite cut it.
I've followed @travelmadmum for a while now, and I'm sure that many of you have heard elements of her story, as the fact that her and her husband took their 10 week old baby around the world, maximising the most of her maternity leave, was picking up by over 300 news outlets world-wide. Having recently had a baby, and despite the fact that we plan a similar trip in the new year, (when Otis will be 6 months), I have the utmost respect for a family that travelled with a 10 week old baby. Most of us are still looking around wondering what the hell happened to our lives at that point!
I caught up with Karen to find out more, hear about some of their future travel plans as a family, and understand how she's integrated travel into their working lives and overall balance.
Tell us about your family & work situation and how travel fits in?
I'm from Ireland originally and have been living in London for 13 years. I came here to go to university to study to be a nurse and then stayed once I'd met my husband, who is from New Zealand. We both clicked because we love travelling.
I work as a full time nurse and site manager in a central London hospital. My husband is a builder and we renovate and do up houses at the same time as living in them. At the moment we're pretty broke, and we don't have a strong support network in London, so we're managing childcare between on us on our days off.
We try to get away as much as possible. I do shift work and get great annual leave, and because Sean works for himself we can go when we want.
We had Esmé 2 years ago, but we weren't expecting to get pregnant, it was a complete shock! We were sitting on a beach, on holiday in New Zealand when we figured it out. I wasn't quite ready to have a baby and give up our travel lifestyle and the thought of spending a year getting used to that new life would have killed me. We thought about it, and realised that if we stayed in London we couldn't actually afford for me to take full maternity leave. We were midway through renovating our house, and we decided to rent it out and go travelling, giving ourselves a timeline of 3 months to finish. I was working full time and I took on an extra job. Sean was working full time, and working in the evenings. I was also doing my masters. My 9 months of pregnancy was outrageous.
But at the end of the day we sat on the plane, took off and all our problems were gone.
We went home to see my parents in Ireland, then went to Singapore, then New Zealand to see Sean's family and from there we travelled home all through SE Asia. We used just one backpack, to keep things light, and have hands free to look after Esmé. There were still things that we didn't wear!
I was 8 months into my maternity leave when I thought of blogging. I needed something to stimulate my brain after having been in a busy job and lecturing at university. Someone said that our family travelling was unusual and that it would be good to document it.
I wrote the blog for about 5 months, then we came back home, and I returned to work. We didn't have many followers initially, but I'd told some newspapers what we were doing before we left, and suddenly the Daily Mail published the story after we'd returned. It went mental from there and was published in more than 300 worldwide publications. It tapped into a niche and people were jealous they hadn't done it themselves. People email us, saying that we've inspired them to go. One girl sent me a picture holding her baby up in the air in Sydney. She'd taken her there as a newborn to see her sister. Her family had said not to go, but she'd had the best time. That makes you so happy that you're doing it.
Since then, we've been back to New Zealand, stopping in Thailand and Cambodia. We've been to Cuba, to South Africa, and a little bit through Europe, for example, through Italy recently (for our honeymoon).
What were you hoping to gain from these trips?
First and foremost was not to be at home during the winter after pregnancy, because I felt it would be depressing. If we'd stayed in London I would have had to go back to work much earlier than a full year; and I was really pro breast-feeding for that whole time. In all honesty, I don't think I thought about the benefits for Esmé, or the benefits to us as a family, other than her having her mum with her the whole time. Having looked back though, us three being together was the most amazing thing, and it's really developed her socially.
What were friends and families reactions when you announced you were going?
Both mine and Sean's parents haven't travelled in less developed countries. They obviously had opinions and questions about how we were going to manage it. Friends and siblings weren't surprised. Some friends were saying that they loved that we weren't letting our child restrict our lives - I said she still does, just in different ways!
How do you make travelling (and blogging) work alongside your job?
We go on regular trips to keep up the blog now, so I run out of my annual leave a lot quicker. We've started getting sponsorship offers, so sometimes the trips are sponsored and that's how we manage it financially. All of our money currently is in the renovation we're doing, and we've just got married, so I'm the only one bringing in an income. I have a monthly sponsored writing job from the blog, and sometimes we are given things to review, but it's not a huge income.
This is a new field for me. I come from a professional background, that is focused on caring, not taking things from people, so its difficult to work out my rates and how much my work is worth. I have a big audience for the blog and that's something that needs to be paid for, as does my time. A good blog takes a full day to produce, once you've edited the pictures, written the piece and optimised it for search.
Why is travel so important to you?
It's a big part of my identity. I'm also a little obsessive about it, I want to go to every country in the world.
What do you hope your kids will gain from travelling?
I want Esmé to have lots of fun and to enjoy different environments. I was bought up in Ireland and never saw different cultures or ways of life and moving to London was a culture shock. I want her to have that exposure. I've learned more from travelling than from any university and I feel its a great way for kids to learn.
For a child that doesn't have kids around her all the time, her social skills are great, and that's because of travelling. The only issue is us not having a community here, because we're always away.
What's the best experience you've had with your family while travelling?
We did a safari trip in South Africa where we did self-drives through safari parks. Esmé was sitting on my knee and was saying, "wow they're so close". Her speech on that one trip alone developed so much as she was saying the names of all of the animals she was seeing.
And the worst? What have you found are the biggest challenges about travelling with kids?
We lost the nappy bag one evening when we were in Bali. We had everything in it; her epi pen, money, passport, nappies, and my husbands diabetic insulin. That was awful. We didn't think we'd see it again. I'd been round all of the streets with the owner of the hotel searching for it. The next morning, a guy was sitting on our porch with the bag. I couldn't believe it - to have faith in someone that has a lot less than you is quite a big thing.
Esmé is also a fussy eater, which is always hard, no matter where you are. I didn't worry about it too much, but it's more difficult when all of the flavours are different.
Is there anything you regret about having taken the non-traditional route?
Not having community where we live is the biggest thing, as our friends don't really have kids yet. I live in crystal palace and the other day I put a notice on a mum's page and met a nice girl locally who has a little girl the same age. It would be nice to have children for Esmé to play with.
What are your best tips for others wanting to travel with children? The things you'd wish you'd known and had to learn the hard way?
The most important thing for us was traveling light. You don't need to bring lots of toys, as you can pick things up along the way. We'd buy things like a bucket and spade for the beach and afterwards we'd give it to the local kids. I'd have bought more western snacks for Asia for her in hindsight. We used to go to the market and buy mango, bananas or sweet potatoes (cooking them in a kettle). Everything else I researched so much in advance that I felt like I was well prepared.
What are your future travelling plans?
We have something booked for every month. We are visiting Bruges at the end of this month (October), Lapland in November. In January we're visiting Sri Lanka or Mauritius or somewhere in that area. In February we'll probably go skiing, March Chicago, and Jordan in April.
The long-term plan is to grow our family further, and then grow the blog to the point where we could rely on it. I have been approached about writing a book, but time is a factor - maintaining the blog and social media is enough. If I was to go on maternity leave again, I'll try and do it then!