I thought nothing of stuffing my newborn son, Christoph, into a snuggly, filling my suitcases with onesies and German dictionaries, and moving to Göttingen, Germany, for a two-year adventure.
I grew up traveling with my mom and had been traveling abroad since the age of 17. I couldn’t stop just because I’d become a mom.
“A children’s book writer has to see the world, “ I told my husband, Hans, “and Germany has plenty of good pediatricians.”
Hans, a geneticist, needed some convincing, but once I suggested his parents’ homeland, he applied for German research grant, and we were on our way with paid housing and a stipend.
Juggling sleep deprivation, flimsy diaper service, grocery shopping without a strong command of German, and hit or miss babysitting so I could write my children’s books was well worth the trouble for the reward of medieval castles and Black Forest trails. I became an expert at pumping breastmilk straight into a baby bottle in the back seat of a car so that we didn’t have to stop driving to Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Sababurg or to Pied Piper’s trail in Hameln. The only disaster I remember was when I skipped off with Christoph to Freiburg on a train and left behind the suitcase for Hans to bring the next day. Silly me—I thought we could get by for one night at my friend’s house without a change of baby clothes. But when Christoph got serious diarrhea—from his shoulders to his toes—I struggled to bathe and change him in the cramped train bathroom and to wrap him, naked in a diaper, in my overcoat. It was early spring in Germany. What was I thinking?
From Germany to Japan
Germany prepared Christoph for a childhood of travel, and before he quit believing in Santa Claus he had crossed the ocean with us a dozen times, climbed the Tower of London, scampered through Merlin’s cave at Tintagel, skateboarded at the Bastille in Paris, and played samurai on the lawns of the 14th century castle of Kumamoto, Japan.
His tenth Christmas was one of my favorites. I bought a Christmas-tree-looking plant, decorated it with Japanese origami, and hid presents under my futon in our one-room teacup apartment. After all the unwrapping, we baked a chocolate cake with Japanese friends and sat on the floor around their table and drank sake or juice and ate edamame. On Christmas night we looked at Mt. Aso up close, and before bed, we soaked in an outdoor mineral bath in the falling snow.
He Can’t Go Everywhere
Taking Christoph with me has been my best way to keep working. He’s been to my booksignings and author talks, and even joined me in one of my interviews of the Dalai Lama. We packed his skateboard in my suitcase (before the airlines let you carry them on board) and always found a skatepark when my work was done.
But not all of my trips were safe for a child, and then I had to go alone. I agonized with separation anxiety for the three weeks I was in Burma (Myanmar) in 1995. I was there to interview Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who had just been released from six years of house arrest, and I noticed government spies watching me and planting a device in my hotel-room phone. What if they stopped me from leaving the country, I worried. Christoph would never understand.
“How could you give up being close to your sons?” I asked Aung San Suu Kyi who abandoned freedom and motherhood to bring democracy to her country.
“I do it for all the Burmese mothers and children who have no human rights,” she said, and to that I had no response. Her words just made me want to get home faster and hug my little boy.
Carrying on a Family Tradition
I can’t finish this story without writing about a mother and child vacation without Hans and Christoph.
“Come with me on a retreat to Costa Rica,” my 74-year-old mother begged me for the fifth year in a row. “It will be your 50th birthday present from me.”
I wanted to argue that I had work and carpool, but Christoph just got his driver’s license, and my work could wait a week. “And besides,” said Mom’s travel agent, “you haven’t done this since you trekked together in Tibet and Nepal. And when will you do it again?”
So you see, mother and child travel is our family tradition. So off we went, the two of us, for a week in Sarapiqui. We galloped on horseback up hills through the rainforest, went whitewater rafting, and even rode the zipline out to the cascade at Sueno Azul. And when all that exercise woke us up with achy muscles, we didn’t hold back on the massages and mud wraps before an evening on the veranda with wine or seltzer and starlight. There’s something to be said about our family tradition, but I must confess that a 50th birthday without all the action that amuses a teenager, now that is a trip.
Whitney Stewart began writing children’s biographies in 1987 after she met and interviewed the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, the subject of two of her books. For her next biographies, she trekked with Sir Edmund Hillary in Nepal, interviewed Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and climbed along China’s Great Wall to research the lives of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. In 2005, she published her first picture book: Becoming Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha.
Stewart currently lives in New Orleans, Louisiana with her husband and son. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, she was trapped in a building with her son and mother-in-law and helicoptered to safety three days after the storm. She lived on the island of Nantucket for four months and researched Nantucket shipwrecks. In 2008 she published a picture book about an unknown tale of Abraham Lincoln, and an account of the rescue of a Newfoundland dog from wreck of the WF Marshall in 1877. Her newest children’s books, set for release in 2009, are a biography of Walt Disney and Coffin’s Ghost, a mystery/ghost story set on Nantucket.