How One Woman Used Her Maternity Leave to Travel the World – Condé Nast Traveler

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Karen Edwards and her daughter, Esme, on their epic trip.

My one-year-old daughter, Lucy, was born to travel. She was conceived midway through an around-the-world adventure, and I suffered the first pangs of morning sickness in Aix-en-Provence and saw the faint positive sign on a pregnancy test in an East London café. I had dreams of having a little girl in Edinburgh, and saw the first swimmy sonogram in Dublin.

Finally, at fifteen weeks pregnant, I came back to New York City. The first trimester had wiped me out, and I realized I needed to stay in one place. But I still had the travel bug. So far, I’ve gone on four cross-country flights solo with Lucy, but her blank passport has been taunting me. I’m ready for her to get her first stamp, but I also have some majorly cold feet.

Or I did have cold feet, until I spoke with Karen Edwards. Creator of Travel Mad Mum, a website and Instagram account with more than 50 thousand followers, the London-based mom used her one-year-long maternity leave as a nurse for the U.K.’s National Health Insurance to travel around the world with her partner, Shawn, and their daughter, Esme, now sixteen months. Now settled back in the U.K., Edwards explains the reason she did it—and why having a baby should never be an excuse to stay at home. She has a point: With more companies and certain states, like California and New York, now offering paid family leave options, why not use some of that time to create a once-in-a-lifetime itinerary with your brand-new travel companion?

CNT: What was the impetus for the trip?

Karen Edwards: When I found out I was pregnant, I had this image of myself traveling with a baby on my back. I’d done a lot of backpacking when I was in my early twenties, and I knew that travel was a huge part of who I was. And there was also the practical element: Shawn is from New Zealand; I’m from Ireland, and we live in the U.K. We want Esme to know her grandparents and relations, so we knew that traveling was going to be a huge part of our lives. We figured, why not do it when we had the time? It’s also much less expensive to travel than to live in a city like London.

How long after you gave birth did you set off traveling?

When Esme was twelve weeks, we packed up and left. We started small: We went to Ireland. But she did well there, which was a huge confidence booster.

Traveling can be a big expense. How did you pay for it?

We were able to afford the trip by renting out our London flat. I was getting maternity pay, and Shaun is a landscaper, so he was able to pick up some odd jobs when we settled for a bit in New Zealand.

What countries did you visit?

Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. And we also did an enormous amount of travel in New Zealand. We used New Zealand as our “home base” for a bit, so a lot of our friends from around the world used that as an excuse to come visit.

One essential travel item? An Ergo baby carrier.

What was the planning process like?

A few weeks before we were slated to go, I told Shawn that I didn’t think we could do it. I was hormonal and terrified and couldn’t imagine living out of a backpack with a baby. But we’d rented our house, there was no going back. We divided our belongings into three drawstring bags that fit into one backpack. We also brought an Ergo baby carrier, a Mountain Buggy Nano stroller, and a Baby Bjorn travel crib. And a car seat was also a necessity. Yes, it’s big and bulky, but I always tell parents who want to travel that you can’t afford to not bring it.

What was the low point?

The flight from Bali to Malaysia was pretty awful. We hardly ever went out at night during the trip, but the night before the flight, Shawn’s brother happened to be in Bali, so Shawn and he went out to celebrate. Shawn wasn’t feeling great that morning and then first thing on the flight, Esme peed on his leg and we forgot a change of clothes. It was a long four hours for Shawn. We can laugh about it now, but it was rough.

Were there any other speed bumps?

Another time, Esme had gotten into our medicine bag. Shawn is diabetic and she’d found his insulin. We were quite worried she’d somehow ingested it, so I had to use my nursing skills to do a blood draw and check her blood sugar. She was fine—we realized she must not have gotten any in her mouth—but it was still quite scary! I think that also reminded us to really know what we would do in case of a medical emergency; you just can’t chance it. I was breastfeeding, which I found relatively easy to do anywhere, but there was one point, on the island of Langkawai in Western Malaysia, where I felt quite uncomfortable. I felt like even though the location was marketed toward Western tourists, there were a lot of unspoken rules about how much skin was acceptable to show.

I was hormonal and terrified and couldn’t imagine living out of a backpack with a baby.

What was the best part?

We loved all of Taiwan. It was a gorgeous country and so amenable to babies—there were family rooms in every metro station that contained recliners for breastfeeding, wipes, everything. And people loved babies. Esme got the celebrity treatment, especially in Bali and Thailand where people would just come up and touch her.

How was traveling different with a baby?

It was very different than what we’d done in the past. Before, I was the type who could just get to a country and book a hostel that day. You can’t do that with a baby. We always booked in advance. Something we realized was that it was best for all of us to lay low on travel days. Finding a hotel that had a pool for that first night or two was great; it was so nice to just relax around the water and get our bearings before we had a day of exploring. Another thing I found helpful was to see what child-friendly attractions were recommended: We went to a soft-play indoor space in Hong Kong recommended by a local on And I’ve found PearlShare to be a helpful app; you can search a city or destination by baby-friendly attractions.

But the biggest thing was how slowly we took it. A few times, after Esme had fallen asleep, Shawn and I would have a sort of “happy hour”—we’d pull two chairs in the bathroom and crack open a beer. It wasn’t like going to a local bar, but it was still fun. And I also found it helpful for us to have our main meal when Esme was asleep in the stroller or carrier—having two hands and the ability to chat was amazing. And sometimes, we would try to sample the local nightlife: in Ho Chi Minh City, our hotel was right by the night markets, so Shawn and I would take turns heading out and exploring while Esme slept.

What advice do you have for other parents considering doing this?

Google Translate is your friend! When Esme was about seven months, we found out she had an egg allergy. So one thing we did was translate the phrase ‘Does this dish have any egg in it?,’ printed it out in whatever language was spoken, and showed it to a waiter when we were at a restaurant. We also stocked up on pouched food in Australia and New Zealand and brought those on the road with us—they went fast and were great for staving off a meltdown and knowing no matter what the food options were, Esme had something to eat.

Where are you off to next?

Luckily, in the U.K., I have eight weeks vacation annually, so I really want to use them. We’re going to South Africa next, starting in Port Elizabeth and then taking the Garden Route to Cape Town. And then who knows? We always want to make travel one of our main priorities as a family.

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How One Woman Used Her Maternity Leave to Travel the World – Condé Nast Traveler

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