Family sanity

A mother reveals her secret on how to travel with children -- and still feel like you're on vacation.

Published March 12, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

When we get a travel jones, my husband and I indulge. In our early married life, we dived the Cayman wall, danced at a German wedding, sampled rum and cigars in Cuba, raced our own small airplane across America.

And then, we had a baby.

I can hear you chuckling already. Most of my parenting friends did, too. They told me about what happens once you have kids -- you forget about Mount Everest and start sending away for the Disney brochures. "We like to stay home," they warned me. "Raising the kids is our top priority right now." What they really mean is that traveling with small children is just an exercise in expensive damage control, and who has the stomach for it?

I did. I swore that this baby wasn't going to wean us off our little junkets. I swore some more when we actually went on some of those trips. My intentions were noble but I came to realize, for example, that even a well-behaved 2-year-old will run screaming through the Uffizi after 35 minutes of staring at Titians. Later, instead of saying, "Thank goodness, Mommy, you've finally found the only vacant hotel room in all of Venice and now we can finally get some sleep," this same 2-year-old will instead keep us all awake by screaming the A-B-C song well into the morning. If the aforementioned toddler is potty-training, she will always have to pee immediately after boarding a subway.

As you can appreciate, I've made my share of mistakes. I've been that desperate parent next to you on the flight, you know, the one wrestling the screaming child? The one you mutter to yourself about, "Can't she just make that child STOP?" Yeah, I could, if I crammed a wad of the in-flight magazine into her mouth, but then the authorities would get a little too interested in my home life.

Instead, I learned to outsmart the screaming child. I learned that it is possible to take a vacation with small children, one that adults also enjoy, and I'm not talking Disney. I'm going to share my secrets with you, in hopes that more of us can take child-included vacations, thereby preserving our happiness and making us less likely to resent the little buggers and ruin their lives with constant refrains of "I always wanted to see the Acropolis. And then I had YOU."

First, there's no way around this one but it's easier if you just have one kid. I'm not saying to limit yourself to one or you'll never travel again. I'm just saying that you can take more adult-oriented vacations with only one child. See, you're still working a properly weighted ratio: One adult can check out the Piet` while the other feeds Cheerios to the cranky toddler. With two kids, things get much tougher. As my sister with two sons in diapers says, "Traveling is awful. The routine with the kids is just like at home, but without all the useful equipment." With three kids, you're just not going to have an insanity-free trip. As my other sister said after delivering her third boy, "We've moved from a man-to-man into a zone defense." If you can manage to take three children on a vacation without once longing to drive roofing nails into your forehead, you need to book yourself on Oprah right now and share your secret with the rest of the planet.

My second discovery was to work with the material you have. Crawling babies
who are into licking floors need to go somewhere clean. Preschoolers who
are in love with water want to go to shallow beaches. All kids need
frequent pit stops at big, empty, run-around-and-yell spots. Outdoors is
always good. Frequent changes in hotel rooms are not at all good. Come to think about it, frequent
changes in anything are not at all good.

So a sample day in Vienna with a 2-year-old could be arranged like this:
In the morning, when she's at her best, go to Schoenbrunn. After
the palace tour, have a picnic lunch on the grounds, where she can run around.
Then it's back to the hotel for a nap, when the shop-happy parent can slip out for some
errands and the non-shopper can read. After the nap, take a ride to nowhere on the
Ringstrasse trains and visit a coffeehouse for snacks. Then, stroll
through the streets and visit
a nearby playground, where you get to talk to some friendly locals. Next it's on to
an early dinner before the toddler gets cranky, to the street
musicians for a quick dance, then back to the hotel for toddler bedtime and
dresser drinks for the parents.

Last and most important: Get help, get help, get help. Don't believe your
friends and relatives when they say, "Oh, we'll help you watch little
Hannah." They have forgotten that "watching" is actually a grueling
triathlon of chasing, grabbing and herding, with an event change roughly
every 30 seconds. My mother, who promised to wake up with Lily at 6:30 a.m.
so that my husband and I could "sleep in," finally roused herself at 8,
yawning, "I heard you, but I just couldn't make myself get up." One friend
of mine spent New Year's Eve at her in-laws' estate, holed up in her room
with a colicky baby. "We'll help watch little Sam," the in-laws had
promised, "you need to get away for a night." But when the champagne hit
the flutes, they suddenly got a lot more interested in socializing than in
holding screamy little Sam.

No, family isn't enough. What anyone traveling with a small child needs is
reliable help and plenty of it. I'm not talking an expensive nanny or hotel
sitter. Those
solutions work for an occasional dinner out, perhaps, and even then, you have to
schedule them, and worry about the quality of care, and the kids themselves are
stuck with a strange sitter in a strange hotel room instead of enjoying
what everyone came to see.

In Venice, we discovered that the answer is a kind of team travel. There,
we met up with another couple and headed for the Biennale art exhibit. They
offered to trade off Lily-duty and we accepted. Miraculously, we managed to
see most of the show while all four of us took turns chasing the
2-year-old through the pavilions. My husband and I were hooked. We
realized that it's much better to haul along an entire other family. This
has the delightful effect of increasing the adult-to-child ratio. And if
the family has its own children, the bonus is that there are pals for
everyone. Team travel is even cost effective -- everyone's going the same place
together, so they all pay for themselves and nobody has to pay for sitters.

Last winter, in Bonaire, we booked some team travel and found true Child
Vacation Nirvana. We took along Lily's best friend, his mom and dad and
their fabulous beach tent for a week of world-famous snorkeling and scuba
diving. It was bliss. In the mornings, my husband and I were on toddler
duty, hauling the kids and their tent off to a nice beach or taking them on
a long walk for ice cream. After nap time, Dylan's parents took over while
my husband and I snorkeled, read, ate or, you know, vacationed. Every
night for dinner, one set of parents cooked in the condo for the kids while
the other set went out.

My husband and I got tans. We went snorkeling together. We ate out and
indulged in long, uninterrupted conversations. It reminded me of a friend's
idea of creating pornography for new parents, which would consist of glossy
pictures of adults engrossed in really thick novels, eating messy chocolate desserts while reclining on white
couches, or enjoying a moment
of silence over after-dinner drinks in a quiet, dimly lit restaurant.

The kids got tans. They splashed at the beach. They ate huge amounts of
fish and bananas and read books to each other. Wherever we took the kids,
who are exactly the same age, we got the admiring attention normally
reserved for parents of twins.

So now, we don't go anywhere without securing at least two other willing
adults, preferably with at least one child. Last fall, we stayed on the
Chesapeake with the aforementioned New Year's Eve friends and their son.
This winter, we ate and biked our way through Key West with Dylan's family. This fall, we're braving the overseas flight again for another two weeks
in Europe with the Venice helpers.

So here's my advice: Glom on to another family and start edging them toward
team travel. Flip through your address book right this minute and target
some likely candidates. Whether you're hoping to see the pyramids or just
survive Disney, this is the way to go.

By Phaedra Hise

Phaedra Hise is a freelance journalist, author and pilot living in Richmond, Va. She writes about aviation frequently for Salon, and covers business and technology for national magazines and newspapers.

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