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traveling with kids

Our Trip With Toddler Meltdowns and Messiness: Totally Worth It

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When my San Diegan brother-in-law got engaged a year ago to his long-time girlfriend, those of us living 3000 miles away on a Maine island celebrated with cheers and gentle jibes of “It’s about time!” My husband would be a groomsman at their wedding, of course, and I was delighted that they asked our daughter Penrose, now almost three, to be the flower girl.

As the happy day approached, though, I started to fret. We were flying out on a Thursday and returning on a Monday. The wedding was on Sunday, during peak nap time. We had to contend with not only the flights, but the three-and-a-half hour drive to and from the airport and a ferry boat ride on either end. Would the wedding, instead of being magical and heartwarming, become all about a tantruming toddler? Was it even fair to drag Penrose across the country, on three forms of transportation, and then quickly drag her back?

But we took the plunge. We got up early on Thursday to catch the morning ferry, which was a little rollier than normal. We stopped by the humane society to visit the 7-month-old kitten we’d be bringing home with us when we returned, then hit the road for Logan Airport. We went through security surprisingly quickly, and Penrose willingly put her current lovey, a fetal looking stuffed pink turtle, in the basket for its ride through the x-ray. Then we got on a plane. I clutched Penrose’s tiny hand as we taxied down the runway. She was oblivious to my nerves, slumped in her seat wearing giant studio headphones, getting ready to watch Moana for the fortieth time while munching on the popcorn chips Jet Blue hands out. She fell asleep briefly, but woke up at a loud sound and spent much of the rest of the flight sobbing with exhaustion.

We got to San Diego on time and were eagerly scooped up by my in-laws, who had mercifully purchased tacos and horchata for us on the way into the city. Pen was wide awake again, slurping horchata and entertaining everyone in the car with a delirious monologue before falling asleep quickly in my husband’s old bed. The next day my mother-in-law helped her get up and dressed. She moped her way into the beautifully renovated kitchen, whimpering when she saw me and pushing her face against my knees. Then she looked away, coughed, and spewed watery vomit all over their new floor and barstools. And she did it again. And again.

Three outfit changes later (including one for me – she threw up three more times while we were resting on the couch watching Daniel Tiger), Pen perked up a little. We had fun at Fashion Valley, buying my husband a suit, and running around at the Carlsbad Flower Fields. No nap, though. Then the power went out at my in-law’s house during family dinner.

The wedding day arrived. We started early, with a hair stylist coming to the house. Penrose was as still as a statue while she got curls and sparkly bobby pins. She fell asleep in the car en route to the ceremony, mashing her hairdo into the carseat. When we arrived 45 minutes later she was full-on cranky. She refused to put on her flower crown. She refused to say hello to any new relatives. As we paraded down the very short aisle she refused to sprinkle any rose petals. She refused to sit in her chair in the front row, stiffening herself on my lap and sliding down onto the sand every few minutes, then fussing until I hoisted her back up.

Pen wavered between delightful and demonic for the next five hours. She laughed hysterically during my husband’s speech, entertaining the bridesmaids at the next table. She shoveled in rice and watermelon from the delicious Filipino buffet and toasted the new couple with a tiny glass of water. She also screamed shrilly when I thought about getting up to dance, dragged me outside over and over again for a break from the loud room, cried because she couldn’t dive into the box of props for the photo booth, and almost fell asleep on her abuela. Bedtime, nearly two hours late and after no nap, was tearful.

So in the end, was it fair to her, to shake up her routine like this?

Absolutely. Life isn’t easy, and traveling is often grueling for adults as well as kids. But we do it anyway, to have new experiences, visit family, and to be there for the important moments. Penrose got to meet rooms full of people excited to see her, to hear Tagalog and Spanish spoken, to watch a wedding hula and eat lumpia, none of which would have happened on our island back home. And despite the meltdowns and exhaustion, we all survived, making it through a very turbulent flight back to Boston, a long nighttime drive, a night in a friend’s house, and getting our kitten the next morning before hopping on the boat. The kitten got seasick and then ran around the car covered in his own poop.

But we survived that too.

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