I saw an old video of myself the other day. I was packing for an upcoming trip and my twins, who were about 2 years old then, were circling around me.
I don’t remember where we were going, but what has stuck with me is how, on camera, I appear as frantic as a contestant on a reality TV cooking competition. My hair is flying and my brow is furrowed as I appear in and out of the frame, grabbing clothes, zipping and unzipping duffel bags as I shove things in.
The twins, meanwhile, kept trying to get my attention:
“Mama, come here!”
But I was in a full-bodied packing haze. I was completely consumed by the stress of packing for our whole family. The wipes, the diapers. All the shoes, and the books — enough for each day. Did I remember his favorite socks? That bathing suit she loves?
Looking back — some eight years and more than 20 trips later — this wasn’t one of my finer moments. In my zeal to make my kids happy at every stage of the upcoming trip, to anticipate all their needs while away from home, I was ignoring them in the moment. Now that I’m a more seasoned mom of four kids, I realize now that all I had to do was meet their gaze, give them a quick squeeze, and go back to what I was doing.
I didn’t manage that then. And despite the worrying, I made tons of mistakes — I left one of my daughter’s beloved “bearies” mixed in with the white sheets at the Grand Floridian at Disney World. (I had them check every laundry facility around the country, to no avail.) I regularly forgot socks, I only packed goggles for one kid — a true crime with twins — and once I forgot diapers, so I ended up taking the kids to their first Wal-Mart. (There, my daughter stood in the doll aisle with her mouth wide open and screamed, “I love this place!”)
Thanks to a considerable amount of trial and error, I now have packing down to something resembling science. Here are a few tips I’ve learned the hard way.
Start early. I usually start packing at least three to five days before we leave, if not more. It’s enough time to run out and buy the things I already forgot, like sunscreen.
Quickly write up a packing list for each child. Check off the items as you pack them. (If possible, write how many of each thing you packed — but, honestly, though I aspire to this, I rarely do it.) And then, this is key: Pack the list along with the clothes so you don’t forget anything on the way home.
Pack some empty, large zip-top bags. These workhorses can be used for wet clothes, toiletries, snacks, and so much more. You’ll thank me later.
Carry-on a change of clothes for each child. Stuff happens — spills, vomit, and host of other things. I won’t go into the time when my little one had to run into the loving arms of his grandmother in baggage claim after a cross-country flight, wearing his sister’s dress.
Check and recheck the weather. Suitcases filled with shorts and T-shirts, we once went to Florida and it was cold. We ended up having to go shopping — not like we had anything better to do that random 40-degree day, but still. I could have been more prepared.
Don’t bring new clothes. If your kid’s never worn a V-neck cashmere sweater at home, I promise he won’t want to away when he’s away, either. Stick with the basics. If you need them to wear something special, do a test run at home first.
No new shoes. Blisters can obliterate a vacation. Make sure you have the kids break them in before you leave.
Check your luggage. When I’m traveling sans kids, I wouldn’t dream of checking a suitcase. But it’s hard enough toting kids around airports without lugging multiple wheelies, as well — because we all know the kids stop thinking that’s fun after about three minutes.
Better yet, ship your luggage. There’s a service called Luggage Free that reliably ships your bags anywhere — saving you the hassle of schlepping, checking, and customs. Given that my immediate family of 6 needs to rent a monster-sized vehicle because we have so many bags and people and stuff, it’s actually cheaper to ship the bags and then hire a more normal-sized car. I’ve used this service many times and have never had an issue — they’ll even pick up your luggage at your door. The process is insanely easy and helps get the trip started off on the right foot. (And no, they don’t know I’m writing this, but maybe if you give them my name I’ll get a discount. A mom can dream!)
Use one suitcase for dirty laundry on the way home. Shove it all in, and salvage the remaining clean items for those first hectic days back at home. No clean clothes left? You win! Your aim should be to end up wearing everything you packed for the trip. (I usually overpack but I still aspire to this “perfect 10.”)
Vacations are opportunities to spend time with your family and make some memories. Pack the camera, the chargers, the video camera, too. Ultimately, you won’t remember what you packed. You won’t even remember what you forgot to pack. You’ll remember the times you laughed, the hugs, the sunsets. So enjoy yourselves, and send me a postcard!