About two weeks ago, I came back from a two-week family “vacation” in Europe. Our group was four adults (me, my husband, and my parents) and my five children–three of them aged 3 and under. Nine suitcases, two of them duffel bags full of diapers, wipes, bottles, and baby food. And three strollers.
It was wonderful. And I have only just now recovered from it.
Have you ever fantasized about taking a big trip with your little ones? If so, read on for some unsolicited advice.
1. Have more adults than babies in your travel party.
I’m not talking about adults who “want to see the sights,” or people who believe that a vacation should be a “relaxing” experience. If either of these people sounds like you, you should save yourself a lot of money, time, and aggravation: Buy a cardboard cutout of the Eiffel Tower, put your kids in front of it, and take a picture. Voila! Instant European vacation memories.
If this kind of trip seems like a good idea to you, what you really need is more adults (ideally equal to the number of kids, but we couldn’t swing that). And it takes a certain kind of adult to do this trip. The adult participants need to be the kind of people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and push a stroller with a 20-something-pound kid up a steep cobblestoned incline on a 90 degree day–and then carefully drag it down said incline. Forget about shopping for yourself–you need to be the kind of person who deliberately wears non-fashion forward clothing because you know by the end of the day there will be some combination of chocolate gelato and poo (not their own) smeared on it. Ideally, you will bring the kind of people who, if they see a kid ready to vomit on a bus, would whip the hat off their own heads to catch said vomit.
These are the kind of people my husband and parents are, for which I am eternally thankful, as they were my adult companions on this trip. I am sad to say that you cannot have any of these three people to go on your own ill-advised vacation, as they are already booked. And you wouldn’t be able to reach my husband anyway, since I threw his kid-vomit-covered pants into the washing machine in our rented apartment…without checking the pants pocket to see that his phone was in there. A lesson to all of us: I shouldn’t do the laundry.
If you yourself are not the kind of person who can laugh annoying things like this off, do not under any circumstances attempt this kind of trip. If you are, please read on.
2. Don’t look down your nose at child-friendly venues, food, etc.
This is not going to be the trip where you try that New York Times-recommended restaurant in Naples, or get to take a leisurely stroll through that modern art museum in the South of France. You will not be able to dine at the conventionally acceptable 10 p.m. dining hour in Spain.
Instead, you will be the only ones in the restaurant at 7 p.m. (a benefit to you and, presumably, the other diners who will arrive well after your personal travelling circus has departed). You will, in fact, only be able to dine in places that have highchairs, boosters, or approximations thereof–unless you want to hold the kid on your lap and spend the evening playing the age-old game “Let’s Test Gravity” with silverware.
3. Just remember: a trip with multiple babies is not a “vacation.”
We took this trip for the benefit of our two older boys, who are in 4th and 5th grade. And for them, it was utterly fantastic. They were intrigued by crazy Gaudi architecture in Barcelona, learned what a funicular was first-hand in Montserrat, marveled at the cliffs of Capri and ruins of Pompeii, and–perhaps equally exciting–spotted “Guardians of the Galaxy” posters in Spanish and French. I kvelled in the Colosseum, as the boys bombarded the tour guide with questions about gladiatorial contests (of course) and architectural construction (surprising).
So was it worth it? For them, absolutely yes. But as every parent knows, traveling anywhere with children who are in diapers/don’t dress themselves/are not in elementary school is not a “vacation” as much as it is a “trip.” If it involves a long flight (ours were at least seven hours each way), I’d go so far as to call it an “odyssey.”
So knowing what I know now, would I have still taken this trip?
Well, I can’t say that I regret going–because of the wonderful, bucket-list places we went to, the family togetherness, and the terrific experience my boys had.
But damn, it was a lot of work.
It is hard, hard work being responsible 24/7 for little people who do not understand concepts like “time difference” or “jet lag.” It is hard being patient with little people who do not understand that not every eating establishment in the world serves apple juice, or the concept that 1,590 times is really more than enough times to sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Even if you don’t have two kids get sick while you are abroad (not-so-hypothetically), it is just plain exhausting. There were tears every day. Mine as well as the girls’.
But the key to a trip like this is in managed expectations. You will be exhausted. There Will Be Tantrums. You will be frustrated. But, if you can learn to Let It Go, you will see beautiful, jaw-dropping things and be so, so thankful that you are there with people you love who can hold you up when you are ready to drop.
In fact, if you STILL feel that you want to take a trip like this with your multiple toddlers, just note that you will likely need a vacation–or at least a day to yourself!–upon your return. But note that instead, when you finally arrive home, you will open your suitcases to find your personal souvenir: the rest of the laundry. Enjoy the white noise of the machines, and make sure you check the pockets first.