This past week, we flew cross-country with Miss E to California, and let me just say, traveling with a 20-month-old is quite a different experience than a 10-month-old. Prior to this trip, I liked to think of my husband and I as undaunted by the prospect of traveling with a toddler, in a we’re-going-to-give-her-experiences-and-have-ours-too sort of way. Now that we’re home? I think we’re both a little crazy. And we had no idea what to expect.
To her credit, she was spectacularly chill on the plane for a small person whose primary goals in life include getting “Down!” and touching everything, preferably beyond the prying eyes of mama and dad. Both of our flights were very, very early, meaning we had to rouse her somewhere in the neighborhood of 4:30 in the morning. But provided we kept her in Cheerios, comfy laps, and all of the travel-friendly entertainments she could desire, her whining was minimal.
My nerves, however, were frying by the minute. And it wasn’t just the flight, though being cramped, tired, and having to pee every 45 minutes on a plane courtesy of being four months pregnant left me that much less energy to contend with Miss E’s minute-by-minute needs. Even after we arrived in San Francisco, it became abundantly clear to me how limited we would be in our adventures. My husband was in a work conference for three of our five days there. Everything is up hill, and I mean everything. Miss E had to come in and out of her umbrella stroller every time we needed to use public transit, which was anytime we wanted to go anywhere that wasn’t the little park beside the hotel. So we spent a lot of time in that park, and I spent even more time feeling guilty for venturing forth while she cried about being strapped in, and the brief promise of freedom that was a ride on the cable car.
It wasn’t all or even mostly bad, of course. By the third day Miss E was grinning every time we got on the cable car, flirting with the other passengers and exclaiming, “Trolley! Trolley!” She hugged a dog. Everywhere we went people were giving her things, mostly bananas, sometimes small chocolates. I brought her Magna Doodle on a particularly long bus ride and we worked through her alphabet, allowing me to beam a little in motherly pride when the other riders marveled at how many of her letters she already knows. On our second-to-last day she and I relished a special lunch at a local cafe, sharing a plentiful bowl of penne with spicy tomato and vodka sauce. We mopped up every last mouthful with freshly baked sourdough bread.
It’s just, my husband and I have always taken vacations with lots of intentions. We want to see this, we want to go there. It’s never been about relaxing poolside or really relaxing anywhere, we want to explore. And when it comes to exploring with a toddler, there’s more to be found in a sandbox or a park fountain than in trekking miles across an unfamiliar city to a renowned independent bookstore. While this particular vacation was certainly complicated by how little time we had and how mostly alone I was, it still wouldn’t have been what I would’ve imagined for us a few years ago, before becoming a parent. I’d by lying if I said it doesn’t make me a little sad, remembering the willful freedom, the adventures in a new place.
But she makes it worth it. Because what I thought I needed to do to see the wonder in an unfamiliar place – to take a streetcar and two buses and tuck myself away in a strange corner of the world to write and ponder – isn’t actually necessary at all. I’ve only got to follow her lead, to get down on my knees and run playground sand between my fingers, stroke the broad, waxy surface of a new kind of leaf, use my gentle hands to say hello to a friendly dog. It’s different, but good.
Kind of like being a mom.