September-October 2009

Traveling…With Children

Clearly, the numbers were against them.

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Our mission: To survive two cross-country flights with three young children, plus a seven-night cruise with assorted in-laws. Clearly, the numbers were against us.

Carry-on items for airplane: Baby wipes, check.  Boarding passes, check. Nintendo DS with charged batteries (we’ll not make that mistake again, by God), check. Snacks, gum, sweat shirts for the chilly plane, change of clothes for the baby, People magazine to peruse during leisurely moments (hey, a woman can always dream…but when did my fantasies about Brad Pitt become fantasies of finding time to read about Brad Pitt?), check, check, check. Tylenol for packing-induced migraine, check.

Happiest moment of trip: A young businessman looks up from his Wall Street Journal at our unruly mob—haggard parents, wired children, drooling baby—and flees our row with an expression most often seen in horror movies when young campers get a glimpse of Jason’s flashing knife. Fine, maybe I gave one of my kids’ ears the slightest motherly tug to spark a timely squabble (“Hey! He pulled my ear!” “No I didn’t…owww! He hit me!”). They’ll work out their differences in therapy 20 years from now—in the meantime, we got a coveted empty seat! 

Most idiotic parental assumption: Surely the cruise ship will sell plenty of diapers. No need to lug an entire box on the trip. Plus, they’ll probably be just as cheap on the ship!

Most desperate parental moment: After realizing that horrifyingly expensive, suspiciously European-looking diapers sold in “general store” on cruise ship will tear if you apply the slightest bit of pressure to the adhesive tags, having to discreetly inquire, “Excuse me, miss? Do you also sell duct tape?”

Scariest calculus: Every time the baby pees it costs us $1.20. Add on the duct tape and it’s $1.30.

Funniest moment: A member of our party (name withheld to reduce tension at holiday dinners), having procured a few anti-anxiety tablets for the airplane, pops one during the cruise and wanders around aimlessly for hours, looking as blissful and loopy as a newborn kitten.

Teaching moment: Children, it is very wrong to contemplate drugging all your relatives at holiday dinners. Do as I say, not as I think.

Anti-Heloise hint: You can use dish-washing soap and the Barbie-size sink in your cabin’s bathroom to launder your fine washables. Sure, the clothes will stand up by themselves, but if you bend and stretch them (visualize forcing your T-shirts to do aerobics), they’ll eventually loosen up. A bit.

Safety first: Do not, under any circumstances, get between the crowd and the dessert buffet on a cruise ship. Those same little old ladies who, just moments before, were cooing over your chubby-cheeked baby, suddenly morph into thugs who won’t hesitate if it’s a choice between mowing you down and getting first shot at the Key lime pie.

Addendum to Dr. Spock’s child-rearing advice: When the baby rolls off the bed in the middle of the night (no room for a crib in the cruise cabin, but luckily the bed is about 6 inches off the ground), it’s best to first ascertain that you have not picked up the baby upside down and are attempting to console him in the darkness while dangling him like a bungee jumper.

Most valuable lesson for children: To get anything you want, simply arrange for the following circumstances: a two-hour departure from a cruise ship (during which you’ll be herded like bewildered sheep into various lines), a three-hour drive to the airport, a 90-minute delay for your flight, and a red-eye with optional turbulence. “Yes, you can play video games until your eyeballs pop out. Yes, you can buy Skittles and Starburst for breakfast on the airplane. Yes, you can sit on your brother’s head instead of finding a chair! Yes, yes, yes!”

Question you really don’t want answered: “Kids, what was your favorite part of our family vacation, the part you’ll always remember?” (See video game/Skittles extravaganza above.)

The Web site for Sarah Pekkanen’s debut novel, The Opposite of Me, scheduled for release by Atria Books in March 2010, is