Awhile back, I promised I’d post this essay, which was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Mothers and Daughters this year. It’s all about the antics which ensued when Chicken Noodle and I traveled together when she was two. Seems especially appropriate given our recent mother-daughter quest to Hawaii (which was not without challenge, I might add).
A Better View
As my two-year-old daughter and I arrive at the airport on a cold January morning, I am thinking that in the next dozen hours, practically anything could happen. If ever there is a time to fear one’s own child, it’s at the outset of a full day of air travel.
She could play quietly with the tantalizing distractions I’ve so selectively packed. She could be so mollified by going up in the air, in an actual airplane, that she sits peacefully, eventually slipping into a nap.
Or she could refuse her toys along with any of two dozen snacks I carry, become over-stimulated and hungry, and begin to scream and flail and cry.
In short, I fear that my child will morph into a miniature blond devil, people will stare at me and shake their heads in shocked disapproval of my obvious shortcomings as a mother, and in response, I will succumb to a full-blown panic attack, the grips of which won’t let up for my entire vacation.
Traveling with children takes some getting used to. After nearly three years as a mother, I don’t think I’ve adapted yet.
Up until I gave birth, I believed (as most reasonable people do) that vacation was supposed to be easier than regular life. The first time I traveled with Miss Libby, however, I instantly found myself wanting to run screaming back to the tiresome simplicity of my own home, where the outlets were already covered with safety protectors and the sleeping arrangements were blessedly segregated. As my sister puts it, vacationing with children is your regular life, only harder, but with a better view.
If there is one thing I know after nearly three years of living, loving and traveling with this small person, it’s that on this journey as all others, I should expect the unexpected. Most everything I’ve planned for won’t occur, and things I’d never been able to imagine, will.
So, when, once we’re in the air, my daughter refuses goading for a nap, I am not surprised. When she chooses to eat only cookies, I hand them over, non-plussed. When, a thousand miles west of the Oregon coastline, she starts whomping me on the head with her open hand, I tell myself: saw that coming. After all, she’s been deprived of sleep, the high fructose corn syrup has just kicked in, and we’re strapped into 24A and 24B. I feel like having a little tantrum myself.
As the blows rain down, it occurs to me that perhaps my greatest challenge on this journey is also my greatest teacher. For aren’t the secrets to a successful vacation welcoming new experiences and doing whatever one wants? And aren’t those the two mantras that Libby daily embraces, right down to her teeny tiny red polished toes?
Today has already held several excellent examples of Libby’s lifelong search for the fresh and the indulgent. When the Brasilia EMB 120 started taxiing out of Redmond—novelty, indeed—she buckled up and began hollering, “Is it time to blast off?” Soon, she was doing her very favorite thing of all time, watching that 21st century parenting godsend: the portable DVD player. She wasn’t even the slightest bit surprised that some stranger offered her a complimentary beverage. “Where’s that lady with my apple juice?”
So what can I learn here? I am determined to succeed at this vacation, as well. It’s the first time I’ve visited Hawaii in years, I’ve left Libby’s 11-month old sister home with my doting spouse, and we’re destined for Grandma’s (and therefore, plentiful help for me). This is the closest I’m going to get to time off in quite a while.
Embracing the new, I decide, will mean rolling with the punches (even the literal ones). Doing as I wish will require letting Libby do as she wishes, because pleasure surely does not result from wars waged against one’s own progeny. Also, I will have to stay alert to the easy moments when they arrive so as to remember to enjoy them.
Suddenly, I realize that Libby’s attention has reverted to The Little Mermaid, and therefore one of those easy moments is now. I crack open my mystery and sit back with my seltzer water and lime.
An hour before landing, Libby purposefully shuts her movie player, announces, “I want to take a nap,” plops her head in my lap, and falls immediately asleep. She even sleeps through the crash-bump landing.
The unexpected and the pleasurable. These shall be our themes for the week.
Once we’re happily settled at Grandma’s, Libby refuses the fancy stickers, coloring books and ABC puzzle I packed for her and instead plays with my mother’s turkey baster, refrigerator magnets and calculator. Her small, vacation-special shirts and shorts never leave the suitcase; instead she wears pajamas at all times and everywhere, including the zoo. Her new sunglasses are tried on and discarded. The bright new cherry-speckled swimsuit—which, incidentally, she wore for three straight days back home, where it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit—will be worn exactly once before the superior appeal of the beach in one’s birthday suit takes hold.
I paste a dazed grin on my face and acquiesce to almost every whim. I become that mother whose child runs barefoot at the aquarium and consumes cereal for every meal and takes a bath only every three days. In exchange for these slovenly low standards, I get a child stricken with delight at her mother’s leniency and, therefore, the opportunity to collapse in a pool chair, one eye cracked to make sure she doesn’t drown, while she picks all of the flowers off of the bougainvillea.
The next day, she leaps waves at the beach, her ice cream pajamas pulled to her knees, hollering “whoo hoo! Whoo hoo!” At the zoo, she refuses to go and see any animals but instead ducks under a grouping of gigantic palm and fern right by the entrance and says, “Is this the jungle?” I slump on a bench, turn my face to the sun, and smile.
When she naps, I don’t do the dishes. I don’t do the laundry. I don’t read the important novel I am supposed to be reading for work. I don’t write an essay. I read trashy fiction. I eat greasy chips from the bag. I stare stupidly into the middle distance.
It’s the best vacation we’ve ever had. We are two wild girls, far from home and feeling frisky. At the beach at sunset on our last night, I drink two mai tais—two!—while Libby holds the hem of her tie-dyed dress up around her head and swings her pantied behind at all of the caramel-tanned tourists. She flashes a ketchup-covered grin and spins, singing “the sun is going down! Down!” And it does, and it’s beautiful, and I am happier than during any romantic sunset I can recall.
Eventually, the good times have to come to an end. As Libby launches a full-throttle melt down because I won’t let her get on the airplane in her kitty cat pajamas, I get a glimpse of the messy habits I’ll have to overcome when we get home. A week ago, this fit alone would have sent me into a panic. But now, I just take a deep breath and wait for whatever will come during the 15-hour journey we have in front of us. I bet that, somewhere in there, I’ll be able to find the pleasurable and the unexpected
By the time we get on the plane, she’s content. By the time we reach our third layover, when by all measures we should each be hysterical, Libby lays her blankie in the middle of the nearly deserted hallway of the Portland International Airport and tells me it’s time for a picnic. We eat nine kinds of pretend pie, lollipops, and popsicles. It’s delicious.
We are not bothered at all by the occasional suited traveler winding his way around our feast. When we’re finished, my daughter crawls into my arms, kisses each of my cheeks and then my lips, and says, “Thanks for going on the airplane with me, Mommy.”
I think, maybe the unexpected and the pleasurable are the very same thing.