It takes a certain degree of insanity to travel abroad with a small human who is equal parts adorable and infuriating. You're probably looking at a long flight, packing light is not an option, travel is unpredictable, and toddlers aren't exactly known for their flexibility (besides putting their feet behind their head during a diaper change). Still, and as a stranger pointed out while my toddler was screaming on the train to Strasbourg, if you have the chance to travel you should. Our trip was a challenge but, in the end, traveling internationally with a toddler taught me a lot about parenting.
The upside of my husband's 12-month deployment is that he was guaranteed two weeks of rest and relaxation. The Army would fly him anywhere in the world, and because my daughter hadn't yet turned 2 years old, we were only looking at paying a tenth of a ticket for her. We decided to ignore the advice of Rick Steves and take an epic European vacation. I planned a 14-day itinerary of five cities in two countries, bought plane and train tickets, and booked our Airbnb locations. I was ready.
Just like all the reading I did while pregnant could never really prepare me to care for a newborn, no amount of planning could have completely assisted me in overcoming the special challenges of toddler travel. At the end of the day, our trip was both stressful and delightful. I don't regret it, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and the lessons I've learned have made me a better mom.
Preparation Is Everything
As any mom who's ever packed a diaper bag knows, it's better to be prepared. This sage advice was never so keen for me as it was during international travel. You never want to be caught without diapers, wipes, a change of clothes, or heaven forbid, snacks. The busy bag I stuffed with toy dinosaurs, an Elmo sing-along book, and bouncy balls saved my world-traveling ass.
As a parent, I've learned that you have to give yourself an "everything that can possibly go wrong" window. I started the passport process for my daughter six months in advance (good thing, too, because I had to get notarized permission from my deployed partner). Making reservations ahead of time saved me a lot of headaches.
When In Doubt, Punt
You can't possibly prepare for every situation (whether at home or abroad), so it helps to have a healthy "I've got this" attitude. I tend to get in a twist about things, but international travel forced me to be flexible, and that's a good thing. Handling a problem like a boss has had the added benefit of making me more confident.
Having planned a spring trip, I did not anticipate the Bavarian Snowpocalypse that awaited us. We ended up hiking up a mountain in less than ideal conditions. I got a little worked up about it, but we bought the kid a hat and gloves (adult size, so she looked pretty weird), put her on her dad's shoulders, and let it go. When we reached that fairytale castle, even my soaking wet Toms couldn't dampen my spirits.
Kids Have Limits & So Do Parents
When toddlers are done, they're really done. Travel can really push them to the very edge, and even right off of it.
Our first day in Munich, there was some sightseeing I really would have liked to do. However, a jet-lagged mom and baby aren't the best combination, so we took a nap while my husband went out to drink some delicious Dunkel (dark) beer. Do I wish I'd been sipping on a Radler? Sure. However, I did what I needed to do for everyone to have a more enjoyable trip in the long run.
It's OK To Break The Rules
As a former teacher, I'm a rule maker and a rule follower. Nothing like a transatlantic flight to make a mom realize that rules don't have to be hard and fast. It's important to me to limit screen time for my child, but when I'm an an airplane with her, all bets are off. That kid watched more Elmo than I care to admit, but it kept her from screaming. When it buys mom a little bit of sanity, I'm all about it. Now that we're home, it hasn't even been that hard to wean her off the iPhone, so I count that as a win.
Let Them Eat Cake
Speaking of breaking the rules, I used to be pretty uptight about letting my baby have sugar. I eventually realized that by forbidding treats I was making them more desirable. Like most things, sugar is fine in moderation. My baby girl tried gelato topped with a macaron (yes, this is a thing and I don't know why I didn't think of it first), Black Forest cake, and chocolate truffles. Guess what, you guys? She still eats her vegetables.
Like my mom says, "Sweets are just one nice thing in a world of nice things."
Keep Activities Kid-Centered
Wait. So you're saying that maybe my toddler throws fits in Target because it's not as fun for her as it is for me? But it's Target.
OK, so we all have to do things we don't like to do, but when planning activities, I've learned to keep my child's interests (and attention span) in mind. The Louvre wasn't really her jam, but she really enjoyed riding her first carrousel in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and floating wooden sailboats at the Luxembourg Gardens.
Parenting Is A Partnership
I was raised by a single mom, and I'm with Emmy Rossum in that she was always enough. However, I'm married to my kid's father, and I'm all about us raising our daughter as a parenting team. I'll change the poop-filled diaper, but he better be holding her monkey hands out of the way. If I'm giving her a bath, he's in the kitchen cleaning up the dinner dishes.
In Europe, we really took the idea of taking turns to heart. My husband would go out for his cappuccino and alone time in the morning, and I'd stay with our sleeping baby and await my pastry delivery. One day, he took care of our napping girl while I ate quiche Lorraine, drank vin blanc, and admired my favorite Impressionist artwork at the Musée d'Orsay.
Take Time For You
I don't think I could take care of my child if I didn't take care of myself. Toward the end of our trip, I knew I was starting to lose it in the mental health department. I was supposed to be watching the kid while my husband had his turn with a fun afternoon at the casino. Enter on-site spa daycare. For five euro, I left my child in the competent care of daycare staff and treated myself to a few hours of bathing in hot thermal water, lounging (nude... très European!) in the saunascape, and being on the receiving end of a massage. Selfish? More like worth it.
Remember The Good Stuff
As a toddler mom, it's sometimes helpful to be able to put on the rose-colored glasses. Otherwise, how would anyone be able to do it again? Over the course of our trip, my child threw multiple fits in public spaces, we missed our connecting train and got stranded in the middle of nowhere, and I seriously considered divorce for the first five days.
However, that's not what I'll remember. Instead, I'll recall my daughter lighting a candle at Notre Dame, the boatload of people who waved at her as she stood in the window of our place in Petite France, and the sight of Van Gogh's brushstrokes in the Bedroom in Arles. Above all, I'll think about how it was a precious reunion of our sweet family. It doesn't get much better than that.