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KPBS Commentaries

The most important lesson I've learned about traveling with children is that it doesn't really matter where you go that determines how good a time you'll have. The most critical ingredient to success and sanity when traveling with kids is having realistic expectations. I've had magical travel experiences with my children and trips that I still shudder about when I'm reminded of them. While there were unique circumstances with the bad trips (i.e., my husband spending two days climbing Half Dome while I chased a dirt-eating toddler through Yosemite), these awful experiences shared the problem of my Great Expectations.

If you're unfamiliar with what I mean, it's the halcyon view I had of what the vacation will be compared to what really happens. For example, I imagine a picture postcard vision of me in a stylish but tasteful bathing suit (complete with mother-approved tummy-taming spandex), my cherubic child on my hip, my toes sunk in the sand as the waves lap at my ankles. In reality, that picture lasts about 30 seconds. What follows is said child, slathered in sunscreen, sliding out of my arms like a greased watermelon and running toward the ocean as if he's heard a calling to return to his watery origins. I sprint after him with a speed I never knew I possessed, still looking tasteful, but not so hip anymore, as I try to slog through the thick sand and reach him before he plunges into the sea. When I grab him, lifting him out of the water he's fallen into face first, he howls like I've attached stingrays to his feet. He kicks and thrashes pulling down the straps of my new bathing suit so soon not only do I not look fashionable, but I can't claim tasteful either.

When I was a novice traveling mom, I made a lot of mistakes regarding my expectations, both on trips and during holidays (another key event that requires a healthy dose of realistic expectation setting). It's hard not to. Pre-kid vacations meant reading a lot, spending intimate time with my husband a lot and eating out in quiet, romantic restaurants where anything seemed possible. When you have a child (or three), of course you know vacations and holidays won't be the same; but the initial time through, you don't know exactly how different until you've had your first harrowing experience.

My first child was born at the end of November, 10 years ago. I still remember our first trip as if it just happened last year. She was three weeks old when we drove across the state to celebrate Christmas and show her off to the grandparents. She was a great traveler, sleeping peacefully as we made our way up I-5. That's where my pleasant memories end. My expectation was built on a sugar plum fairy, candy cane lane image of my family Christmases, now made better with a baby to complete this perfect holiday card.

The problem was babies don't know it's Christmas, nor that their mothers have any hormone-fueled ridiculous expectations. My baby only knew she was in an unfamiliar place and colicky. Even with Grandma's help, by the end of the visit my husband and I were walking zombies, red-eyed and miserable, surviving on two to three hours of sleep each per night. I have the picture to prove it.

During the day, we'd swaddle our bundle of joy and go to the mall or visit Santa and our daughter would sleep peacefully, snug in her stroller and warmed by all of the adoring gazes of the strangers who stopped to admire her. I, on the other hand, was furious. I was exhausted. I even harbored homicidal thoughts about all of the elderly ladies who "oohed" and "ahhed" over my daughter and insisted I'd produced an angel. All I kept thinking about was that they didn't have to sleep with her. I was ecstatic when we began our drive home as she loved movement, and I knew I could get some sleep while we drove the 10 hours home..

I'm relieved to say that our annual Christmas trip has improved a lot over the past decade, despite the fact that we added two more children. I've learned a lot along the way about mothering, of course, but more importantly about being realistic about what I hope to experience. I've learned to focus not on what I want to do but what I can do under the circumstances. I've given up martyrdom and my Super Mommy badge and let people help. And, I approach family travel strategically, planning group activities, mommy time, daddy time and couple time, by asking a family member to watch the kids.

When your expectations match what the trip has to offer you, can have some magical moments. My highlight reel from last month includes watching my son ice skate for the first time, eating crab (all decked out in bibs) at Fisherman's Wharf, and beaming with pride when strangers peeked into my stroller and "oohed" and "aahed" over my baby's beauty. This time I could appreciate it. I needed a few years practice but I finally had my head and my heart in the right place.

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