NYT- How Doing Nothing Became the Ultimate Family Vacation
Before having a child, my wife and I had always prided ourselves on being travelers and not tourists. We liked out-of-the-way places; my research often took us to absurd locations like the Democratic Republic of Congo near rebel-held territory or old Khmer Rouge bases on the Thai-Cambodian border. We hated anything that smelled of a prepaid vacation package and we generally avoided hotels, preferring guesthouses or staying in locals’ apartments.
Yet as soon as the baby arrived, our concept of an ideal vacation underwent a complete inversion. I’m not sure what happened; even now I’m embarrassed to recount how quickly we undermined all of our rules for travel. I remember sitting in our living room two winters ago, shivering in our long underwear and sweaters that smelled vaguely of day-old baby vomit and staring longingly at pictures of all-inclusive resorts that once upon a time would have caused us to break out in hives. It was almost hormonal, the urgency with which we were drawn to a place where you essentially beach yourself like a lost whale. But we would not be dissuaded; we were determined to get a little heat on the epidermis and so, as the East Coast was locked in the grip of a particularly ferocious and unrelenting winter, we flew with our 3-month-old son, Holt, to Central Florida. It was our first trip with the babe and we were, in a word, terrified.
As it turned out, that weekend in Clearwater Beach was one of the best of our lives, perhaps because it also coincided with Holt waking up to the particulars of the world, as babies often do around three months. You could see it in his eyes. He blinked, as if to say, “Oh, so this is where I am. O.K. — I can work with this.” A part of me felt bad that he was coming into consciousness poolside, surrounded by overweight and sunburned Americans lightly drooling to Jimmy Buffett tunes, but hey — the world ain’t all pretty, kid.
We stayed at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on a little spit of white sand overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. As is customary at these types of places, we didn’t do anything. I put Holt in a fancy sling contraption and shuffled him from the pool to the beach and then back to the pool. When Mom took him, I found myself desperate to feel like an adult again, even if only for an hour. Strange that adulthood equated to collecting about three towels too many from the towel boy, then elbowing my way to a prime spot on the deck so that I could slurp an overpriced piña colada and roast my pasty flesh while staring at the same page of a book for 20 minutes. And you know what? It was awesome.
It was only in retrospect that the thought dogged me: Why had surrendering to entropy become the ultimate family vacation? A part of this can, of course, be chalked up to the throes of parenthood, in which time essentially ceases to be your own: Your baby manages to perform some feat of special relativity by bending time to the dictates of his bodily orifices. New parents will attest that you become so exhausted by the mechanics of the everyday that all you begin to dream about is the chance to just do nothing for five minutes.
But I think there’s something else going on here, something more fundamental than just the inevitable weariness brought on by constantly being covered in fluids shot out of a small being. I think part of the reason parents across the country are fleeing to these anesthetized retreats is because of America’s failure to acknowledge that children actually exist.
Before you get all hot and bothered, hear me out on this one. Since those glorious days on the Florida beach, my wife and I have moved to Scotland. We have now traveled a ton with Holt in tow. We’ve crossed the Atlantic five times; we took him (perhaps unwisely) on an Arctic coastal ferry in Norway, where there was no nighttime. Several flight attendants, recognizing Holt from previous trips, have given him an airplane wing pin without realizing this is a terrible thing to give to a child whose hobbies include poking his eye out. After all of our circumnavigations, I’ve gained some perspective on how various countries treat those traveling with children.
In Britain, there are way more resources devoted to children than in the United States. This is a generalization, of course, but in my experience it’s very apparent that for the Scots, family always comes first. This is reflected not just in a general attitude of the Scots toward work as a necessary but nonessential part of life (“Work stays at work,” they will tell you), but also on a legislative level, as can be seen in the incredibly generous (and mandatory) maternity and paternity leave laws (52 weeks in Britain).
There is also an infrastructural commitment to children in public places. At the Edinburgh airport, you can find three large soft-play areas in the terminals, ample highchairs and dedicated lines for families. You can preorder baby milk, which will be delivered to you at your departure gate. There’s even an entire cushy room devoted solely to nursing mothers. Set up a boombox with a little MC Hammer and bring sufficient string cheese and you and your baby could have a pretty nice layover in there.
Compare this with our experience in the United States. In the Newark airport, there is no such room. After much searching, we discovered there was approximately one highchair for all of Terminal C. We had to drag it across the airport like a family of transient Bedouins. You want a lucrative business opportunity? Rent out highchairs in food courts across America.
But it was not just the infrastructural deficiencies; carting Holt around the United States, we constantly encountered what I call the “Really? Why you gotta be bringing that into here?” scowl from Transportation Security Administration officers, baggage attendants and our fellow passengers. It was as if people secretly wished we could stow our child in cargo so that we would not disrupt their game of Candy Crush.
This past Christmas we took an overly crowded Amtrak train to Washington. We looked but could not find a baby-changing table anywhere. We asked the conductor and he nodded vaguely to the wheelchair-accessible bathroom.
“I think there’s something in there,” he said. There was not. My wife ended up changing Holt on the gross bathroom floor, puddles of indeterminate substances pooling dangerously close to his head as the train rocked back and forth.
In the depths of a dark Scottish winter, I still dream of Florida’s eternal sunshine and those voluntary beachside family penitentiaries. But since we have moved to Europe I’m no longer haunted by the mild desperation that we often felt when traveling around the United States with a child — that feeling of “Please, just get me to a safe place where people won’t give us the stink eye anymore.”
The other day we took Holt to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. There was a huge interactive “Imagine Gallery” designed solely for children; making a Chinese dragon dance using a crank almost exploded Holt’s brain. There were ample highchairs in the cafe, where you were allowed to eat your own packed lunch, and pristine, dedicated family bathrooms on every floor. As we were leaving the museum, we had an amazing interchange with a (cheerful!) guard who said Holt’s nonverbal blatherings were the best reaction to the exhibits that he had heard all day.
We left feeling as if we belonged there, that we were not treading on our fellow man by simply exposing him to a wee one. As the Scots like to say, “Everyone was once a wee wee.”
Reif Larsen is the author of the novel “I Am Radar.”