Our first night in London, we found ourselves jet lagged at a pub, drinking wine, feeding the baby oxtail on toast, and watching him giggle uncontrollably. “Welcome to the family tradition,” I whispered to him. “We’re so glad you’re here.” But really, I was glad I was there too.
Two weeks before the trip, overtired from relaunching APW, I tried to talk David into canceling the whole thing. “It’s too much,” I told him. “A baby, on an international flight, and jet lagged? That’s not a vacation. It’s a marathon.” The truth was, I’d become increasingly frantic about the logistics. Our experience in the US has been that taking a baby out into public spaces that are not designated as “family friendly” (a code term to disguise the fact that our culture is anything but) can be a nightmare. Forget the basics of a helping hand (say, offering you a seat when you’re carrying a twenty-five pound kid), when out in public with a well behaved baby, I’m regularly treated with overt aggression: rude waitstaff, or loud sighs from the people I sit down next to at the airport, or nasty comments from a shopper after letting the baby crawl around for a few minutes in a secluded corner of the Gap. And if the kid is crying? Well, game over (as in, we normally just go home).
What the hell were we going to do in London? I googled “London with kids,” which didn’t help, because a baby doesn’t care about the zoo. I googled “London with toddlers,” which lead me to lists of parks, not helpful with a temperature hovering around freezing. So when David refused to cancel the trip, I started asking (slightly panicked) advice of my London girlfriends. Their answers were… outside of my frame of reference. “Just let him crawl around in any museum,” they said, “people will be fine with that.” “You can breast feed pretty much anywhere without a cover. No one is going to bother you.” “It’s all pretty family friendly, I wouldn’t even worry.” I didn’t even know where to file their answers in my brain.
As soon as we got on our British Airways flight, I started the preemptive apologizing that has marked my experience of motherhood. Our British seatmates looked at me like I was crazy. “He’s a baby,” they said. “Babies cry. Don’t worry about it.” And from there on out, things were… different. A ninety-five-year-old woman offered me and the baby her seat at the pub. “He was a baby just like that, once,” she said, leaning over to me and pointing at her sixty-year-old son, looking wistful, “Enjoy it.” I sent David in to another pub, to make sure it was fine to bring the baby in, and the bartender looked at him like he’d never heard a stupider question. “Of course?” he said. Oh, England. Waitstaff flirted with him. Museum employees stopped to chat with him as he crawled around. People jumped up to give me their seat on the Tube. The buses had… stroller parking? And while it was far from perfect (the night we accidentally ended up in a trendy area, and couldn’t find a restaurant that would seat us was fun), it was the whole societal tone that threw me. Instead of my kid being my problem, he was generally treated like a very small member of society.
After all my worrying, I can honestly say that the trip with the baby was easier than trips without the baby have been. Forget babies being bad travelers, I’ve never been great at traveling myself. This time around, I didn’t have time to worry about how much I hated flying, because I had a baby to take care of. I’ve never been able to sleep on planes, but parenthood has made me tired enough that I can now sleep anywhere. Instead of having high expectations that needed to be met to make the trip feel worth it, we woke up each day and pondered what we might be able to pull off, because the real trick had been making it there in the first place. And time with family and friends? If they were happy to see us, they were thrilled to see us and the wriggling little bundle. I mean, don’t get me wrong: we had screaming jet lag in both directions. There were restaurants that weren’t willing to fit us in with a stroller. David and I missed having date nights, just the two of us. The baby dealt with his anxiety about the trip by clinging to me fairly nonstop for days. But the three of us had tons of quality time together, an adventure, and we now have one hell of a story.
On our last day, we were eating in a village pub (this one, to be precise) and the baby was doing his joyful scream bit. “AHHHHHH!” he’d say, “AH!” And over my Sunday roast, I heard a tiny voice pipe up, “That baby is being too loud,” she said, “with his WAHWAHWAH.” It was the voice of America, spoken out loud. But then the rational voice of an adult stepped in. “You were just like that, Lulu,” she said, “Not that long ago.” And then Lulu got out of her chair and came over. “Nice baby,” she said, appraising. “Cute. I like him.”
What the UK taught us is that it doesn’t have to be parents vs. non-parents. Families don’t have to lock themselves away, in “kid friendly” zones. Whether or not we have a baby, or want a baby one day, or never want a baby at all: we were all babies once. We all screeched, “AHHHH!” with joy, and “WAAAHHH” in sadness. And one day, if we’re lucky enough, we’ll be older and weaker, and we’ll need more help again. But till then (and even then, if the ninety-five-year-old woman is any example), we can offer our seat to the young mom. Hold open the door for the stroller. Tell the dad on the plane not to worry that the baby is crying.
And really, America? Maybe we should just get pubs, and start allowing kids in them. A beer, dinner, and some joyful baby yells? That’s lots of good things in life, in one small package.
Till then, parents, book that ticket. Next time we’re going to Europe. I hear they really love babies there.
Note: I had intended to talk a little more about the logistics of traveling with a wee one, but I got distracted. But anyone that wants to chat kids and travel, let’s meet in the comments for a gab fest.
Photo: Personal for APW