Traveling with a Toddler: Expectations vs. Reality

My family just got back from a trip to the beach. It was just my husband, our two year old daughter, and me. We traded my parents’ timeshare in CA for one in Galveston TX. The unit was huge, actually two units with attached doors (which led to my worst nightmare coming true, more on that in a minute). The main unit had a full kitchen and a master suite with a huge jacuzzi tub in the bathroom and a balcony off the living area. We were right across the street from the resort’s private beach, and a half an hour from downtown Galveston. It seemed like the perfect set-up for an idyllic family getaway. Unfortunately I neglected to temper my expectations with enough reality. Traveling with a toddler is iffy at best, and several circumstances that were beyond our control meant our trip was very different from how I had pictured it in my head. Don’t get me wrong, we still had a great time, but reality definitely did not match the fantasy I had built up. For example:

Expectation: We would get up super early, put C directly from her bed into the car where she would sleep for the beginning of the trip. We would make excellent time with only a couple of pre-planned stops and no traffic issues at all.

Reality: We did get going early, but that was about all that went as planned on our trip down. After an hour into the drive Baby Girl threw up. She hadn’t eaten yet so it wasn’t too bad (although the empty stomach might have contributed to her nausea) but we still needed to stop and change her and clean up the seat. She vomited twice more during the trip, once right after eating raspberries (a mistake on my part for giving them too her) and once while we were right downtown Houston in bumper to bumper traffic with nowhere to stop. The drive was supposed to take about eleven hours with breaks. Sixteen hours later we finally arrived, completely exhausted. Most of the extra time was due to unscheduled “clean up the vomit” stops and horrible, ridiculous traffic through Houston. Did you know they sometimes close the freeway for a couple of miles, funneling everyone onto a one lane frontage road? We didn’t.

Expectation:  After arriving in Galveston we would eat dinner at a fun restaurant then let C run around for a bit before tucking her into bed and enjoying some adults only relaxation.

Reality: After arriving at 9:30pm and dragging ourselves up to the third floor (good news: there was an elevator. bad news: Charlotte freaked out as soon a we got on and didn’t calm down until we got into our room) I put in a frozen (now half-thawed) pizza we’d picked up at a grocery store on the way in while Chris shlepped the rest of our stuff up to the room. By now our overwrought, sick toddler was refusing to eat or drink, so I just gave her a bath and put her down in the smaller unit bedroom. As I closed the door I realized there was no handle on it. There were actually double doors since it was a connecting room, and I had closed the wrong one. Irritated I realized I would have to go through the outside door to get back in the room. But my key didn’t work. Neither did Chris’s. That was when the panic started. I drove like a maniac to the registration building, only to find it all locked up. I was pounding on the door yelling for help, about to have an actual panic attack, when security showed up. Thankfully he understood my babbling enough to follow me back to our unit and use his universal key to open the outside door to Charlotte’s room. She was fine, not quite asleep but didn’t do more than shift position when I walked through to open the inside door. I of course had a complete breakdown, sobbing in my husband’s arms while he patted my back and assured me that I was not actually the worst mother in the entire world for accidentally locking her daughter in a room by herself.

Expectation: My two year old will take to the ocean like a fish, and we will spend hours having laughing, splashing fun as we frolic through the waves.

Reality: The ocean is huge, especially in the eyes of a toddler, who exhibits reasonable caution when invited to wade in. Actually she had started to warm up to the water and was having fun chasing and being chased by the waves until she tripped and face-planted in seawater. Oh, and this was during a walk along the beach after dinner, so she wasn’t wearing a bathing suit, just a long sundress that was now drenched. After that she never really wanted to touch the water, though she was content enough if we held her in our arms while we waded out a little ways.

I don’t know if it was because this first incident was so traumatic, or if she was scared of the seaweed. Speaking of which…

Expectation: A trip to the beach will include beautiful, sunny weather, clean, sandy beaches full of pretty shells, and clear blue water that sparkles as it laps over our toes.

Reality: A seaweed forest that usually resides the the Sargasso Sea floated up to Galveston, coating the beaches and filling the water with prickly, slimy weeds. Now I’m not a stranger to seaweed but this was ridiculous! I have never seen so much, and I’ve been to a lot of beaches (they don’t call me Salty Cinderella for nothing!). We found out toward the end of our trip that this happens randomly every five years or so, but this particular infestation was the worst one Galveston had seen in thirty years!

Expectation: As long as we use enough sunscreen there’s no way we can get burned.

Reality: Three hours on the beach from noon to three will result in some sunburn, despite the SPF 50 sunblock. Thankfully I had stuck a hat on Charlotte so the worst she has was a little pink on one shoulder and her back. I, the stupid former sunbather, only used SPF 15 and clearly missed several spots on my chest and back (the spray sunblock is so much quicker, but you still need to take time to make sure you’ve covered every inch of skin. Lesson learned). My fair-skinned hubby had lathered on the sunscreen but still ended up with some random red patches on his arms and legs. We were all affected enough that we decided a day out of the sun was definitely needed.

Expectation: Our adorable two year old will sit quietly while we enjoy dinner at an up-scale restaurant, coloring and eating everything on her plate.

Reality: C did sit at the table, coloring happily, for about ten minutes. Then she started coloring on the wall and demanding her “mac and cheese!” at the top of her lungs. When said dish arrived she refused to eat it, or anything else except for some pickle sliced I begged the waiter for. A complete screaming meltdown occurred after her daddy took her milk away to prevent her from flinging it through the air. I ended up eating the rest of my meal with my daughter perched precariously on my lap, trying to feed me. Oy.

As I typed out these expectations I realized how completely ridiculous they were. And yet even though I knew they weren’t realistic, subconsciously that’s still how I expected the vacation to go.

These unmet expectations made me so disappointed and cranky it was impossible for me to enjoy the reality of the trip. The tipping point was half-way through the week, when I tried again to coax C into the water and all she did was cry and cling to me. Disgusted I marched her back up to the beach and threw myself onto my lounge chair, pushing away the sand toy C tried to give me. She burst into tears that cut me to the quick. It took me some time, but I finally managed to pray that God would give me a better attitude. And in time He did. So C didn’t want to play in the ocean. She did want to dig in the sand and make sandcastles, so that’s what I did.

So the ocean was dark and full of seaweed, we had a lovely pool at the resort to swim in. So we all got a little toasted by the intense sunshine. We’ll explore the in-door aquarium for a day and stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day.
When I got over my dream vacation I was able to enjoy my actual vacation so much more. In fact we made some of my favorite family memories so far on this trip. I’ll follow up with some tips for enjoying the beach with a toddler (learned the hardway) in my next post, so stay tuned!

What unexpected events happened on your vacation? Share some stories to help me know I’m not alone!

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