Conversation with Mr Brightness, on holiday in Barbados, packing to go home:
Mr B: “I’m feeling quite positive about going away with the boys after this trip”.
Me” “I know what you mean, it’s definitely do-able… even if not always enjoyable”.
Mr B: “Yeah, it’s basically the same unpleasantness as at home, but you get to see somewhere new”
Holidays with small children – the reality
I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about the perception of our recent holiday to Barbados.
Mainly I blame my Instagram feed which, during the week we were away, was looking pretty jolly (except for when I’m bemoaning that our double buggy broke during an outpouring of torrential rain in Bridgetown).
The thing is, my Instagam feed is the moments of joy that I want to remember.
There were many other moments during that week which were at best fairly average or occasionally the stuff of parental nightmares.
I thought people knew this. I thought we all knew that Instagram lies.
So I was surprised by the amount of friends and family who said to me things like:
“Your holiday must have been so relaxing!”
“Did you have a lovely rest?”
“It must have been so nice, sunbathing, being on the beach!”
People who should have known better.
People who have children of their own.
There are many positive adjectives I can associate with our week in Barbados: Wonderful. Fun. Stunning. Beautiful. Inspiring. But definitely not: Restful. Relaxing. Peaceful. And actually at times: Exhausting. Frustrating. Scary.
Yes, Barbados is amazing! But we still had a 1 year old and a 2 year old with us, with 8 hour flights, a 4 hour time difference and none of the tools we rely on at home (i.e. CBeebies). Virgin Holidays was good, but it wasn’t that good.
Like Instagram feeds, people who tell you they had a totally wonderful, relaxing, stress-free time on holiday with small children, even in the UK, are lying. Or deluded to the point of negligence. Breaking routines, settling children somewhere new, especially getting them to sleep somewhere new, can all be tricky.
Holidays with small children, in the words of Charles Dickens, are the best of times and the worst of times.
None of this is more prominent than the holiday most lauded of all: the beach holiday.
The alternative to going on holiday with small children is never going away at all and we’ve realised that that’s not for us.
So, here are my tips for how not to have a totally terrible time on a beach holiday with small children
1. Manage your expectations
This is key. Don’t expect, like we did on our first day in Barbados, to be honing your front crawl directly to the swim-up pool bar for a piña colada. Despite our best intentions to enjoy at least five minutes each at the swim-up bar it never happened.
If you think this holiday is going to be like a holiday pre-kids you are going to be sorely disappointed. You will find yourself doing laps of the pool of a different kind – clothed and pushing a buggy round the peripheries desperately trying to get your beloved muslin-covered sweaty child to sleep so that you can park them in the shade and have five minutes in the sun yourself – while you scowl at the kid-free holidaymakers reading their books in peace because They Do Not Realise How Lucky They Are. And they don’t look half as happy enough about it as they should.
Accept it will be different and embrace it. Good things will happen! Just different good things to what you’re used to.
2. Take it in turns
You will never both sunbathe, use the pool, read a book, or do any of the other things that you used to take for granted on holiday pre-kids, at the same time.
Accept this early on and take it in turns to do the childcare-intensive things
that you can’t really be bothered with.
By the end of the week we had got into a routine of taking it in turns to walk our youngest in his buggy along a boardwalk which wraps around the south-western Barbados coastline for his nap time while the other played with our eldest on the beach or at the pool. At the beach we would alternate one of us sitting in the shade with the boys while the other went for a swim.
3. Identify your nearest pharmacy and hospital before you need them
You know it’s been a good holiday when you get through a brand new bottle of Calpol mid-way through the week.
We were flying on a Saturday morning and both of our boys came down with full on, fevered, freezing, shaking, debilitating flu on Wednesday evening. By Saturday morning they were over the worst and both managed some breakfast so we decided to go ahead. The fact is if you don’t go away when your children are feeling unwell you will never go away and we thought the sunshine would do them good.
We underestimated how much the flight would take it out of them though and Sunday – Mother’s Day ironically – was a bad day. For everyone. Trying to keep them both cool when they were jet-lagged with high temperatures and the air temperature was c.30 degrees was a
nightmare challenge. We seriously thought we had made a mistake in going ahead with the holiday. Luckily they bounced back quickly but not before we had taken them to an emergency doctor to get them both checked over properly (oh included in this one is: have good travel insurance).
At the end of the week our youngest started cutting his molars – see what I mean about never going away – and woke in the middle of the night inconsolably hysterical. He was so worked up he couldn’t focus on us, screaming like a siren. This was the “scary” I alluded to above. We didn’t realise it was his teeth and had never seen him (or our eldest) like that before. We panicked and called an ambulance (the first time either of us have ever called one – it was that bad).
Thirty minutes later two genial guys turned up and flashed the torch from one of their phones in his eyes (their only equipment) before recommending we stay where we were because the local hospitals weren’t up to much. It all worked out fine, Artie’s gums opened the next day and we realised what had caused the commotion but it was terrifying and next time we travel we will definitely have sussed out where the nearest decent hospitals are and how we would get to them in an emergency.
The message here is be prepared. You can generally buy everything you need abroad but find out where you can buy it from. If you’re not going to be near a pharmacy bring it with you or stock up (as an aside the only thing we were unable to buy while we were away was swim nappies so next time we’ll be bringing lots of those with us too).
4. Embrace your fellow parent travellers
Not one I would have added pre-kids but this really made a difference on our recent trip.
This is fairly easy to do since you’re likely to be hanging out in the same places: the kids’ pool; the calmer end of the beach; and the hotel restaurant at 5pm.
We made holiday friends with a few of the other parents round the kid’s pool and found a little holiday support group.
There was a couple from Manchester who shared their sons toys with the boys. Another from NYC with a son a week or so older than Artie who lent us their pool float for him.
It was the NYC couple who recommended an American Sports Bar for lunch to us one day. We ventured over the road, liking the sound of the “real American food” they told us we would find there. Once we arrived we were a bit surprised. It was blazing sunshine outside but as we opened the door it took us a minute to adjust to the darkness. This seemed odd. Five minutes in and we realised the appeal. It was blissfully cool inside and the food really was great. Plus all the boys (Mr Brightness included) were transfixed by the wall-to-wall sport. Queue a quiet, peaceful-ish lunch with a nice break from the sun. We went there three times. On their last day our NYC buddies left the float our son had liked for us.
There was one couple by the pool we didn’t speak to much. They were younger than us, one baby, they were in the pool a lot – smiling! – and seemed to have it sussed. “It’s because they only have one,” we would mutter to each other quietly. Towards the end of the week I bumped into Young Mum in the ladies loos (where all the best conversations happen). She grabbed my arm. “It’s bloody hard isn’t it? Being on holiday with kids. It’s just not the same” They were staying for two weeks, us just one and as the boys had just started to settle we were wishing we were staying for longer. “Two weeks is just too long”, Young Mum was saying, looking pained. “I can’t wait to get home”.
Turns out, we were all having the same experience. Some just make it look better.
Remember, you are all in this together.
5. Be spontaneous
In some ways, you will enjoy yourself more than you did on holiday pre-kids because you will learn to seize the moment. Honestly! Baby nodded off unexpectedly – park them in the shade and order that piña colada. You may only have five minutes, so make the most of it!
One of my most endearing memories of the holiday will be walking along the beach late afternoon towards the end of the week, on our way to get an (early, obviously) dinner with the boys at our favourite beach bar. It was the day it had poured down most of the day and our buggy had broken and we’d had to visit a hardware store and fashion a make-do metal stick thing to hold it in place.
The sky had cleared in the afternoon and the sun had come out, just about when it was time for us to go inside, and as we walked along the beach the sea was full of people making up for the rest of the day. It looked so inviting. The boys were already a bit grumpy, so we thought ten minutes isn’t going to make much difference and took it in turns to strip-off (into our swimwear, we weren’t feeling that spontaneous) and run into the sea for a quick dip. It was fun and spontaneous and a happy moment I’ll always remember. We made it to the beach bar for a Bajan fishcake dinner (Artie’s fave) and sunset dripping wet but happy.
And I guess that moment sums up what I’m saying. Your beach holiday with kids will at times be enormously hard work but there will be moments you will treasure and they’re the ones that make it worthwhile.
I will never forget Dylan’s face splashing around in the children’s pool with his armbands on. His favourite place to be all week. It was joy, sheer blissed-out joy and one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
Better even than the beautiful beach I wasn’t sunbathing on twenty metres away.