When I was a kid, my family often went to Cape Cod, Mass. for vacation. After arriving at our summer lodgings, we would leave the car and head out on bikes along the paved trails through the woods toward the coast. We watched tall trees give way to gnarled pines and beach heather as we neared the dunes, finally emerging into the bright sun along a sandy ridge to see the blue-green ocean stretched out to the horizon. I remember scrambling barefoot up the mountainous dunes; walking out across vast silt plains during low tide to hunt for shells and sea-smoothed stones in the shallow saltwater rivulets; and spotting crabs lurking in carpets of exposed seaweed.
Early this summer, my wife and I packed up the car for our first family vacation — a road trip from Brooklyn to the Cape with our 5-month-old girl and two eager dogs. It was a great trip overall, but there were difficulties as well, and not only the ones I anticipated.
Vacation with an infant is not particularly relaxing. For starters, little baby Bea is not a huge fan of the car seat. She fights against it like she’s possessed. For the pups and me in the front seats it was somewhat tolerable, but I’m unclear how my wife (who spent the seven-hour ride in the back tending to the little one) retained her ability to hear. Or her sanity. Fortunately for all, each 20-minute freak-out was followed by a two-hour nap.
After surviving the journey, we unpacked and started settling in at our rental house. We were on vacation, but I still couldn’t unwind. For some reason my childhood vacations loomed over me like a cloud. They are among my favorite memories, and I found myself wondering if I could provide equally wonderful experiences for my child.
Before this trip, I called my mom, and she gave me what details she could about the places we went to so long ago. My dad, though, was the real ringleader on our family’s outdoor adventures — planning routes on topographic maps, and then taking a turn down some unknown road just to see where it would lead. But he’s no longer with us.
Over the next few days, I was haunted by a feeling of something slipping away from me. There was a faint sense of desperation as I pored over maps and searched the Internet, hoping to find the same places, or perhaps others as magical as the ones we traversed in my childhood.
As I drove the fledgling family toward the outer reaches of the Cape, the sandy spit of land narrowing, the ocean encroaching on either side, and those otherworldly dunes finally rising into view after all these years, little Bea took the opportunity to remind us, at full volume, how she feels about spending time in the car seat. You can never really relive the past, it seems.
It’s not like I was worried about planning the perfect trip for our 5-month-old baby. Not only won’t she remember it, but she’s pretty content, no matter where we are, to grab my nose and kick me with her little monkey feet while squealing with delight. I wasn’t just anxious about this vacation. I was feeling the pressure of a lifetime of getting things “right,” of making the correct decisions and fostering an environment that will help her grow up resilient, caring, and confident. Based on my childhood, travel should be magical — and if I can’t get a vacation plan right, what chance do I have with the rest of it?
Along with all that, there was the desire to do right by my dad. And nothing is a greater reminder of someone’s absence than trying to fill his shoes. It all made for a lot of anxiety swimming around in my thoughts — the fading past, the uncertain future — while I was supposed to be relaxing.
Little Bea, meanwhile, seemed to be more wide-eyed and alert with every passing day. Half-way through the week, she turned all the way over for the first time. On our day trips, she looked out from her carrier with a big smile, her little arms dangling or suddenly flailing with gleeful excitement. We could be in the Grand Canyon or the grocery store — it’s all a vacation for her.
Near the end of our week away, we decided on one more last-minute excursion. After missing a few turns and backtracking, we parked at a trailhead near a lighthouse, and set off with baby and dogs along a path that wound through gnarled trees and scrub brush.
Baby looked all around her and chattered happily, while the dogs pulled us along, excited to sniff every bit of unfamiliar vegetation. We emerged atop a cliff over the sea, and a steep wooden staircase brought us down to a seemingly forgotten stretch of sandy coastline, recently exposed by the receding tide.
The dogs had never been to the ocean, and they bounded right into the shallow surf. They sniffed around the seaweed and driftwood on the silty shore, pawing at smoothed stones and shells.
There’s a long road ahead with a lot of responsibility, but most of it, you take as it comes. Sure, there are things to worry about — but if you’re never scared, then you’re not paying attention. But once your anxiety about “getting it right” — whatever it is — has taken shape and you’ve examined it in your mind, it’s OK to let it slip away, like a crumbling sandcastle that’s gently swept back into the ocean by the incoming tide. Then you can breathe in the sea air, and feel the sun on your face and the salt water washing over your feet. After all, it’s your vacation, too.
Tim Perrins is a part-time stay-at-home dad who lives with his wife and their brand-new tiny human in Park Slope, Brooklyn. More of his thoughts about babies and other things that confuse him can be found at www.RevoltOfTheImbeciles.blogspot.com.