We traveled to Italy with our 22 month old son for the first two weeks in August. This was our second trip to Italy as a couple, but our first as parents. While L. is a seasoned continental US traveler, this was his first flight of more than a few hours and certainly his first to another country.
We took an overnight flight from Atlanta to Milan which totaled about 10.5 hours. L. did great. He ate dinner, watched some cartoons and finally fell asleep around 9:30pm. While that's a good 2 hours past his regular bedtime, we weren't too upset considering that the lights on the plane were still brightly shining overhead and the entree of the 5 course meal was just being served. Since L. and I were sharing a seat, I squeezed over even more to allow him room and covered his eyes with the mask the airline had provided in our amenity kits.
Throughout the night, even well past the dinner and the lights being turned out, I checked on L. Did he have enough room? Was he comfortable? Was he too cold? Hot? In the total 5 hours of darkness provided before breakfast was served at 2am EST, I probably slept about an hour. We we finally walked into Malpensa airport at 10:30am local time, I felt a bit crummy...I needed a shower, a nap, and some fresh air. That afternoon after a 2 hour meal with our friends at their home outside of Milan they drove us back to their young adult daughter's one bedroom apartment in another small town outside Milan; Gorgonzola. We unloaded our ridiculous number of suitcases and other baby contraptions and settled in for our 13 day stay. We lay down in the apartment which was horribly hot and humid onto a bed that didn't feel like any we had encountered in the US- even in a cheap motel. As L. and M. began to saw logs I lay there heart pounding. Even though I didn't know the challenges that would face us over the next couples of weeks, I knew that this wasn't going to be easy. The immediate next thoughts that entered my mind were ones of guilt. How dare I think this way and feel sorry for myself. Most American moms would give their right arm for this opportunity to spend 2 weeks in Italy! How terribly unappreciative and ungrateful was I??? How selfish!
Later that day, actually around 11:30pm that night, we once again returned to the apartment after a large meal and visit with our friends. We attempted to keep L's routine as similar as possible and tried to put him to sleep in his pack n' play in the living room area. This large room actually housed the dining area, living area and kitchen and had large doors on two walls that led to a terrace that wrapped around the entire apartment. For the next two hours, L. woke at 15-20 minute intervals crying loudly and requiring a lot of effort, including trying to simulate rocking without a rocking chair, to get him calmed down. By 2am I had had it. M. was fast asleep (I am sure those 2 bottles of red wine he and our friend Davide shared didn't hurt), and I was a mess. The heart palpitations, anxiety, sleep deprivation, hopelessness, nausea and panic were back with a vengeance. By the time that L. woke for the 5th or 6th round of calming he was not the only one crying. M. came out half-asleep when our combined wails became loud enough to wake him. He was panicked..."what's wrong? What happened?, he asked, thinking that L. must be ill for me to be so upset. I couldn't think of anything to say except, "I want to go HOME!"
We finally decided to move the portable crib into the bedroom and L. finally fell asleep. We walked out onto the terrace to get some cool air and talked. Over the next hour, we discussed a plan to attempt to get some sleep that night and for M. to take over care of L. for the better part of the following day to let me adjust. I was still extremely anxious, but exhaustion set in enough for me to get 2-3 hours of sleep. The sheer accumulation of heat inside the apartment (which though was quite expensive did not have any air-conditioning or window screens) was more than I could ignore, even while asleep, and I woke up several times throughout the night overheated.
The next day I began to realize that my intuition was correct and that though I was hot, jet-lagged, and sleep-deprived there was good reason for me to be overwhelmed. We were going to be spending 10-11 hours a day at the home of our friends during most of the trip. Though we had hoped for and originally planned to travel across the country and stay along the beach for a few days, those plans did not work out and our language barrier would prevent us from trying to request other plans without offending our hosts.
The home of the C.'s was lovely. Since we had been there last in 2005, they had renovated some of the interior and had re-landscaped the entire outdoor space. What used to be patchy grass and a fountain was now a luxurious looking pool surrounded by 3 dining areas, 2 lounging areas, and several umbrellas. It looked like a small resort. The beauty of the area was quickly outshined by our realization that the small bricked paths surrounding the pool were the only outdoor areas our son could play. Because none were more than a few feet from the pool edge, we would have to keep a constant vigilant watch that L. did not fall into the pool. The home itself is very traditional Italian-style. It's four floors are all narrow and accessed via tile or granite stairs. Throughout the home our hosts constantly burned tea-lights and incense. On the floors, the stairs, the sinks, the coffee tables. August in Milan is mosquito (zenzare in Italian) season and they are more prevalent there even than Atlanta- hard to believe! The C.'s had the mis-guided notion that perfumed candles and incense would ward off the mosquitoes. Not surprisingly, we quickly found that they more than likely attracted even more.
Our days at their home were spent chasing L. to make sure that he did not fall into the pool and drown or fall down the indoor or outdoor steps that were every few feet. We moved candles and incense burners constantly to be sure he didn't get hurt. He watched an ungodly amount of television (Thank God for Sky TV's cartoons in English!) so that we could get a short break to sit down and rest or have a conversation. It wasn't easy.
Intermixxed in these days was some wonderful home-cooked Northern Italian food- risotto, pasta, and lots of meat and fish. We also traveled to a hotel for 2 of the nights so that we could explore Tuscany- Florence, Pisa, Sienna, San Gemingnano were all beautiful. One day we took a drive to Lake Como and spent the day exploring the towns of Como and Bellagio.
By the 9th day of our "vacation" I had had it and the heat, itchy mosquito bites that covered all of us, complete isolation from our American world (we had not internet or phone access and no one could reach us from home, either), and sleep deprivation (due to the heat, horrible bed, late nights, etc.) overwhelmed me. This on-the-go Mama could NOT wait to go home. Nothing seemed more exciting than to spend countless hours in the home that when I was previously sick seemed to make me feel trapped. I never wanted to leave my house again, I vowed as I counted down the hours of the next 4 days.
The thing is, I did it. It wasn't easy, but I did it. We wondered if I was having a relapse of Depression. We worried that my husband's vacation was going to be over-shadowed by my difficulty enjoying myself and therefore dampening his good time and offending our hosts because we couldn't accurately describe why I would be on the verge of tears every couple of days.
In the midst of it all, my amazing child slept, was in a good mood even when he only got 8 or nine hours of rest at night because of our late nights (our friends refused to take us home before 10pm, because they misinterpreted our request with us thinking that they needed a break, which they wanted to assure us they did not), sat beautifully in his car seat and took naps (sometimes 2-3 short ones) wherever we were. He was pleasant, friendly and entertaining when we didn't have anymore to say because we were tired of trying to explain something in a strange combination of English and Italian with a dash of French.
Over those 13 days I learned a lot about me. I learned that I could spend two weeks with my son without any assistance and take good care of him. I learned that even if it was really stressful because our surroundings were not designed for small children that I could engage and entertain my child and he would be happy. I learned that I could spend two weeks with only my husband to speak to in my native language and still love him (and not kill him). I realized that I had it in me. Whatever that combination of strength, confidence, fortitude, and courage is necessary for a mom to be successful I HAD!
Coming back to the US, I literally cried tears of joy. In the week that we've been home, I have not left my home unless absolutely necessary. In fact, I put off grocery shopping for 5 days because I could not bear to leave my beloved, comfortable, baby-proofed home for any longer than necessary for church and work.
I now know that I can do it. I can handle this mom thing. I didn't have a relapse. I feel great being home and I no longer count the hours until my son's next nap or bedtime, worrying how I will get through them. I know that if I could do what I did those two weeks under those circumstances that this will be a piece of cake!
I had to travel thousands of miles, lose lots of sleep, and tackle huge hurdles to get here. But, I am so glad that I now have the confidence to be the kind of mom I want to be. What a blessing.