Take a toddler on holiday and you’ll scream too

By | July 2, 2006

I sat on the floor outside the baby’s room and finally broke down. My son, the sweetest-tempered child imaginable, was screaming his head off in a tormented fashion.It wasn’t his fault. Did he ask to be driven to Dublin airport at the crack of dawn and get stunned into silence by that maelstrom? Shoved from queue to queue? Strapped down while engines roared? Frantically entertained by a mother so determinedly cheerful her face nearly cracked? Did he want to be checked in to an unfamiliar hotel that promised peace and relaxation, but so far had only delivered confusion?

Now he was banished to a strange cot in a strange room. Why? Had he indicated for one second that he would like to be dragged around on this thing called a holiday?

No. Every howl was a reprimand to the person who had inflicted this unnecessary pain. Me. I wept and resolved to go home in the morning. Why had I decided to torture this child, who was perfectly happy in the garden at home, squealing with delight in a puddle of muck?

I wanted to go on holiday. I didn’t want to leave my children at home. I wanted to feel the sun on my skin and the heat in my bones. I wanted to eat food that someone else had put on the plate. I, I, I the mantra of the bad mother. When would I learn that small children don’t want to go anywhere except up the road to Granny’s? The only thing they want is for Mammy to play with them instead of saying she’s busy. I could have taken the week off work and played and they would have been ecstatic.

My husband and I generally adopt a “take them nowhere” policy. They are aged 2 and 1, and thus unfit for general society. So, no shops, activity centres or restaurants. We took them to a shoe shop in Liffey Valley once – never again. Now I go alone and guess the sizes. The assistants hand over the shoes reluctantly. Only bad mothers don’t get shoes fitted on precious young feet. Bad mothers don’t even try to control two small children in the zoo that is a children’s shoe store on a Saturday morning.

We also tried the real zoo once. (It’s really impressive, by the way.) It rained incessantly, but we’d brought sandwiches and raincoats. The big toddler screamed because he thought the tigers would get through the glass walls. The one we call the baby, who is really a toddler, pressed himself up against the glass to pet them. The big toddler screamed even louder because he thought his brother was going to be eaten. On the way home, they puked up the sandwiches in the car.

Small children don’t want to go anywhere, we resolved. So we brought them to the Algarve. Madness.

We had prepared. For starters, we brought the sister with us. The third adult made a huge difference. She took charge of the passports and tickets. It meant we’d be able to eat dinner together in the evenings, instead of taking turns eating dinner alone because dining with the two of them is so much hassle.

We had spent six months selecting the right destination. The Canaries were ruled out – no way would they stick a four-hour flight. We found a hotel with direct access to the beach – no roads to be crossed. The hotel was 30 minutes from the airport – no horrendous transfer. The flights were at reasonable times – no night escapades. We got a great deal on a five-star hotel. What could possibly go wrong?

On the plane, the so-called baby wedged a ring pull, still attached to the can, around his little pair of bottom teeth. The other passengers, like me, were torn between horror and fascination as he sat in the aisle, struggling with the can attached to his chin. They looked at me in bewilderment. Why had the bad mother let the baby play with a can? Well, because they say children become creative by playing with things like cans instead of expensive toys. How was I to know he’d turn it into a drama of epic proportions one hour into the flight?

The passengers and staff held their breath while I straddled the child. I knew it would be like relocating a shoulder; it would have to be sharp, strong and swift. I prayed we wouldn’t need a dentist or A&E on arrival in Faro.

A good shove into the mouth – well, two good shoves – and the ring pull was dislodged. Relief flooded the plane and, while there was no applause and just a whiff of judgment, I felt in control – which to me is about the best feeling you can have.

But he was tired and wanted his cot and instead he was on a plane. He cried for 45 heart-rending, stressful minutes. I sweated. He eventually passed out just as we landed. Before we had children, my husband and I used to identify the location of toddlers on planes and sit as far away as possible. We had become the people we used to avoid.

All was calm as we arrived at the hotel and settled in to what had appeared on the brochure to be the perfect accommodation for us. But the brochure hadn’t shown that the banisters on the balconies were one foot apart, wide enough to allow a small child to jump to his death. After an outraged phone call to reception, workmen arrived to board up the offending banisters.
We headed for the beach situated below the cliff-top hotel and accessed by a lift. We eagerly loaded up and pressed the down button. When we got out, we realised the bottom was not the bottom. To get to the beach, we first had to negotiate a 500m wooden walkway with four or five steps every 10m. We had two buggies, several bags and towels and had to carry the whole bloody lot down these wretched steps. This was supposed to be a family hotel.I whacked my head on the parasol over the sun loungers, but other than that we entered into the beach spirit with grim intensity. It was putting them to bed later that finally broke me.

A routine emerged of a morning trip to the playground, a nap and an hour by the pool in the afternoon. Between the three adults, we took turn to sun ourselves and get to the beach. But where were the other parents? Finally we spotted them, dropping their small children off at kids’ clubs.

A swift inspection confirmed that the clubs were awful. Children screamed plaintively as their parents left. They all spoke different languages, so when they did settle down they obediently, but very quietly, played as they were expected to.

I didn’t want to judge, but I did anyway. The bad mother may have been selfish enough to drag them this far, but she wasn’t quite bad enough to walk off and leave them crying with strangers.

So I ended up spending more of my holiday pushing swings and digging sandpits than lying on a beach reading my improving books. At least the bad mother wasn’t busy and the children were happy, even if I could have done all that at home.

So, never again. It’s day trips to Bettystown for the foreseeable future.

24 thoughts on “Take a toddler on holiday and you’ll scream too

  1. Leon

    God that’s dull. I thought you disliked lazy journalists.

  2. Pete

    I thought it was rivetting, in a facinated-horror kind of way. That might be because, as a soon-to-be-Dad, I find the insights that Sarah gives me into the workings of a mother’s/female’s mind to be very useful (and very, very disturbing).

  3. fatmammycat

    Come on over and look for ‘One ticket to the gates of hell please.’ and you’ll get it all in reverse. Sorry.

  4. Leon

    Sarah is a very unique person. She is herself rather than an archetypal mother.

  5. blankpaige

    Sorry to hear about the trauma. I can feel myself getting stressed just imagining your plight. Sounds like you deserve a bloody big G&T.

  6. Leon

    A crying child and an overprotective mother. It’s hardly a plight.

  7. Leon

    The parents dropping their kids off at the Kids Club are the good parents:

    Here’s Why:
    Teaching kids to get along with people of many nationalities
    Not being overprotective
    Not giving in to toddlers tantrums
    Taking breaks from their children
    Not secretly resenting their children and passive aggressively punishing them
    Helping the children to be independent
    Socialising children to non family members

    If for one choice of action to result in good parenting another must result in parenting you be the jury

    More on the vulnerable serving girl please.

  8. Sarah Post author

    I should reassure readers that the holiday actually turned out lovely in the end. Having the sister along was a great help and my tan isn’t half bad. And remember I am so busy here at home that playing with the children without a phone ringing or checking my email or listening to an item on the radio or trying to do housework was all part of the plan too.
    On the kids club thing , if you didn’t have help with you they would be really attractive as its the only way you’d get time to rest HOWEVER there were children who were quite obviously completely traumatised and while perhaps used to being in a creche, being in a club on holidays was really strange to them. Also, some of the older more independent children were delighted with the clubs – but I dunno – the under 2’s were not impressed.

    Anyway, as I say, next sun holiday we’ll leave them at home and I’ll find other ways to do the quality time thing with them…

  9. Pete

    Update: soon-to-be-Dad became Dad this afternoon. While he is ridiculously cute, I compared him to the other new-borns and found that they are all 100% identical. All that he’s-got-your-nose stuff is nonsense.

  10. michelle

    within a few days, Dad (or his family on his behalf) usually finds that resemblance, long before there’s any to Mum [Mam? Mammy? what’s used these days?]. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that you ‘know’ it’s yours, not the by-blow of some passing mammoth hunter.

    but when the rug rat starts to see, s/he’ll start making faces just like the one nearest to the food supply – instinctively knowing that humans are attracted by and most inclined to share with those who are most similar to themselves

  11. sarah

    Congratulations Pete!!! I am sure he does like you. There is some anthroprological thing where they rally look like you so you don’t throw them away. And so it begins…he will be your new life , but hang on to your old one. Make the new mom STAY IN BED and rest and keep visitors down and tell them to bring food or take towels away for laundering. She needs the full 6 weeks rest. Hope she’s well. Tell us the gories….you know how I love them….

  12. Paul

    You had me worried there for a while Sarah… What, between a 5 star hotel two young kids, a husband and a sister to keep you company, I would hope you had somewhat of a good time despite the ocassional hassle !

    Otherwise there would be something wrong..

  13. Pete

    >making faces just like the one nearest to the food supply

    Hmm, I wonder if I should start sitting next to the fridge alot. Or walk around the house carrying a couple of Tescos bags.

    The gories:
    1. Somone was desperate and drunk enough to have sex with me. Although she did chat to a friend on her mobile during the act itself.
    2. At about 9:30pm on 3rd July she got stomach cramps and indigestion. We assumed that this was due to baking a months worth of cakes and eating them between us in an hour, while watching RTE.
    3. Switching to BBC didn’t help, so called hospital, who advised that they had The Discovery Channel. Rushed to hospital.
    4. I looked at the ultrasound scanner screen and saw nothing indentifyable. Worrying, so did the doctor.
    5. 12 hours, 4 doctors, 2 ultrasound machines and much headscrathing later, half of the doctors reckon that the baby is just a disembodied (but very strong) heartbeat, and that her distended tummy is just full of cake. The other half have some theory about alien impregnation with Stealth babies that don’t show up on ultrasound.
    6. Having bet a case of wine on this difference of professional opinion, they cut her open to check the result. I am present at this, and instead of fainting I find it facinating, in a dismantling-a-car-engine kind of way. Hope they know how to put it back together.
    7. Unexpectedly, out pops a minature version of Winston Churchill. He looks at me disapprovingly before being sent for an NCT test, which he passes.
    8. I text everyone I know. Apparently the entire USA celebrated.
    9. Since then his only activities have been sleeping, eating and looking at me disapprovingly. I think he’s a teenager.

  14. Cailleach


    Reading this piece brought back all the [fond?!?] memories of going anywhere with my lot when they were really small. Fortunately my youngest is now 5 and loves going places, but I remember well even just so-called simple flights to the UK where babies screamed and parents sweated, and that was just getting ready for take-off!

    Never-Again was a comment used frequently in those days.

    I’ve never managed the foreign parts holiday – with six it’s not really an option.

    We prefer to torture ourselves driving horrendously long journeys (are we there yet?) to Kerry and other places like that, get ripped off in small supermarkets and generally spend the weeks wishing we were back home, in between bringing said children to beaches in car convoys, and watching them ducking between the showers, the jellyfish and the seaweed.

    What’s a holiday for, if not to appreciate the solidity of your own front door and the comfort of your own bed :¬)

  15. Ian Tims


    I had read your piece in print a while back and just came across the online bit today.

    Good grief! you guys had 3 adults to 2 children? What’s this “bad mother” nonsense doing in your post? -surely not- and what about Dad? Surely you guys did the “share” thing so that you both could have some holiday time too?

    I agree that taking kids under 3 anywhere on holiday is hard on them and hard on you. Having been through this several times now we find that the only option is to make sure the journey is short ie drive or flight no more than 2hours and that we plan our days so there is me time, you time and kid time.

    So the folks who had their kids at the club had it right I’m afraid. Whereas you may have been horrified at the scene at Quinta I am almost certain that the kids had a ball, sans parents!


  16. bernadette

    very funny piece, i sympathise. i don’t know this guy leon but he has a real problem. He needs to come into the real world

  17. James Lawless

    Hi Sarah, yep loved the piece, I’ve been to both Algarve and Bettystown with two smallies and can relate to every word. Brilliant! James

  18. vicky

    wow what a great peice of wrighting :) im abit scared now tho, booked my holiday in a few months with my 2 year old and fiance, i was just browzing the web trying to find toddler holiday check lists and found this lol :/ definatly scared now xxxx

  19. Keith

    Hi Sarah,

    Great peice,

    As someone who recently fell into this deathtrap of a mistake, I can totally relate. I live in drogheda and also felt compelled to drag my 2yr old to the algarve in search of the perfect bliss filled holiday described, dissing the perfectly good alternatives like termonfeckin, clogherhead, and bettystown. Remember, a 2 yr old doesnt feel the cold like me, a mere mortal. He is happy jumping in a pool of shite, down the east coast. However, upon entry to dublin airport I knew nothing would ever be the same again. Half way towards the bay of biscay, I knew i had made a horrible mistake. Between scanners, waiting lounges and asking him to sit in the same vacinity for 3 hour I must of needed my head examined. Then asking him to change his polar bear physology to that of a camel, must have took its toal, as he slept for 10 hours that night. Upon early morning, the sun raised my spirits to the dawning of a new day and a new start. No chance, upon immediate inspection of the apartment, my son found no familiarity and went to task at finding anything to break, weaving dangerously in between anything to fall over and crack his head on the mosaic floor. The only respite was the beach. Our son loved the sand and the water but the tantrums began, as we wouldnt understand that it was perfectly fine to leave him in 24+ degree sunshine for more than 30 mins. Hats were a no go. Sunsceen was applied and the minute he got loose he was rolling in sand, ending up looking like a baby brunch. An inevitable fall in the apartment, a day in a&e in portimao, and a bucket of guilt and saddness building up in my gut for putting my youngest through this hell, i had enough. A&E in portugal was fantastic conincedentally. My abiding memory of this endevour was one positive realisation. My lil fella sleeps like a log in hot weather. Have often thought about installing heatlamps in his bedroom. Anyways, instead of chastising sarah, which some have done, I recommmend all who criticise, to take a foreign trip with a 2 yr old. It is a life changing trip both for you and them, but one thing you wont do at the end of it, i gaurantee, is ever again criticise or judge those who have had to go through it, or people you see go through it. Moreover, you think back to the time you use to have sanity and sympathise with those you see about to loose the plot.

  20. Una

    I have just spent the last hour seeing if i could get a good deal on a holiday in the sun. Thought I should check and see where other families went with their toddlers and how they got on and I stumbled across this website.

    I have an 11 yr old and a 16 mth old daughter.. After reading some of your stories I think the safer option and definitely more sane option would be to give it a miss for another few years..All the palava of the airport alone sounds like a nightmare for a little girl that loves to do nosedives out of your arms and run for the hills at any given opportunity. Also she is very accident prone at the minute and dread to think what she could do to herself in a foreign country..Scary thought..

    Think we’ll stick with our initial idea of a hotel break down the country and not too far away..Our 11 yr old son could stay in the room in the evening when she is asleep with his mobile phone in case of emergency while we could have an hour of us time downstairs..And we’d all have great craic in the pool during the day…

    Yeah think that sounds like a plan..Tks for all your stories 😀

  21. tracy

    Similar to other people on this i was browsing thinking about planning to go on holiday with a 2 year old and i came across this site and i am definitly having some major doubts now, what to do??????

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