This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Meagan
I recently had the opportunity to go to Disney World – sans kids. I’ve been there several times with my children at varying ages and stages, and often thought “Man, this whole process would be a lot easier without strollers, diaper bags, and small humans who may wait in a two-hour line, whining and wiggling, only to balk at the very last minute and refuse to get on the ride.” But I didn’t see myself actually bothering to take a kid-free trip. As much as I love Disney, and as much as I love my own children and the children close to me, spending my grown-up time at a theme park surrounded by other people’s children didn’t exactly sound like my idea of a vacation.
But the trip was offered, and on someone else’s dime, to boot – so of course, I donned my mouse ears (metaphorically speaking) and prepared to completely own the Happiest Place On Earth. Armed with my memory of the park’s busy and not-so-busy areas, a map, and a backpack; with no small hands to hold, no diapers, no sippy cups, no snacks, no tears, no whining, and nobody’s bathroom schedule to manage but my own, I figured I’d run laps around the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.
The only thing I was worried about? Yeah, all those families.
Would I encounter nothing but annoying, screaming, entitled kids and checked-out, neglectful parents? (If you believe people’s “Dear Mom On Her Phone In The Target Aisle” social media rants, they’re everywhere….) Without my own children to act as a distracting force or creator of solidarity, would I become one of those grumpy grownups who can’t seem to remember that yes, all kids occasionally behave less than perfectly?
But during my time at the park, I made a few surprising discoveries:
You guys, Disney without kids is fun.
It’s basically like being a kid yourself, only you don’t have to ask your parent’s permission to ride It’s A Small World for the third time and you can giggle with your ride partner about the naughty things it looks like Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit are doing on the Splash Mountain ride. (Seriously, what were they thinking with some of those vignettes?) You can sip wine around the “world” at Epcot and straggle out of the park as it’s closing without having to worry about your little one having an exhaustion-fueled meltdown on the bus back to your resort. I was skeptical, but I’m a convert.
Kids or no kids, I managed to hold on to my sense of compassion for other parents in tough situations.
Every night at 10:30, like clockwork, the baby in the hotel room next to ours started wailing. It was the high-pitched, inconsolable cry of a young baby in pain: colic or gas pain or an ear infection, maybe. I remembered the time that Jon accompanied me to a writer’s conference in New York City and we brought Owen, who was three or four months old at the time. Owen developed an ear infection – the only one he ever had! – on the trip, and spent our last two nights there screaming his head off. We were trapped in an old, thin-walled hotel without many options – we couldn’t leave the conference early and our pediatrician wouldn’t prescribe anything over the phone. I remember how terrible I felt, hoping that our neighbors would be able to sleep and would give us some grace in an impossible situation, and remembering that made it so much easier to extend the same grace to the parents of the sad baby next door. Turns out, I’m not a crusty old curmudgeon quite yet. (phew! Remind me of this when I’m a grandmother, hmm?)
There was so much good parenting happening, everywhere I looked.
I was blown away by it. On my first morning there, on a bench waiting for a bus from my resort to the Magic Kingdom, I witnessed a little boy, about three years old, face-plant on the concrete and begin to wail. His sister, about 6, immediately burst into tears of fear or sympathy or both. The parents gave each other a Look – the one that says “oh my gosh seriously?” and then, without missing a beat, sprung into action. Dad picked up the little boy and cuddled him to his shoulder, while Mom bent down and looked in the little girl’s eyes, reassuring her softly that her brother would be OK. That initial example of proactive, low-drama teamwork played out again and again in various scenarios I witnessed, with calm, nurturing parents in control of some pretty stressful situations. Were there examples of yelling, drama, or disconnection? Sure, but the good stuff far outweighed them.
Disney World is magical, yes. But all those expectations, all the tiny disappointments, all those people, all the waiting, all the disruption of normal schedules – all of those things are stressful, too. When we’re in those situations with our own kids, we’re typically so tunnel-vision focused on them that we don’t even have time to witness how other parents are doing things. But as my kids get older and need me less, and as I have more and more opportunities to be out in the world unencumbered, I have the luxury to do more noticing. And what I noticed made me pretty optimistic about this generation of young parents – and their kids.
I’ll admit it, I get occasionally annoyed by kids. They’re, well, kids – messy and loud and illogical and unpredictable in the most predictable ways, and I don’t believe we are obligated to love all children just because we’re moms.
But while I may not love every kid I see – parents? You guys keep winning me over. Keep up the good work.