In the gray chill of January, my husband and I planned a vacation. Our baby was approaching three months, and I was in the unhinged purgatory of eagerly awaiting my return to work, and sobbing as I wondered how Lou or I would survive apart. Close friends of ours had floated a trip to Italy by us at seemingly the exact right time. We were in new parent bliss, but July was so impossibly far away and Italy sounded so warm, so we said yes. The flights were booked late one Saturday morning as we sipped coffee and glanced anxiously at our sleeping infant, hoping he hadn’t caught wind of this transgression.
Four-hundred million cubic feet of snow fell and then melted, spring arrived and promised summer, and suddenly it was July and we were at Whole Foods and Target stocking up on supplies to last Lou the entire nine days we’d be away. My guilt and worry grew as we got closer to the departure. Lou, of course, came down with a fever the day before we left, and we watched his temperature rise and fall with fear and short-lived relief.
After an emotional farewell, our flight was delayed two hours. Once we finally boarded, I received a call from our friends watching Lou that his fever (a respectable 100.1 when we left) spiked to 105.1, but that the doctor said this was all part of the virus going around and it would break by morning. We stared at each other, crazed, while I blathered on that we needed to get off the plane and Rob pointed out that perhaps the highly educated doctor we’ve thus far trusted implicitly could be right, and, by the way, one of Lou’s current caretakers happens to be an EMT. We took off, and I spent the next eight hours tormenting myself with worst-case scenarios.
We landed to a message that the fever had significantly decreased, and that Lou was sleepy but fine. Fears calmed, we hopped in our rental and took off for the coast.
Italy, like most beautiful places north of the equator, is pretty busy in July, so our two-and-a-half-hour drive to Sorrento turned into nearly five. We sat in a backup in a mile-long tunnel, wound our way through throngs of drunk Italians partying in the streets, and by the time we were two miles out, we realized a street festival was blocking the only way up to our house. We rerouted with phones that had no International data plans yet (and a combined five-percent battery) and our car became wedged in an alley as we tried in vain to reach the street that would get us to our house. That street was named—I’m not kidding—after our son’s birthday. Tired, worried, and stuck, we were taunted by Via 4 Novembre as we un-wedged our rental from centuries-old architecture and went the wrong way up a one-way street to the house. Touché, Lou.
The place where we stayed was built 700 years ago, and so naturally someone decided to install an elevator in it. At the prompting of my dear friend Freya, we loaded our luggage into the elevator and, as I eyed the warning sign, she closed the door and assured me that she had used it a few times already. Between the third and fourth floors, the elevator shuttered to a stop.
When I wasn’t quietly panicking about oxygen, I spent the next 30 minutes grappling with the universe’s response to us leaving our child. I inhaled soupy air and thought about how well-deserved this was. Once I was released from this floating torture device and I’d downed a bottle of wine to calm my nerves, we’d just have to turn around and drive back to the airport.
Right before the air hit the CO2 tipping point, I finally saw a third pair of shoes through the quarter centimeter eye-level slot between the elevator’s steel door and the floor. After 10 minutes and some Italian shouting, I was giving my friend a boost as the men above lifted her out. I, however, needed zero help, as adrenaline and the consuming fear of being sliced in half gave me the power of flight. I catapulted out, hugged my husband, and proceeded to drink half the bottle of wine I promised myself. (But not before slamming the top of my head into the tiny door frame that lead to the roof deck. Twice.)
Upon my release, we FaceTimed with Lou and discovered he said his first actual, intentional word in our brief absence. It was caught on video, for which we are eternally grateful, but while I was getting in touch with my inner claustrophobic in an elevator 4,500 miles from Baltimore, we missed this huge milestone.
Despite our trepidation, morning brought clarity and we decided to stay. We’d been punished enough. And while the rest of the trip was lovely and without incident, I allowed the guilt to cast a small shadow over nearly everything we did. An hour or two would go by without internal self-flagellation and I’d tell Rob how awful I felt for not feeling awful. He’d either kindly tell me to get over it, or fish his phone out of his pocket and play Lou videos. I was equally grateful for both responses.
My husband and I are social, love to travel, and having a baby didn’t rewire those parts of us—so why did I need to make myself feel badly? When I allowed it, it felt so good to act like a grownup again. One night in Rome we got dressed up and sipped cocktails in the courtyard of a fabulous hotel and I felt like I had super powers. Rob and I were having actual conversations with each other—with eye contact and everything!—instead of staring at the baby and speaking to each other as him (which is a very strange thing that I believe all parents do).
The further we get from the trip, I can see that it was invigorating and energizing and made the very best parts of our marriage shine. We came home exhausted and happy and missing our routine and our baby. When I look at the amazing fallout of being alone for a bit, I feel foolish for letting the guilt in so much. Lou had a ball and (I was told with slight apprehension) didn’t seem to miss us in the slightest, that little extrovert.
My baby deserves happy parents, and if that means taking a break once a year, then maybe that’s not such a big deal. But next time, I'll just take the stairs.