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Packing for a trip with a Highly Sensitive Child, and other “unnecessarily complicated”

I remember a day, not long ago, when packing up for a trip was something we absolutely dreaded. It was something that could potentially bring on a full blown panic attack on my part. Something that required endless lists to be put together during an entire workweek. Something so physically and mentally exhausting that I needed a week to recover, only to have to repeat the whole process again.

The “trip” I am talking about isn’t some month-long journey halfway around the globe, although it really did seem that way the way we packed. There were no ships or planes or trains or hiking or even hitchhiking involved to get to our destination. It was the short weekend trip we made to go see my parents who lived an hour and half away by car.

Before we had a baby, my husband and I didn’t sweat packing much. We always preferred to travel really light, sometimes taking an almost empty oversized suitcase in case we wanted to do some shopping wherever it was we were going. But then baby #1 came, and packing even for the shortest trip to the neighborhood minimarket became one of the things that stressed us out the most. We always checked and double checked to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything we needed or might need or baby might ask for while we were out for 10 minutes. And all this because we knew very well what would happen if baby didn’t get what he wanted, the way he wanted it.

Our son was born highly sensitive. We knew he was somewhat different when he didn’t seem to behave like any of our friends’ babies or like the babies we’d read about in baby books or on baby websites. We always expected one thing and, most of the time, we got something else. Baby didn’t start sleeping when he was supposed; he didn’t eat the things he was supposed; he didn’t potty train when he was supposed to; he didn’t like playgrounds and sprinklers and crazy party music like he was supposed to; he didn’t want to be around other kids like he was supposed to. Consequently, we didn’t have control like we thought we were supposed to.

Most of our friends, or rather all of our friends seemed unrealistically relaxed about many things when they had their babies. They never stopped doing the things they liked to do. Restaurants, gatherings, playgrounds, pools and parties were never a problem for them. They never missed out on reunions and always seemed to be there on time, as happy and laid-back as they were in their pre-baby days. Even their nightlife was put on hold for a very short period until they started going out all together again. Of course I say “they” because things went a little differently for us.

With time, we learned to cope with this realization by convincing ourselves that we were the only normal parents, that people with babies should not be having it this easy, and that only we were doing it right. Obviously we were wrong, but lying to ourselves did ease the pain of having lost all our friends, our social life and our nightlife. It helped us cope every time we had to call and cancel whatever it was we were invited to. It allowed us to accept this new lifestyle that was anything but easy and laid-back.

One of the aspects of our lifestyle that was mostly affected was the spontaneity that comes with quick packing and light baggage. It was the reason why leaving the house for to go anywhere was always difficult. We tried to make it a point to take baby to see his grandparents every weekend, so we either left Friday afternoons right after work, which meant we were already packed, or Saturday mornings after breakfast, which gave us more time to load the car, but less time with my parents. In any case, whether we left on Friday or Saturday, the stay at my parents’ house was very short since we always had to leave Sunday afternoons before 6pm rush-hour when half the country made its way back to the city at the same time.

For a 30 to 46 hour stay (yes, I did do the math), we had to take everything with us. And when I say everything, I mean the baby could have lived out of the car for a good two weeks. In addition to the essentials one must pack for a baby, we packed a giant bag (one of those large blue IKEA ones) overflowing with big bulky baby toys and about twenty big bulky baby books; we took the bathtub (you heard me); we took all our bottles, bottle rack, bottle brush, bottle sponge, and later about 3 sippy cups; we took his activity table with the rotating chair (that’s right); we took his favorite DVDs and CDs; we took his baby rocking chair, the playmat, the breastfeeding pillow, the stroller, the carrier, and when potty training started later, the potty.

It. Was. Madness.

My husband and I could pack all of our belongings in the pockets of our jeans. Everything else was for the baby. There was barely any room left for us. I literally had to sit in either the bathtub or the rocker if I wanted to go along.

packing for a trip with a highly sensitive child

Luca always knew to pack light

When we had our first, people always seemed to assume that we chose to complicate things; that things could be much easier if we weren’t so extreme. They said we overdid and over thought everything, and that that was unnecessary. The worst people told us we were spoiling our child the way we did things. The nicest ones said that our behavior was typical of first-time-parents, and that we would see how much more laid back we would be with our second.

We resented those mean people who had nothing but mean things to say. We resented the nice people for trying to make us feel better by saying the wrong things. Why would anyone choose to complicate things unnecessarily? What we went through wasn’t fun. And although we had no idea why we seemed to be the only ones “complicating things unnecessarily”, we knew we still needed to stick to the way we did them. We had no choice in the matter. It was the only way we could be sure our baby was as comfortable and happy as he could be, and if that meant packing would be a nightmarish ritual, well we knew we had to suck it up.

I hate to admit that when we had our second baby, things were in fact much easier. We suddenly had to re-learn everything with baby #2 because the way we did things before was unnecessary for this one. Those nice people who told us this would happen have of course pointed out that they told us so. But I haven’t let this regrettably conclusive coincidence cloud my mind. No. I knew when they told us back then that they were wrong. And I know now that despite how things generally work, ours was not a case of first-time-parent exaggeration. Things were easier with baby #2 not because of our level of experience, but rather because of the order in which our babies were born.

Today my husband and I know what High Sensitivity is, and because of this, we understand our son better than ever. We know why he behaves the way he does and when he does. We know why he likes certain things and dislikes others. We know what he enjoys, what irritates him and what scares him. We know where his worries and concerns come from. We realize how important routine and familiarity are for someone who is sensitive to change. And it makes me happy that even though we didn’t know any of this stuff when he was a baby, we still handled most situations the way we would today. We gave him what he needed even if meant losing our friends and social life; even if it meant packing, among other things, would be a challenge; even if it meant fingers would be pointed and stories of crazy first-time-parents were all we ever heard.

And it makes me over-the-top-happy that this little baby who needed so much then, now four and a half, loves to travel and explore, learn about different countries and cultures, meet new people and try their food, take planes and trains and boats to reach new places, with nothing more than a little backpack full of toy cars, snacks and a magazine, that will remain unopened during the entire trip.


Here are a few interesting posts I read this week that have more to do with packing and travel:

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