Camping with kids… or something like it

Camping with kids – I guess I had romantic expectations. S’mores over campfire flames, berry picking in the sun, learning to set up a tent and cuddling in the sheets. But I suppose that’s kind of motherhood in a nutshell – a romantic expectation with lots of poopie diapers and screaming matches.

Elise's cottageA set dinner tableMy childhood was filled with reruns of PBS’s Anne of Green Gables and afternoons spent reading Little House on the Prairie. I love to think my children will be the Anne and Dianas of today- kindred spirits running through the countryside.

Vashon has a “Green Gables” kind of aesthetic. It’s an island with grassy bluffs and sparkling waters. Most mornings I hear horses whinnying and roosters crowing through my open windows. In introducing three little babes to “camping” on Vashon, I had hoped my romantic ideals would come to life and butterflies would rain down, breathing a love for the outdoors into their impressionable spirits. But the only wings gracing our camping trip were from a Renaissance Fair and the only romantic ideals were alive solely in my imagination. The reality of motherhood hit me like a ton of bricks. “Do I really want to be a mom?”

Kids eating dinnerKids eating dinnerIt’s easy for me to forget that not everyone is comfortable camping. I learned to enjoy a tent when I was just a kid. My dad would pack up the truck with our gear, and we would drive five minutes down the road to Starkey Park. I remember walking under the night sky, terrified of the dark, but so excited to be exploring the woods with my dad. I found out years later that camping hurt his back, and he really didn’t enjoy it much. But he did it for me because I loved it, and he loved me. My memory is a romantic one, his is of a pinched nerve.

When my girlfriends asked if they could use my yard to camp for the first time, I jumped at the opportunity. So, they brought their three babies to the island for a noncommittal glamping trip. There’s always a couch if the outdoors become too much. And as often is the case, I probably bit off more than I could chew.

Wanting to give my friends a night off, I threw together a three course meal: mojito cocktails, mac and cheese for the kids, adult mac and cheese for us, and blackberry pie bars for dessert, complete with homemade whipped cream. I prepared blackberry syrup for the next day’s breakfast and Morning Glory muffins for coffee. Somehow I finished it all within five minutes of their arrival.

Dinner saladAdult macaroni and cheeseKids eating dinnerBut as I sat down to our romantic glamping feast, it dawned on me that moms never get a night off. In between bites of food, my friends would jump up to stop their respective children from ripping apart a plant, pocketing trinkets from around the house or popping balloons for the fun of it, much to the dismay of my Lily. A sip of a mojito here, an attempt to stop the waterworks there. For me, it was a wake up call. For them, it was just another day – a day in the life of a mom.

The lesson here was this: go with the flow. I assume this has held true for centuries, from the days of L.M. Montgomery all the way til now. Our camping trip was no exception.

Mom serving dinnerKids playing on the deckBaby carrying water balloonsBaby girlWith plates cleared and leftovers stowed, we set off for the yard to set up tents. I am a hiker, backpacker and proficient car camper; I was prepared to share all of my camping knowledge. So you can imagine my surprise when I couldn’t figure out how to set up my own tent. (It had been a while, thanks to the comfort of sleeping in the back of a Subaru.) In between children making off with tent poles and little feet sticking out from the collapsing nylon walls, we figured out which pole went where and successfully raised their sleeping quarters for the night.

The inflatable mattress would not inflate, so two sleeping pads took its place. Bedtime arrived for one sleepy two-year-old, so Harry Potter momentarily entertained the other two, while I stoked a campfire in the backyard.

Setting up tents for campingRenaissance fairy wingsSetting up the tentReading at bed timeBed time for babyEventually the fire circle was joined by all, and a few moments of romance were realized. I welcomed a sweet little girl into my lap, and together we gazed into the constellations, pointing toward Ursa Major and the North Star. I braided her hair and protected her from the heat of the flames. My motherly instinct kicked in, and I thought, “Yea, I think I do want to do this.” And as suddenly as she came, she jumped from my lap because now, she “didn’t like fire.” Go with the flow.

Bedtime arrived for us all, and my two little families tucked into their tents for the evening. I sat by the fire and watched it die out, staring into the embers as I decompressed from the day’s events. Silence had never been so sweet.

With the coals drowned in water, I cuddled into my bed and Lily cuddled into hers, both of us grateful for the quiet of the night.

The following morning rose early, as it often does with young ones. But the screaming was less and the moods were heightened. That’s what a good night’s sleep can do for you – and surprise! You can have a good night’s sleep in a tent.

Camping in the yardPainting nailsDrying nailsBlowing on nailsClimbing up stairsPicking blackberriesPicking blackberriesHandfuls of berriesMouthful of berriesPicking berriesBabies huggingMom and baby walkingPicking berriesDirty babyBen joined us for a morning of berry picking. Baby tears were shed, berries were shoved into fists, and cheeks turned a deep shade of purple as those berries bypassed the bucket and headed straight for grumbling tummies. A few more tears pointed toward breakfast time, so we journeyed back to the house for a table full of blackberry pancakes and flutes of mimosas, while antsy toddlers ran to and fro, popping balloons, stealing trinkets and ripping apart plants.

But somehow in all of that familiar chaos, the romance was alive. A light rain fell onto our table umbrella and squealing faces covered in blackberries popped over the table’s edge, asking for a sausage or pieces of watermelon. It’s a learned romance, one born out of patience and practice. These moments will be remembered by my friends and will be resurrected for the babies once they are old enough to understand what “glamping” means.

Walking homeWalking home holding handsWalking homeWalking homeMorning Glory muffinsbreakfastbreakfastMom at breakfastBaby eating breakfastBabies eating breakfastBaby with shoesAs quickly as they arrived, it was time to go. Bags were packed up, dirty diapers changed and screaming babies loaded into the car. Ben and I waved goodbye and wished my friends good luck. But they wouldn’t need it. Moms are the superheroes of today – smiling through the screams and tears.

Ben and I immediately collapsed onto my bed and spent the next four hours decompressing in the quiet of my tiny cottage.

It wasn’t the camping trip I’d envisioned. In fact, I’m not sure you could call it camping at all, more of an exercise in sleeping outside. But it was a learning experience. A lesson in patience and flexibility. A reminder to not idealize situations, but rather take them for what they are.

I’m not sure if I’m ready to have babies. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be. I like the idea of being a mom, but as we’ve learned, ideas and realities are not one in the same, and romance isn’t always something found in the depths of a novel. But there is beauty in the chaos and strength in the moms who deal with it, and that’s something to aspire to.

Walking home holding hands

Author: Elise Giordano

Elise is a photographer living on Vashon Island in the beautiful Evergreen State. When Seattle became too much, she set her sights on island life and never looked back. Today, she is trying to find ways to slow down through cooking, gardening and exploring.

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  • I love this story! You’re building beautiful memories and experiences for your friend’s children……they may not realize it now, but they will. I would guess that your girlfriends loved the experience, too……a new experience with their babies and homemade pancakes!!!!!!!! Yum!! I think, when the time comes, you will be an amazing mother. Remember that kids are really adaptable and learn how to behave. I remember we started traveling with Ryan when he was about six months old and we often took him to pretty nice restaurants. One time, we were talking in the front seat and he was sitting in his car seat in the back. He asked If we could be quiet for a minute so he could listen to the rain!!!!!! He became a super travel buddy. When we started taking him to nice restaurants at first, I would have to remove him and take him outside for a few minutes and follow through with, “If you don’t stop doing that, we’ll have to leave”. Eventually, he would sit like a little adult and enjoy going to dinner, and take part in the conversation. He learned quickly what was acceptable and what was not. I’m looking forward to your next blog. I’m having a cup of coffee and remembering wonderful times spent with you and Ryan doing things like building gingerbread houses and doing Easter eggs hunts. Remember some of the eggs had money in them……or hints from Heloise, like “Don’t forget to change your underwear everyday!”…..Fun times…..

    • These are such fun memories, Joycie! I remember him being so polite to the servers, just like a little man. Remember how he loved Shirley Temples? I remember he once asked for extra cherries. They must have brought over seven or so, I looked away for a second, and when I turned back around he had gobbled them all up. 😀 I miss our family dinners! <3

  • What a fun and generous experience you gave your gal pal mommies! The pancakes look amazing! For me it is always about the food. Good insight re: parenting being more romantic than it actually is…hard, hard work…but it does have its rewards.