My baby gasped in amazement as two pairs of soulful brown eyes stared at her, fuzzy noses gently brushing the wire fence outside our vacation apartment.
As I watched my daughter come face to face with the two encouraged deer a meter away, I experienced a sense of inner peace that had recently disappeared. After weeks of living “in my head”, I finally felt present.
I was four months under treatment for postnatal depression when we headed to France for our first vacation with a family of four.
As a couple, my husband and I loved to travel, and this continued with the arrival of our first daughter in 2017. At 10 weeks we flew to Athens and, the following year, continued with stays in Croatia, Slovenia and France. The latter was especially memorable when I found out I was pregnant for the second time.
It was not smooth sailing during those first months after birth. I kept feeling that everything was about to go catastrophically wrong and I felt weighed down by a constantly low mood. I felt absent, causing an overwhelming sense of guilt.
All the things we did as a family – days out, road trips, vacations – seemed insurmountable. And the thought of getting on a plane with two under two made me sweat cold.
We decided that a leisurely drive through the French countryside would be a sweet reintroduction to family vacations. But somehow this has spread to five countries, four lodgings and three Tour de France stages with two kids in one week (ish). It is fair to say that we have deviated from the brief. My nerves were on the alert.
After filling the car, as only parents of babies and toddlers can do, we sailed from Dover to Calais.
My husband is a cycling enthusiast and I have always loved the Tour de France theater. A year earlier, we enjoyed the event as a family of three, four counting the little life growing inside of me. We were hoping that by returning we could rediscover some of the magic of this first trip, and it was an excuse to visit different places.
I saw little cycling those first two days. I spent much of the start of the high octane phase in Reims lurking in the shadows keeping the strollers out of the scorching sun. And the second phase was a cancellation as our next hotel inexplicably decided to close its restaurant for two days, so with little food and limited options, we left early. Normally this unexpected hiccup would have completely derailed me, but something strange happened: I coped. The world has not given up. The children did not starve.
Our next accommodation, Les Hauts de Brochot, was a cottage nestled in the rolling green meadows of the regional nature park. Although we could make out tiny white patches of houses in the valley below, our closest neighbors were deer. A short dirt track led to the winding descent from the Ballon d’Alsace, where cyclists whizzed through the fog at a kamikaze pace.
A scattered crowd lined the course, without the push for the position that characterized the start of the stage in Reims. I felt much calmer, and just being in a relaxed environment took my mind off a steady stream of overzealous risk assessments, imagining at one point Geraint Thomas spiraling out of control taking half my family out.
Another thing that characterizes the trip with my husband: our propensity to jump the border to cram visits in as many countries as possible.
This time we enjoyed breakneck visits to Basel, Switzerland, striding across the Middle Bridge that spans the Rhine and Luxembourg City, admiring the golden goddess Gëlle Fra, the Luxembourg Memorial Monument. We also made a stop in Brussels for waffles before looking for the peeing statue of Manneken Pis.
While these in-flight visits seemed confusing, stuffed with baby tantrums and epic diaper bursts, they didn’t arouse my anxiety as expected. After four months, I finally felt like I was turning a corner.
Our last hotel in Germany overlooked the beautiful Bitburg reservoir, surrounded by lush greenery and giving off strong Dirty Dancing vibes.
As we sat in the bank eating pizza on our last night, I reflected on the past few days. It won’t work for everyone, but the “jumping with both feet” method showed me that I could do it, and in doing so, I partially restored a confidence that I feared had been lost. In fact, I had done a lot more than just cope, I had enjoyed it. The cycle of catastrophization had been interrupted. Holidays weren’t something that had to be handed over to the past.
Three months later, we arrived in Gatwick, with a sense of determination to overcome the last hurdle of my recovery. But this time there was no fear. After all, if you could take two children under two on a road trip of over 1,000 miles and survive, the rest would be far less daunting.
The family-friendly Best Western Plus Hotel de La Paix is a 10-minute walk from Reims station (00 33 3264 00408, bestwestern-lapaix-reims.com). Rooms from £ 114 per night.
Stay in the Les Hauts de Brochot cottages (06 52 54 11 84, leshautsdebrochot.fr) at the foot of the Ballon d’Alsace from £ 170 per week.
In the historic heart of Brussels, the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Brussels (00 32 2 2192828; radissonblu.com) is ideal for families. Rooms from £ 177 per night.
The historic Hotel Krafft (00 41 61 690 9130, krafftbasel.ch) on the Rhine creaks with the charm of a storybook. Rooms from £ 141 per night.
To see the Bitburg reservoir, opt for the Dorint Seehotel & Resort Bitburg (0049 6569 990; hotel-eifel-bitburg.dorint.com). Rooms from £ 115 per night.
Dover to Calais from £ 35 return with P&O (poferries.com) or £ 68 return with DFDS (dfds.com)