Traveling with family: Washington, D.C.

Taking in the view on the balcony of the capitol.

Taking in the view on the balcony of the capitol.

Impressive monuments, loads of museums (many of them free!), wide open spaces, good food and the potential for a presidential siting  — Washington, DC has all the makings of a great kid-friendly holiday for kids (of all ages) and adults. 

Having family and friends located in the nation’s capitol, my husband, now 5 year-old son and I have headed to DC multiple times — and never had the same trip twice. When our son was age 3 we did the zoo and viewed cherry blossoms (while he napped in his stroller). At age four, we toured the monuments and hit the Air & Space Museum. At 5 we explored the International Spy Museum and the Capitol.

What has worked for us: keeping our son on Arizona time (so we, the parents, can go out to dinners) and tackling only one major destination or area a day. We like to have a general game plan, but with erratic weather, traffic, etc., we’re also open to keeping things easy and breezy.  

So if you’re thinking about planning a family trip to DC — here are a few tips to navigate:

When to go:

January through early March is cold, rainy and maybe snowy. It’s probably the cheapest time with the least traffic, but probably the most unpleasant for traversing the city.

The weather turns in mid-late March. Weather can be erratic. Our last trip in late March began snow-y and turned four days later to sunny skies and 70 degrees.  Late March or early April is cherry blossom season — which is delightful…and popular. Spring breaks and school trips are also spring so expect to encounter crowds, tour buses and long lines.

In summer, expect the usual summer holiday travelers (see above) along with some high humidity.

My sources recommend visiting September through December when the weather is mild and the crowds are thin.

Transportation:

By air: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is the closest airport to the city.  Dulles is located in Virginia about a half hour out of town. Baltimore/Washington International is about a 45 minute drive to DC. 

Should you rent a car? If you’re sticking to Washington DC proper, the metro and buses are great and Uber/Lyft cars are plentiful. Download the Uber app; You can request cars with carseats. That said, there are some cool sites out of town. Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum is 30 minute drive from the city near Dulles Airport. Mount Vernon is a 45 minute drive toward Richmond, Virginia.

Do you need a stroller? There’s a lot of ground to cover in DC, much by foot. We brought a stroller when our son was 3 and 4. At age 5 he was able to walk on his own, with sporadic breaks, a little carrying, and some iPad bribery.

Note: New York City and Philadelphia are an easy Amtrak trip away if you want to make DC a part of a larger east coast tour.

Where to stay: 

For families, I think home rentals like airbnb and VRBO are the way to go. Look at Dupont Circle (like here and here), Columbia Heights (here and here) or Adams Morgan (like here, here and here) if close proximity to trendy restaurants and shopping is a priority.

For a more historic experience closer to the sites, try a place in Foggy Bottom or near George Washington University.

Where to eat:

We used Yelp to navigate through the loads of ethnic restaurants scattered around the city.  Many restaurants take, and even recommend, reservations — the Open Table website or app makes it easy.  

A few suggestions;

Matchbox, located between Logan Circle and Adams Morgan, has American a kid menu and unpretentious atmosphere. Ask for a bit of dough for kids to play with. When the kids are done, they’ll fire it — and give it back.

Artisanal markets, interesting food stands and pop-up shops, Union Market has a bunch of cool dining spots (especially for varying tastes) — and if the weather is nice, an outdoor eating space.

For a quick meal, fast food Peruvian chicken is what my DC dreams are made of. Get extra chimichurri and “white sauce” (I have no idea what it is — but it’s yummy) they offer along with some rice and plantains. You’ll be happy you did.

Some things to do:

There’s something for everyone. If you’ve got inquisitive kids who love learning, the Smithsonian museums are endless wonders. For art-lovers, try the new Renwick Gallery. For kids who can’t sit still, visit the zoo and walking the monuments.

For really young kids

National Zoo
Price: Free
The zoo is meandering and beautiful, 163 acres of wooded loveliness with all of the usual animals plus giant pandas! The grounds are expansive and it’s about a 15-20 minute hike from the metro; I’d recommend a stroller.  
Rating — Kids ****  Adults ****

The Smithsonian Museums (any age)
Price: Free
Air & Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, American History Museum…there are a bunch (see list)
Giant airplanes and spacecrafts, dinosaurs, cool American memorabilia housed in majestic old buildings…for free. They can be crowded and overwhelming. If you have an antsy kid and the lines are long you can retire to the mall for some running and a carousel ride (located between the Smithsonian Castle and theAir & Space Museum) to let off some steam.

Mount Vernon (any age)
Price: $20 for adults, $9 for children 6-11, children 5 and under are free
A 45-minute drive from the city, Mount Vernon can easily be a whole day of activity for the family — especially on a nice day since most of the sites are outdoors. The tour of the main mansion is quick and informative, it probably takes 20 minutes tops and covers some interesting facts/events (see the room where Washington died, view an AC chair). There are also other tours available of the gardens and audio tours additional fees. Take in the views of the Potomac on the back lawns.  Traverse the farms (we saw 2 week-old baby sheep), walk the sprawling fields and down to the Potomac.  Leave time for the interactive education center at the end. It has models and — breaks down Washington’s life into easily-digestible vignettes. Pick up an adventure map at the orientation center. Solve the puzzles, win a prize. 
Food: The Mount Vernon Inn has period decor but modern , think fried green tomato sandwiches and turkey pot pie. There’s a food court, or you could opt to bring in your own sandwich and eat on the lawn overlooking the Potomac (check).
Rating: Kids ****    Adults *****

For 5 and over

International Spy Museum (5 and up)
Price: Basic entrance is $21.95 for adults, 6 and under are free
Adopt a new identity and check out the extensive collection of spy memorabilia and historical paraphernalia. Kids will love the spy gadgets, like button cameras and cigarette guns, and enjoy a crawl through the duct system. Adults will like those things too, plus learn how espionage has affected our country’s history from American Revolution to atom bomb.  There’s a family For kids 12+ there’s Operation Spy (which sounds awesome) which is an hour-long spy mission. I left wanting to watch James Bond movies and read spy books.
Rating: Kids ***** Adults *****

Note: If you need a snack or a rest afterward, head across the street to the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery and find their atrium where you can buy a pricey snack and rest in a magical room with an open ceiling, modern splash pad/ fountains, and rainforest vibe.

Art appreciation at the Renwick

Art appreciation at the Renwick

Renwick Gallery
Price: Free
Recently refurbished and re-invented, this small well-located museum (across from the White House) offers a bite-sized sample of modern fine art. The two floors house nine rotating installation pieces from artists around the country. On our visit we saw a giant rainbow made of string, a room decorated entirely with bugs, multiple “nests” made with sticks, and a suspended hollow tree.  Adults will find this cooler than the kids, though even kids should find something they like (room of bugs!), and even if they don’t, they’ll be through it before they know it.
Rating:  Kids ***    Adults *****

Make it a game. Mission Washington, DC challenges kids to find clues in the major museums and monuments around town.

For 10+

This is out of my wheel house at the moment, but from the looks of things, there were some pretty cool things for older kids as well. First, there's all of the typical things you do with the little ones, which would probably be way more interesting with bigger kids who actually might give a shit beyond the outfits. Some other things that looked good:

  • Amazing bike trails along the Potomac. 
  • International Spy Museum (see above). Older kids can go on spy adventures around the museum -- or around the city.

Other sites:

The White House
Price: Free
My son announced his desire to visit the White House and spend some quality time with President Obama two weeks before our April trip to Washington, DC. He did not see the President. If you (or your child) have designs on touring the White House, book it now. Seriously, stop reading this right now and start booking. Tours are booked through your state congress person (if in AZ, click here) and take some time to set up. Think 2-6 months ahead of schedule. 

Oak Springs Cemetery
Price: Free
My zombie-obsessed son wanted to see a graveyard, so we took him to this sprawling one in Georgetown perched on a picturesque hillside with loads of cool headstones.

Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum
Price: Free (but $15 for parking)
A truly awe-inducing expanse filled with air and space giants like the space shuttle rocket, a Concord plane, the Enola Gay aircraft that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, plus tons of other notable aircraft like home-made helicopters, record breaking gliders and historic hot air balloons. 

Note: The only thing to eat at the museum is McDonalds. If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, try the Megabytes Eatery a couple of miles down the freeway for fare ranging from banh mi to tacos to paninis.

US National Arboretum
Price: Free
The arboretum is a couple miles of grassy plains dotted with flowers, trees and the occasional example of cool architecture. On a recent visit. We visited the children’s garden, where we sampled Stevia leaves (sweet!) Off to the side was a small stage, some makeshift balancing apparatus, sandboxes and a trail to what looked to be a cool hike.

For the kids, a lot of wide open spaces to run around. For adults, the Bonzai exhibit is super cool.

Parks

Traditional parks are few and far between in DC — but there are a couple.

Kennedy Recreation Center
P Street & 7th Street
A newly remodeled public playground with dual play areas. The first for smaller kids (toddler - 5) has a play house, teeter totters, climbing apparati, swings, spinning seats, etc. The area for older kids (4+) includes an amazingly scary looking slide (think vertical tube that spits out kids like a salad shooter), more advanced climbing equipment and a merry-go-round. 

Kalorama Park
18th Street & Columbia in Adams Morga
A neighborhood park with a separate gated area for smaller kids (toddler - 4).

Resources:

For more in-depth suggestions, check out mom blog http://kidfriendlydc.com/

 

 

 

Finding a kindergarten

My advice for parents looking for schools for their soon-to-be kindergarteners; Look at and apply to everything.

Right now in Arizona, there are tons of education options: public schools, private schools, charter schools, home schooling -- which makes making a decision -- HARD.

Our grammar school search began when our son was 3. A friend had toured a small private school for her older children and she thought it’d be a good fit for us. It’s a small school with one class per grade and a focus on social interaction. “They learn to read in the desert,” my friend enthused. “I think you guys would love it!”

Not knowing how any of this stuff worked, we went on a tour. We saw lots of bright kid-made art on the walls. Kids were, indeed, learning to read one-on-one in the desert while others played. One on one! Outdoor time!  In a math class, about 6 students were gathered around a three-dimensional shape and a bunch of cubes discussing volume. “This is the way math should be taught,” said my husband excitedly. 

We went to another traditional school orientation soon after and saw how other highly-recommended schools operate; Nothing on the walls that could be distracting, lots of book learning, advanced classes, no computers.

Our son is artistic and expressive, loves to learn but has a hard time focusing.

At the end of our limited search, we decided the small private school was our perfect fit and we need look no further.

So we took another tour when our son was 4 and applied for the following year.

And then we waited and imagined how the next year would play out: school performances, playdates, etc.

In March we got the call…we didn’t get in. 

We did have a “backup” school; our neighborhood public school which focused on Spanish immersion (our son goes to a Spanish immersion pre-school). A lot of kids from my son’s class were going to the same school and he’d get to continue his Spanish, I reasoned. But I still worried that it wasn't quite right for us.

Then during the end-of-the-year student/teacher conference, my son’s teacher said our son would probably benefit from smaller class sizes. “He doesn’t do any work unless a teacher is sitting right next to him. He needs a lot of attention.”

Shit. 

By this time, most people were settled on which school their kids were attending. We got lots of suggestions, Montessori, other private schools. “It’s kindergarten,” people would tell us. “It’s not really a big deal.” 

But these early years are when my child is going to develop his feelings about learning, make friends, spend the next 5 or more years of his life. To us, it seemed like a big deal.

We eventually visited a school with religious affiliation recommended by our pediatrician and a few other acquaintances. One we wouldn’t even consider early on because we’re not religious. But the classes are small. They teach technology and have a great maker space for older kids. They have a uniform, with a patch, which my son loves. We took a tour, my son sat in on a class. We all really liked it…and so we filled out an application, and passed the application test — but because of our late entry, they are now full for next year.

So what we learned about this whole process:

First, there’s a lot of competition for spaces in small schools. Don't be afraid to really let your chosen school know that they are your number one choice. Write thank you notes after visits. Check in periodically and remind them how interested you are. 

Also, kids grow and change a lot between the ages of 4 and 5, and you might not know at application time exactly what your kid will need. 

My advice: Look at several school options, keep an open mind, and tell yourself, "it's only kindergarten."

The countdown:

  • Look at different schools about 2 years before you think he'll be attending
  • Start applying to schools in the fall/winter of your child's last year of preschool (usually October or November)
  • You'll generally find out if your were accepted, waitlisted or denied around March
  • Waitlists vary. At some schools, waitlisted students have a great chance of admission. At others, it's basically an empty gesture. The admissions person should let you know if it's a valid possibility, or if you'd be better of focusing your attentions elsewhere.

To kinder...or not to kinder?

If your child's birthday is after August 31, you'll have to wait an extra year to enroll in kindergarten. Many kids in my son's class who had summer birthdays decided to keep their children in preschool for one additional year before starting preschool, even though technically, they were eligible. Some parents want their kids to have an age advantage and be the oldest in their grade rather than the youngest. I heard that some feel like an older kid will have an edge in sports. Some parents were concerned their child was too sensitive, immature or too small -- and would benefit from an extra year. 

Some elementary schools

  • Public schools - Madison and Scottsdale public schools are some of the best in the state. On the plus side, they have a diverse student population and many now emphasize different skills like foreign language immersion, STEM skills, arts, etc. On the bad, they are Arizona public schools, which are woefully underfunded with no sign of improving.
  • All Saints - A private school with a beautiful campus, small class sizes and a rigorous education that doesn't exclude technology. Kindergarteners learn to code and middle schoolers use power tools to build go-karts. Preschool - 8th grade.
  • Desert Marigold Waldorf School - A charter school with a hippy vibe stresses learning in a nurturing environment, practical skills like gardening and building and lots of outdoor time. The best students to have around if you're stranded on a desert island. They have classes from early childhood through 12th grade.
  • Desert View Learning Center - A small private school that focuses on tailoring an education to the child's individual needs. Count on lots of parental involvement. K - 4th grade
  • Phoenix Country Day School - A friend toured this school guided by an unflappable 6th grade student, which, she said, was the best advertisement she could imagine. Small classes, expert facult and a state-of-the-art campus --  it also has a tuition to match.  K - 12th grade.
  • Veratas Academy (A Great Hearts School) - Kids learn Latin and French and get a good, traditional education through high school. 
  • Villa Montessori - Stresses student-led education and research. Classes meet as a group, but then the child (with guidance from the teacher) creates their learning plan for the day. The school is from preschool to 8th grade. Camelback High School has a Montessori track.

Breastfeeding: Sometimes it sucks

My husband and I went to a breastfeeding class at the hospital where nurses explained the biology of nursing: Amniotic fluid-smelling secretions, darkening areolas, milk let-down etc. We were awed by the biology. Breastfeeding seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of such a symbiotic system?

When Wilson was born, I got to see how the whole shebang worked — and it wasn’t as seamless as the Power Point presentation suggested.

Frankly, for me, nursing was was hard.

Not HARD hard. A friend recounted a story of her nipple repeatedly opening like a canyon and spewing blood. Another cut the front out of a sports bra so her chafed boobs could get some non-contact support. One actually said that labor was easy in comparison to enduring breastfeeding (she had a 2 day labor).

My difficulties came in the form of blistered nipples, plugged ducts, a low milk supply and getting a tiny baby to latch deeply (a deep latch is the holy grail of nursing).  I visited lactation meetings, drank fenugreek tea and read a lot of websites. Here is what I learned about breastfeeding.

It’s different for everyone
Some people are natural breastfeeders. One buxom friend had a blissful nursing experience, “I turned into a f*cking Earth mother. These things (motioning to her chest) had to be good for something.”

Others weren’t so lucky (see above).

After struggling a bit with latches and supply, I went to a weekly lactation group and the other mom there had what she called, “a gusher.” Her milk stream was like a fire hose down her kid’s throat. He got plenty of milk, which he’d promptly upchuck all over his bib.

It can always be worse.

***

It can take a long time
My biggest shock was how many hours I would log nursing. After downloading a breastfeeding ap for my phone (who knew?!), I was shocked to see that those first few months I was spending up to 7 hours a day feeding Wilson.

The logistics of feeding never occurred to me pre-baby. Then Wilson was born and I learned that he should eat every 3 hours — which starts at the beginning of each feeding. So if he takes an hour to eat (which he usually did), he’d be ready to eat 2 hours later. Those 2 hours seemed like seconds when my nipples were on fire.

***

Your rack is on display
My sister-in-law breastfed her firstborn for 3 years and I could never tell definitively whether or not she was nursing. I, however, am not that graceful. If you’re over during feeding time, you’re going to see my boobs.

In my normal life, friends and family aren’t privy to my naked bosom, but in the early days of nursing, my parents, my in-laws, and my friends have all seen my boobs.

***

Pumped milk is like liquid gold

Pumped milk is freedom. If you have milk in the refrigerator, your husband can take over a midnight feeding, a grandparent can administer a bottle for a night out — anyone can feed that baby.

Sadly, I don’t make a lot of milk. The first month or so, it might take 4 or 5 pumping sessions (which are tedious when your sore nipples are feeding every 3 hours) to make enough milk for one feeding.

I keenly remember dropping Wilson off at my mom’s house with one of my precious bottles “just in case.” When I came back, I saw the nearly-cashed bottle on the table. “He almost ate the whole thing!” My mom beamed. I simultaneously sought to hold back tears while looking for ways to store/transport the last quarter of an ounce at the bottom of the bottle.

***

Lactation consultants can be hands-y
One expects a certain amount of man-handling during lactation consults. Some however, seemed more hands-on than others.

“You really should continually compress the breast as you feed,” said one while grabbing a hold of my boob and milking. After about 5 minutes of massaging and squeezing she continued, “You might even want to do areola compressions…” which is just as appalling as it sounds. After this particularly violating session, I came home and Googled “lactation molestation” (nothing came up).

***

That said, A lactation group can be really helpful
Trained experts can often see what the problem is after a second of watching you feed and offer boob-saving tips (Thank you Ramona at St. Joe’s!). Talking to other nursing moms makes you realize that everyone (or at least many) have issues with breastfeeding. And it’s just nice to get out of the house and not worry about messing with your baby-feeding schedule.

***

It doesn't always work
You don't make enough milk, your baby is ravenous beyond your supply, your baby isn't learning to latch, for all these reasons (and then some), you might not be able to nurse, even if you desperately want to. 

***

Everyone has an opinion
Not everyone in my life was supportive about my breastfeeding (you know who you are!). I had people in my life trying to push formula on me with the verve of a crack dealer.

“My coworker breastfed for a long time and her boobs turned into 2 empty wallets,” offered one formula pushing person. At every cry, another would insist she heard the “nuh” sound indicating he was hungry. “You should just give him some formula.”

While there are huge upsides to formula (you know how much the baby is getting, it’s fast, anyone can feed him), the more formula you feed him, the less milk you make (it’s a part of that whole amazing system).

I have nothing against formula. In fact, I supplemented Wilson with formula while I was nursing. As a person with auto-immune issues, I really thought it was important to give nursing my best shot.

It’s a decision everyone has to make with their own body, mental state and lifestyle in mind.

You're pregnant! Now what?

You’re probably getting tons of advice from friends, family and strangers on the street on how you should proceed from here on out. Here’s a little bit more…

Drink enough water

I didn’t drink enough and had to be on bed rest for a week with low amniotic fluid. Drink up!

And while you’re chugging down all that water, try adding a few prenatal vitamins. My sister-in-law is a naturopathic doctor and recommended Rainbow Light Prenatal Petite tablets, available at Whole Foods.

Get a few pregnancy staples

A giant body pillow
I initially resisted the giant body pillow. "Why do I need a special pillow?" I thought. Wouldn't it be just as easy to put regular pillows between my knees, behind my back, etc.?  But starting month 6 or so, I'd wake up in the night with throbbing hips. "You should put a pillow between your knees," suggested…everyone. Finally someone recommended the body pillow, which seemed like a more reasonable suggestion than a $250 pillow top. I slept well throughout my pregnancy and months after.

Stretch Mark Oil/Cream
A friend gave me her leftover oil, swearing that it left her stretch mark-free. Who am I to argue? I used that oil I can now boast no stretch marks and my (old) skin has pretty much returned to pre-pregnancy elasticity. (Friend tip: Don't forget to use it on your boobs!)

Maternity Jeggings/skinny jeans
I lived in these for the duration of my winter pregnancy -- and then for awhile post-birth. I paired the stretchy denim with t-shirts, swingy sweaters and some strappy boots.

For summertime pregnancy, however, stretchy maxi-dresses seem to be a popular choice.

Some other cool maternity shops:

And then a lot of baby stuff

My husband and I really didn’t want having a baby to become a huge consumer affair — until it did. Once our son was born, we were fielding daily deliveries from Amazon with things we needed (?). The baby is spitting up constantly — we need burp cloths! Uh oh, he keeps breaking out of his swaddle — let’s try sleep sacks!

There are a zillion things to buy for your new baby. Here are a few things you’ll definitely need:

If you're driving, a car seat
You can’t leave the hospital without one. My husband and I really liked the base that had a snap-in carrier. If the baby was sleeping, we didn’t have to pull him out of the seat — and we had a built-in place to put the baby where ever we went.

Diapers
Have an array to try. Like any pair of pants, different brands fit all babies differently. I know people who swore by Huggies. For us, Huggies equalled blow-outs. Seventh Generation was our best choice for newborn diapers. My friend loved Pampers Swaddlers' color strip that lets you know the diaper is wet. Once my son got older, we used Honest products for just about everything: Diapers, wipes, soap/shampoo, baby oil, stick sunscreen. Honest wasn't around when Wilson was an infant, so I can't vouch for the newborn diapers, but they have been amazing since he was about 9 months old — plus they are super cute. 

For diaper cream, we started with organic products: California Love and Burt's Butt Cream, but the stuff that really seemed to help his bum and make his diaper rash better, was good old-fashioned Desitin.

A place to sleep
Whether you are co-sleeping or planning on using in a crib, you’ll need somewhere for baby to get some rest. We had a pack-and-play with a built in bassinet we kept at the foot of our bed for the first four months, then transferred him to a crib.

A place to sit
Our baby came home with no place to sit. Sure we had a pack-and-play for sleeping, and a swing for napping, but when he’s not sleeping, then what? A nice reclined seat that’s portable. Something you can have next to you while you eat dinner or set up by the shower for when you want to be clean. Once he gets a little older, you can also add this.

Some other things to think about:

A nursing tank
If you’re going to breast feed (check out my post), consider a nursing tank. I wore a nursing tank under everything: T-shirts, kimono tops, cardigans. It covers your stomach yet provides easy access. I had a million.

Boppy
 While I was figuring out nursing and he was so small, the Boppy really helped get him in position. Later I used it to prop him up when he was learning to sit. A friend felt the My Breast Friend nursing pillow was more stable for nursing -- and what's not to like about that name?

An iPhone app
For me, it was seriously helpful. I used one for the whole year I breastfed. It tells you when you should feed, and how long you fed, which side you need to start with. 

Take a look at The Happiest Baby on the Block
If you have time, take a look at The Happiest Baby on the Block. My husband and I checked it out from the library (you only have to see it once). It gives some suggestions for dealing with a crying baby. While I’m not sure they all work, at least it provides a jumping off point.

Read Bringing Up Bebe
Reading about how Parisian women deal with child-bearing will make you both jealous and inspired. We might not have subsidized day care that serves our kids braised leeks, but we can glean a tip or two about raising unfussy eaters.

Since you’re buying all this stuff, you might want to think about signing up for Amazon Family. You get 20% off the stuff on your registry.

You’ll need clothes

My son wore newborn clothes for probably 6 months, but I had a friend whose baby skipped newborn entirely and started life wearing 3-6 month wear. Have an array of season-appropriate options in varying sizes.

Here are a few places with super cute and good quality clothes:

But also check out second-hand shops and hand-me-downs. Some of my favorite clothes came from my friend’s baby clothes swap.

Here's my Amazon store with many of the items I bought.