I remember the first time we took a real summer vacation as a family of four. Our daughters were 1 and 2½ years old, and we were going to spend a week on Cape Cod with my in-laws, Bubbe and Zeide (not their real names).

In preparation for the trip, I started to make a list of everything we needed to bring. I quickly realized it wasn’t going to work.

I needed a spreadsheet.

It included everything one might think to bring on a summer vacation (bathing suits, sunscreen, pajamas, books, etc.) and then everything else that neurotic parents use over the course of an average day to make life with little ones as manageable as possible: diapers, swim diapers, wipes, diaper cream, clothes, footy pajamas in case of cold weather, short pajamas in case of warm weather, booster seats, plastic plates and utensils, bibs, bottles, Sippy cups, Pack ’n Plays, monitors, fans, electronic ear thermometer, baby Motrin, Band-Aids, double stroller, baby carrier, toys for inside, toys for outside, board books, baby dolls, and of course, extra loveys in case we left one at the beach.

Summer vacations with small children can sometimes be a challenge, but they get better as the youngsters grow older.We filled the back of our Subaru wagon, as well as the car-top carrier that had sat covered in dust in our garage since I used it to move across the country more than a decade ago. Fortunately, Bubbe and Zeide had extra room in their car for everything we couldn’t fit.

The girls had a hard time sleeping in the new environment. Bedtime seemed to stretch out forever, and the sheer curtains meant that morning arrived all too early. We were constantly on the lookout for “opportunities” to baby-proof the house we had rented for the week. Our daily plans revolved around nap schedules, and our 1-year-old was still napping in the morning, which made outings to the beach tricky. We had a lot of fun playing in the sand with our girls and watching them “eat” ice cream (how did they get it down their backs?), but make no mistake about it: by the end of the week we were exhausted.

Flash-forward just two short years. After a week’s vacation in Maine, I can tell you this: It gets better.

I noticed the difference right away. I pulled out my trusty spreadsheet and immediately began crossing off all the things we didn’t need. Our girls are potty-trained (if you don’t count one major, um, situation that happened all over the floor of the pizza shop on our first night away), so no more diapers, swim diapers, and wipes. They’re sleeping in “big girl” beds (in the same room, no less), so no more Pack ’n Plays. No more bibs or bottles, monitors or fans, and we even made the slightly risky decision not to bring a stroller.

We had an outing every morning: to the beach or Storyland on sunny days and the Portland Children’s Museum when it rained. In the afternoons, the girls rested and napped, and then they played with their toys while I sat in a chair and read a book – one with no pictures and multiple sentences on a page!

Now, that is a vacation.

But even better than not having to “schlep” so much stuff and getting a little time off was the time we spent with the girls. When you go on vacation with a baby, they still do the same baby stuff that they always did (eating, drooling, pooping, babbling and, if you’re lucky, sleeping); they’re just doing it in a different place. When you go away with older kids, once you get past the screwed-up sleep schedules and new food rejections, an amazing thing happens. You get to watch your children explore different environments, try and master new skills, and – as you find creative solutions to the inevitable challenges of vacation – you all get to find a new part of yourselves that you didn’t previously know existed.

I had no idea how much fun that would be – for them, and for us.

The girls were thrilled by the matching beds in their “new” room and they had their first real shower (a feat we had been unable to accomplish at home). My older daughter spent much of the week taking pictures of everything so she could remember it all; unbeknownst to her, that was one of my favorite childhood activities. The girls loved playing “mermaid” at the lake (apparently they’re both named Ariel now) and touching live slugs and moths at the Children’s Museum (again, something that would have never happened at home). I got to watch them overcome their fear of the spinning teacups and flying wooden shoes at Storyland, and I can honestly say it was worth the waves of nausea that swept over me as we went around and around.

So have faith, ye parents of infants and toddlers who are spending your summer trips schlepping and stressing over the forgotten baby monitor or bottle warmer. The vacations will only get better, as does the rest of parenting.

 This piece first appeared in The Jewish Advocate on July 17, 2013.