I have a toxic relationship with my family but put differences aside so they could bond with my baby on a Disney cruise. Here's how it went.
My husband and I brought our baby on a Disney Fantasy cruise to the Caribbean last December.
Family members we have a toxic relationship with invited themselves to come, too.
The trip triggered me, but I'm glad my baby bonded with them, and the ship helped set boundaries.
The last thing I ever thought I'd do was go on a Disney cruise with my parents and mother-in-law. I've had a toxic relationship with all of them for years. But that's exactly what I did at the end of 2022.
Due to a complicated history, I used to actively avoid my parents and in-law for fear of being triggered. In fact, I would only see them when absolutely necessary, such as birthday gatherings and holiday dinners.
And before the end of last year, I certainly didn't make plans to travel with them. Because while I've taken trips with these family members abroad before, it was often with unpleasant and stressful results.
So my husband and I agreed that for our mental health, we would continue to avoid trips with them.
However, that all changed when our daughter was born during the pandemic. And at the end of last year, we found ourselves taking a seven-night Disney cruise with them to the Caribbean. Here's why we did it, and how it went.
My relationship with my family changed once my husband and I had a baby, especially when it came to travel.
Before the pandemic, I actively avoided my family even though we all live in the Toronto area.
But since my child was born, they've clamored to see us more, and I've tried to see things from a more compassionate perspective. This has primarily been achieved through cognitive behavioral therapy and medication over the past eight years.
My family also informed me that they started going to therapy as well, and with some boundaries in place, I started to allow them to see my baby. For the most part, it's been respectful.
But I was still taken aback when, after casually mentioning that me, my husband, and our child were embarking on Disney's 7-Night Very Merrytime Western Caribbean Cruise, my father invited himself.
I had accidentally revealed this information out of sheer excitement while attending my sister's birthday celebration.
Typically, my dad's behavior would have upset me, but since the birth of my little one, I chose to let it go.
We set clear boundaries with our family members before setting sail.
To be fair to all, we ultimately had to welcome my father, mother, and also my mother-in-law, on our trip so they could all bond with our then 15-month-old baby daughter.
Knowing these family members would be coming on the same cruise, I put careful thought into setting respectful boundaries before we ever set sail.
My husband and I made it clear we wanted no unsolicited advice, no off-side judgemental commentary, for our wishes for private family time away from them to be respected, and to ask permission before touching our baby.
With those parameters set, my husband and I formally invited our parents on our trip.
The ship's vast size and layout helped to manage our complex family dynamic.
We sailed with Disney Fantasy to the Caribbean in December 2022. It was fun to learn that Fantasy's maiden voyage was in 2012 with Mariah Carey as the ship's Godmother.
We initially chose this cruise based on the itinerary and ports of call.
We loved that this trip would take us from Port Canaveral, Florida, to destinations that included Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; Falmouth, Jamaica; and Castaway Cay, Bahamas.
However, once we were onboard, I was especially thankful to be on such a large vessel. I thought it was integral to keeping the peace between everyone.
The Disney Fantasy weighs 130,000 gross tons with a capacity of 4,000 passengers and 1,250 staterooms.
Seeing the ship in person and all it had to offer also felt awe-inspiring. The atmosphere onboard immediately helped to distract from my concerns.
There was so much for the senses to absorb from the first moment I saw and entered the ship.
I soaked up the colorful interior and design of the rotunda with Disney characters etched into the walls, the rich and plush carpeting, the wrought-iron balconies, towering golden pillars, crystal light fixtures, the grand piano, the sweeping staircase, and of course, the smiling staff wearing Mickey ears.
I even turned into a giddy little child when I saw Captain Mickey waving and welcoming us from a balcony.
While the trip took place at the beginning of December, it felt like Christmas Eve thanks to the ship's cheerful ambiance. On top of the ship's grand design, public spaces were decked out in festive holiday decor with elaborate garlands, a gigantic and aromatic real gingerbread house, and a festive Christmas tree.
When we unpacked and settled into our rooms, I was glad that, by chance, we were located on different decks from our other family members.
My husband and I booked our trip a year in advance with a travel agent, which gave us the first choice of rooms.
We requested a Deluxe Family Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah that came with a queen-sized bed, convertible sofa, and split bath with tub and shower on the 10th deck, and cost $6,217.47.
I thought the 299-square-foot room was spacious enough to allow us to easily set up our daughter's makeshift nursery with her pack-and-play nestled between the couch and the balcony's curtain.
Meanwhile, my parents booked their room about six months prior to the ship setting sail, and stayed in a corner room on deck seven; my in-law purchased her own stateroom on the eighth deck.
Us being on different floors was unintentional as we were all placed wherever the travel agent could secure, but it ended up being a good thing as I thought it gave all parties some breathing room.
I found meal times with family to be the most triggering part of the cruise.
For the seven-day journey, my husband and I set a boundary that all breakfasts and lunches were to be enjoyed just by my husband, me, and our baby, away from my in-law and parents.
We enforced this rule after experiencing what it was like to eat with them for our assigned dinner seating on the first evening.
Because our travel agent linked our bookings together later on, we were assigned to eat dinner as a group every night, and did not have an option to dine on our own. Initially, we hoped this could be an enriching, happy experience for us as an extended family.
But my optimism quickly dissipated. From the moment we sat down at the table, my husband and I were inundated with unsolicited advice on how to care for our little one — "you should be putting a sweater on her to address her runny nose" — and what we were doing wrong, such as how we were feeding her.
This made me upset on numerous levels. My parents know I am still dealing with an eating disorder and their worries about my baby not eating enough was disheartening and triggering.
Eventually, when I stopped engaging out of self-preservation, my mother took it a step further and dictated her wishes to me again in Cantonese.
Disrespecting our parenting style and how we were raising our baby brought back traumatic memories of abuse during my childhood.
While we managed to make it work to eat dinner together, I was glad to have the other meal times with just my husband and baby.
I appreciated having so many family-friendly onboard activities. The daycare, in particular, helped structure, and limit, how much I had to rely on my in-law and parents for childcare.
The It's a Small World' daycare program onboard the Disney Fantasy was a lifesaver for me and my husband.
There, we could rely on professional caregivers to watch our baby while my husband and I went on an adults-only snorkeling shore excursion in Grand Cayman.
It also meant I didn't have to rely on my parents and in-law to care for my baby the entire time we were gone, which I wasn't fully comfortable with as an alternative.
However, in order for us to not feel rushed coming back to the ship, we allowed my parents and in-law to pick up our daughter in the early afternoon after her nursery nap.
This way, they could have about two hours to themselves with her to get ice cream and take her to Nemo's Reef, which is a baby waterpark onboard the ship. Two hours was my limit in terms of leaving my baby in their care without starting to feel anxious.
While my parents still complained this arrangement wasn't enough time with my baby, I chose to ignore those pressure tactics and stuck with the plan that worked for our family.
The kids' Oceaneer Club was another venue that we took advantage of for supervised extended family time.
The Oceaneer Club has supervised and structured kids programs for ages three to 12, and was usually off-limits to my little one because she was not old enough to participate.
However, the club had an open house on certain days in the afternoon for about two hours when anyone, including adults, could visit. I thought it was an ideal time for the grandparents to stop by this staff-supervised space and play with our little one.
Everyone loved how thoughtful and detailed the spaces were, themed like Andy's room from "Toy Story," for example.
The club also had baby toys and activities like coloring books and a song circle that stimulated my little one, and helped family members find creative ways of engaging with her.
I'm glad there were so many areas onboard where family members could spend time with my child in a way that made me feel comfortable. But I still struggled with the dynamic.
In the Oceaneer Club and other places onboard the ship, my in-law and parents would play with my baby but also complain if she didn't immediately want to be hugged or held by them.
They passive-aggressively blamed me and my husband for this, by saying things to my daughter out loud like, "oh you don't recognize or remember me," alluding to us not allowing them enough time together.
But in reality, I felt that it was their mood that caused my baby to pull away. I believe that infants are acutely perceptive and if they sense negative energy, they don't want to be around it.
It's why I think she gravitated towards the Disney staff, even though they were strangers, because they were genuinely pleasant and warm.
In those moments, my husband and I would just remain civil and ignore their remarks. It was the only thing we could do to keep the peace.
And when it became mentally exhausting, we'd reinforce boundaries, whether through verbal reminders or over text exchanges.
There were unexpected benefits of having grandparents with us. They helped capture precious moments we wouldn't have otherwise been able to get.
This was our first cruise, and there was an array of Christmas-themed activities, character visits, and festive performances onboard that made me feel like we were making so many happy memories as a family.
Disney characters like Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, and Goofy would sing and dance alongside the Disney cast members in elaborate showcases that revolved around a winter wonderland, magical indoor snowfall, caroling, lighting of the Christmas tree, and welcoming Santa and Mrs. Claus to the ship.
But with our baby's rambunctiousness, we frequently missed out on capturing these special moments. Thankfully, my parents and in-law helped us immensely in this area. Without even needing to ask, they took tons of photos and captured every second of my baby's adventures on the ship.
One of my favorite memories was a baby-oriented spectacle called The Incredibles JackJack's Diaper Dash, which was an onboard crawling contest between babies.
My little one was asked to participate, but it required both my husband and me to help guide her. My husband was at the starting line and I was at the finish as we encouraged our daughter to crawl from one end to the other the quickest, to beat the other tiny humans and win a gold medal.
Because we were caring for her wellbeing and safety, in addition to cheering her on, there was no chance of taking videos or photos.
But when the adrenaline rush was over and the race was complete, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a set of texts containing photos and videos from my parents and in-law. It was a very thoughtful way of helping us capture these once-in-a-lifetime, candid moments that were only possible because they were there.
Overall, I still feel conflicted about the trip. I'm glad my family bonded with my baby, but I'm not sure if I would do it again.
Overall, I felt more stressed than calm when I was on this Disney cruise.
While my parents and in-law said that their intentions to spend time with my baby were heartfelt, the impact of their actions frequently derailed mine and my husband's emotional and mental stability.
This trip also made me realize that I buried more pain than I thought over the last two-and-a-half decades, and it only bubbled its way up to the surface when I had my baby.
However, I'm thankful I was able to preserve the status quo of my relationships with my parents and in-law, and found a silver-lining in seeing the bond between my baby and her grandparents strengthened.
I'm not sure if we'll travel together again anytime soon. Before I book any future trip with them, I know that I still have a long journey ahead of me of unpacking these feelings and healing to do with my therapist.
Read the original article on Insider