We took a big family vacation to Chicago early in the summer of 2018. It made sense to plan our trip for the beginning of the season, right after school had gotten out and before we’d all had a chance to fall into the pit of summer inertia. I toyed with the idea of taking a second trip later in the summer, maybe to the beach. But then it suddenly turned into August and the temperatures climbed into the 90s and the children became somewhat … feral … so I decided that the only other place we’d be visiting was scenic Nope Beach in Nopeville!
Don’t judge me for not wanting to take another “vacation” with my kids. Anyone who has children, or has traveled with children, knows that planning a summer vacation with children is work. Our summer trip to Chicago (we live in Virginia) was months in the making. From airline tickets to hotel reservations to activity planning and packing for every possible weather contingency — it took a lot of effort. And that was before we ever left home! You’d have thought we were going to Peru to climb Machu Picchu for how much work it took to plan a trip for four to the Windy City!
I once saw an article on a travel website: “Nine End-of-Summer Family Vacations That Will Help You Relax and Reconnect Before Fall.” And I laughed. Boy, did I laugh!
The idea of a “relaxing” family vacation makes me … a little maniacal. Who are these mythical children who allow their parents to relax? In my mind, they must be adults — young twentysomethings fully capable of entertaining themselves while mom and dad foot the bill for a trip to Aruba or Tahiti.
Sure, it would be lovely to reconnect with my offspring who live at a distance and only visit twice a year. But those are not my children — at least not yet. My children can’t drive. Or go to the pool alone. Or book an excursion while I get a massage. And they are with me All. Of. The. Time.
A friend of mine recently got back from taking her kids — teenagers — on a jaunt through Europe. Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, they saw it all and she gleefully shared the pictures. I look forward to the day I can plan such a trip, where my kids won’t turn up their nose at food that isn’t deep-fried chicken, and will look forward to studying a new language with me in preparation for our trip. Kids who can pack their own damn suitcase and will be able to stay up past 8 p.m.
I’m not complaining. Honestly. I know that summer vacations with children are an extension of life with children — a wonderful, if tiring and often frustrating, experience. Summer vacation has yet to be relaxing and I’m not sure when exactly it will be.
To be clear, I haven’t expected it to be because parenting isn’t relaxing. But, hey, it’s OK, because I like parenting! It’s what I signed up for when I had kids.
Sure, I didn’t know I’d be expected to play “I Spy” until my eyes bleed or to crawl into questionable spaces in order to retrieve a stuffed bear for the thousandth time in seven days, but that’s life with kids, right? We do what we have to do because we love them — and because they will one day choose our nursing homes and we want them to have fond memories of the “good old days.” (Kidding. Mostly.)
I plan family vacations with big things in mind, but I’ve learned that I have to be flexible and go with the flow. Boy, did I flow the year we went to Washington, D.C. Instead of seeing the Museum of Natural History, like I wanted and had planned for, I spent an hour on the National Mall forking out $3 per kid for carousel rides. Being flexible with my grand plans meant I missed out on some of the attractions (and the fancy restaurants) in exchange for an exciting hour of playing “I can’t find my shoes!” in a 12-square-foot hotel room.
And so it goes, with kids.
But I know family vacations aren’t about whether I get to sleep for 12 hours or see every corner of the Smithsonian, it’s about making memories with these little ones who are growing up too fast and will be gone before I can say, “College costs how much?!” Our summer vacations are about experiencing new things (even if the new thing is pulling the cord on the city bus every 50 feet) and having funny stories to tell (though sometimes they’re only funny in retrospect). But if I “let it go, let it go” like Elsa, we will all have fun and it won’t be too stressful. And, someday, they’ll be grown and we’ll take that vacation where we all get to “relax and reconnect.”
Yes, I admit, at some point during our week in Chicago, I might have said, “This is the last family vacation I’m planning!” I might have even meant it at the moment. And then, when summer dragged on and my house started smelling like feet and pool chlorine, I admit I might not have been too keen on thinking about the next summer vacation.
And yet, despite the work to coordinate these annual excursions — and the inevitable pitfalls once we arrive — I genuinely like hanging out with my kids on our trips. They teach me to see everything from a different perspective, which is worth more to me than a week by the pool with an umbrella drink in hand. (Though one day it would be nice to actually sit in the chair by the pool instead of hovering 6 inches over it while I wait for the inevitable shriek of a child.)
I can envy the parents traveling with their grownup kids who haven’t yet had kids themselves. But despite the fact that my summer vacation plans often look like a direct-to-TV version of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” remake, I’m in no rush to get to Machu Picchu or Aruba or Tahiti. Watching my kids’ awe at seeing skyscrapers for the first time, or fireworks over the water, or Mickey Mouse, makes up for the inconveniences and lack of sleep (and privacy) on a family vacation. Respecting their limitations and taking their interests and emotions into consideration makes for a vacation that’s as close to relaxing as anything can be as a parent. I mean, I don’t have to cook dinner, make my bed or worry about work, so it’s still (sort of) a vacation for me.
For now, it’s really an amazing experience to see what my kids discover when we take a trip, what they remember when we get home, and what they ask to do for our next vacation. “I want to go to Canada,” my youngest said the other day. “Or Vegas.” I have no idea where either of those ideas came from, but the fact that I haven’t scared him off from future travel is a good sign.
And it gets a little easier every year to travel with my kids now that they’re out of diapers and car seats and don’t need to bring along every single stuffed animal and blanket they own. They’re getting used to being outside their comfort zone and in unfamiliar surroundings and situations, and they’re doing really well with handling the tedium of travel with a minimum of tantrums. We’re getting there. I can actually see a European trip on the horizon.
Everything in time. For now, when I want to take my time in a museum or sleep in a bed I don’t have to make (and stay there until noon) or simply “relax and reconnect” with the woman I was before I had children, I leave the kids with my husband and go away by myself for a couple of days. Truth? I appreciate the alone time so much more than I ever did before I had kids. And when I get home I can’t wait to plan my next trip with the kids.