Rethinking Family Vacations

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“Vacation is just me washing dishes and doing laundry in a different place,” my mom used to joke to the four of us kids during summer vacations. We took a lot of family trips. My mother was a teacher, so she had the summers free from her paid job; she drove us 10 hours from the swelter of Washington, DC to spend several weeks in cooler New Hampshire, while Dad stayed behind to work at his law firm.

Even as a child, I knew Mom was right. On vacation, her parenting chores were actually more drudgerous, because we didn’t head off to school each morning, plus she had to take our clothes to the Laundromat instead of our basement washing machine. And in addition to shopping, cooking and cleaning up breakfast and dinner for five each day, she had to execute daily picnics and interesting, exhausting expeditions to keep us entertained (e.g., not annihilating each other).

For years I became that mom myself. I had the same tongue-in-cheek quasi-martyrish approach to family vacations. The packing of the kids’ suitcases in addition to mine. The worry over forgetting diapers or formula or a beloved pacifier or an essential blankie. The anxiety over trying to get my kids to behave in grandparents’ houses.

Of course, I loved being with my kids and felt fortunate to have time to take them to meaningful spots that I too had loved as a child. But eventually, I got tired of washing dishes and doing laundry in different places. Then, instead of getting resentful, I got creative. That’s when my family started taking at least some vacations separate from each other. I’m happy to report the results were outstanding – and surprising.

First, the boys (husband and son) peeled off to basketball camp, while we three girls drove to New Hampshire to visit Grams. My husband didn’t enjoy visiting where my mom lived, and I welcomed time alone with her. That all made sense. What didn’t, to my surprise, was that I found it much less stressful to wrangle two children solo than to co-parent three children together. In other words, I experienced a real vacation myself. I had time to focus on each child individually, and even a little time to myself. My husband and son had a blast together as well. We all missed each other. By changing the family dynamic, we broke some entrenched patterns that frankly needed breaking.

Then, as our three kids got older and slightly more independent, the grandparents could handle them for a few days by themselves. My husband and I took a few short trips solo. One or two nights of being able to eat dinner whenever we wanted and sleep past 7 am did wonders for us both, and for our connection to each other. Forty eight hours alone felt more like four years of rejuvenation after the hard work of raising three kids close in age. At about the same time I watched closely as a friend, who was having trouble at home with her teenaged daughter, went on a five day, 800 mile road trip with her. It was like Thelma and Louise, but with a happy ending. Getting away from home and ingrained tensions showed both mother and daughter how much fun they had together, and how close they still could be. This made me think that chasing the ideal family vacation could too often be a recipe for disaster.

Looking back, what was most important was abandoning the idea that we have to take “perfect” family vacations together in order to fulfill a stereotypical ideal of family unity. I see now that these separate vacations, ironically, drew us closer together as a family. Divide and conquer proved a winning vacation strategy. We reduced the logistical insanity of a large family taking a long road trip or draining airplane flight. By lowering the stress levels, and increasing the time we got to focus on each other, each family relationship benefitted on an individual level, and we grew stronger as a unit overall.

We still took full-family vacations, though. I appreciated them even more. The laughter, the cramped quarters, the fights over where to eat dinner to make everyone happy. Because none of it felt forced, it was far more fun.

There was one particularly memorable moment, on one of our traditional vacations out west for spring break, when I ran into a dad from school in the airport, the epicenter of travel stress.

“Where’s the fam, Ted?” I asked, looking around for his three kids and wife.

“Um,” he said sheepishly. “I’m actually on vacation all by myself.”

Then he broke into a huge guilty grin. And I thought: now that’s a real vacation. I’m next!

On this most recent spring break, all three kids had different priorities and different vacation dates. Son #1 wanted to visit high school friends. Daughter #1 wanted to go on a school trip. Daughter #2 wanted to swim and snorkel somewhere hot. All of this worked for all of us. Son and Daughter #1 were happy. I got five days alone with my 13-year-old snorkeling in Mexico, which turned out to be one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken.

As you plan summer vacations for your family, don’t be afraid to get creative. Sometimes, even on vacation, a family needs to split apart, in order to come together in new and better ways.

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