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or, reflections on the inevitable highs and lows of a family vacation
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Earlier this week, we returned from our summer family trip (I use the word “trip” intentionally. If you are confused about the difference between a vacation and a trip, see here for more detail.) We packed our car full of—what felt like—half our worldly belongings, and spent three nights in a charming town in Vermont’s Central Valley and another three in downtown Montreal.
My kids are 7 and 4, so we are largely past the days of being held hostage in a dark hotel room, mid-day, begging overtired children to nap. Yet, we are still very, very far from being able to actually relax and enjoy a leisurely, rejuvenating vacation. When I was a teenager, I used it joke that it wasn’t actually a family trip unless my mom exclaimed, “this is the last family vacation we’re taking!” But now that I’ve become a mother myself, I have a much greater appreciation for her exasperation.
A brief summary
I’ll start by acknowledging that I know it’s a privilege to be able to take a family vacation, and—on the whole—we really did have a pretty successful trip. At the same time, the Instagram highlights can be misleading (as we all know), and I think it’s important to normalize the reality of family trips with young kids.
A few days into the trip, I got a text from one of my girlfriends, asking how things were going. My response to her essentially summarizes every family vacation taken with young children: “It’s a series of highs and lows”. To illustrate…
Going to a dairy farm in VT and watching my kids swoon over a 2 day old baby calf.
Watching my kids squeal in delight as they tried to guess which cow was going to pee or poop next 🙄
Watching my son teach my daughter how to play cornhole.
Watching my son convince my daughter to serve as his target as he threw beanbags at her.
Putting up an out of office email. Ahh, relaxation…
A barrage of non-urgent emails about insignificant issues that begin “I see you’re out of town, but…”
Spending time with my son on a French language app, nurturing his interest in foreign languages and refreshing my own long-dormant Français skills.
Realizing the only phrase he retained was “Je voudrais deux bières et trois vins rouges” 🤦🏼♀️
Walking around Montreal’s Old Port and taking a ride on La Grande Roue (the giant Ferris wheel).
Also in the Old Port, a legitimate nightmare of an activity called SOS Labyrinthe. It’s a cross between a really complicated maze, a scavenger hunt, and a real-life hellscape. It was super dark and I was terrified we were going to lose a kid. We also kept ending up in this horrible strobe light room and I thought I was legit going to have a stroke. The kids absolutely loved it though, so it had that going for it.
Watching as my kids gave each other a sweet goodnight kiss and cuddle each night.
Repeating this series of events approximately 9,000 times: 1. watching my daughter slowly creep onto my son’s side of the bed, 2. hearing him snap at her to go away, and 3. my husband and I telling them both to knock it off. This finally culminated in me teaching them how to build the infamous “pillow barrier” that I perfected during my own childhood when my younger sister would inevitably annoy the sh*t out of me while I tried to sleep. #familytraditions
Savoring the most amazing oysters, foie gras, and champagne in Montreal (the food lives up to the hype, my friends).
Having my son tell me his favorite meal from the trip was the chicken nuggets and fries he ate at a rural Vermont McDonalds.
Stumbling upon the French version of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” (Ne parlons pas de Bruno) on the satellite radio and hearing the kids cackle with delight as they insisted the lyrics were actually “Oompa Loompa de Bruno”.
Having to listen to that dreaded song—in multiple different languages—every time we were in the car. 😵💫
The power of a mother’s lobe
I had a lightbulb moment as I was hanging up a tangle of wet bathing suits that were scattered (not by me) on the bathroom floor. Like most mothers, I essentially serve as the frontal lobe for my entire family—and there’s nothing like a family vacation to make that abundantly clear. The frontal lobe is the part of the human brain that is responsible for higher-level cognitive functioning like…
Planning: I mean, really, this one is pretty self-explanatory. Guess who conceptualized the trip, booked all hotels/activities/dining reservations, packed all the clothes, and selected fun new books and activities to keep the kids entertained? I asked my husband to pack his own belt and dress socks, and—spoiler alert—neither ended up on our trip.
Memory: Keeping track of whose turn it is to push the elevator button might be one of the most important tasks of family vacation, as a dispute about this ever-important topic is likely to trigger World War III, or, at the very least, hand-to-hand combat.
Judgement/social appropriateness: “No, you cannot swim in the hotel pool naked”; “Please don’t talk about poop while we’re eating a nice meal”; “You may not roll around on the floor of the restaurant”.
Creativity: Figuring out how to entertain two wildebeests from the moment they awake (at 5:45am) until the pool opens (at 9am) without disturbing the rest of the hotel is an epic feat of ingenuity and innovation.
Emotional regulation: This is the big one—and, probably, the most draining. When everyone is overtired, overheated, overstimulated, and just generally OVER it, guess who’s trying to soothe, placate, and keep a smile on her face? It is exhausting being the designated emotional regulation system for the entire family (while trying to keep it together yourself).
So, to all my fellow frontal lobes out there: I see you, I know you’re doing the best you can, and I wish you more highs than lows this week.
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