My husband Brandon and I ask each other the same question around every April:
“Are we taking a family vacation this summer?”
Because we have five kids and one has already flown the coop, we instinctively understand that the family memories must be made or the children will all turn out dysfunctional and we will regret it the rest of our lives. It’s a lot of pressure, y’all, this Wonderful Childhood thing. So the conversation always goes:
Me: Of course! It will be great.
B: So great.
Me: Can’t wait.
Me: I mean, it really will be.
B: I know. Yeah. Great.
Me: So great.
Here is the thing about traveling with children: it can be bonding and exciting and a barrel of laughs, and also, not that. Truthfully, it is a little bit of awesome and not awesome every single time. Part of the rub involves irrationally high expectations (mine) that project too much pressure onto the trip. This false hope typically lasts from the initial point of planning to the morning of departure in which just getting packed, loaded, and out of the house resembles a scene from Resident Evil: Apocalypse and the expectations die a violent death.
Let's see, your one or two responsible children will pack reasonably, including such things as extra clothes, appropriate shoes, and hygiene products. The boy children will load a full-sized suitcase with airsoft guns, video games, and a non-essential sleeping bag. There are no socks, no toothbrushes, no shorts. When you ask these children if they packed everything you listed, the answer will be yes. (We once arrived at our first pit stop to discover one kid had no shoes. Not in his bag, not on his feet. So he Brittany Spears’d into the bathroom while I reflected on how easy and delightful parenting is.)
The things that matter to me matter zero to my family, like leaving a clean house for example. So I inject a certain additional neurosis into the pot: Did you make your bed? Did you put your clean clothes away? Did you pick up your room? Are your towels off the floor? Did you bring all the cups downstairs? Did you wipe off the bathroom counter? This makes everyone even more “tense,” not the least of which is my husband.
He is outside trying to pack the car. We have five kids. This is always a disaster. We have to attach a giant Clark Griswold container on top for bags to leave room inside for all these human bodies. Only a trained and youthful rock climber can manage the aerobics necessary to complete this task. This step typically involves curse words. Brandon keeps hollering for bags while I keep calling children back inside to vacuum and dust. We feel very loving toward each other during this stage.
It takes no less than but possibly more than two hours longer to leave than planned. This is a scientific fact. The kids jam every sort of blanket, pillow, handheld device, stuffed animal, book, activity bag, and headphone case into the car. The entire interior smells like feet. Brandon puts the car in reverse and a child suddenly has to go to the bathroom. It is urgent. At this moment, in this fragile state, this is the worst thing that could ever happen. There is an 82% chance we will cancel the whole trip. I turn around and quietly whisper, "At this sensitive juncture, it is probably best that you just pee in your pants." Once we finally leave, Brandon is not speaking to any of us. All words and sounds are forbidden until further notice. NO I WILL NOT TURN ON THE RADIO, says the dad. Ten minutes later, someone tries a joke. It’s too soon. We soldier on.
So we drive. Half the time, I look back at the kids and think I am the luckiest mom. Look at all these people. They are so cute! We are having a road trip like in the movies! Brandon is speaking again! This is a precious and wonderful time. These are the thoughts I have while they are being quiet and sane, much like a mother loves her sleeping children.
The other half of the time, it sounds like this: Put your feet down! Stop touching me with your leg! I don’t like this movie. I want a different movie. Remy, everyone else wants to watch Harry Potter…it is NOT scary! I’m hungry. Can I have a snack? I don’t like this snack. When are we stopping? Where are we stopping? Not here. How much longer? What time is it? How long have we been driving? What time will we get there? How many hours is that? You’re still touching me with your leg! I need to go #2.
During this verbal tsunami, Brandon puts on headphones and pretends he is the only person in the car. He is somewhere tucked away in his Glad Person Mind Space. How nice for him. So the assault from the backseat sounds like: Mom? MOM! Mom? I’m telling Mom! Mama? Mom! Hey Mom? Mom? MOM! Until eventually I turn around calmly, like a terrifying serial killer and say, “Hello, children. New rule. Nobody can call me mom anymore. If I hear ‘mom’ one more time, I will throw myself out of this moving car. Just call me Jen. Also, if you continue arguing, we will pull over and you will get out and fight to the death. That will solve it.”
Eventually, we get to, say, the beach. It is a joyful whirlwind at the rental house as happy children race inside and claim beds and rooms and exclaim over every detail as if they’ve never seen the interior of a home before. At this point, the world is our oyster. Possibilities are endless. We are here! We can smell the ocean! The seascape motif in every room is not at all kitschy! Children are ripping off clothes for swimsuits (except the boy children who did not pack any).
Brandon takes the kids to the beach while I go to the grocery store. Somewhere around aisle 6, it occurs to me this is not very vacationy. I am grocery shopping for food that I will later cook and clean. This feels just like last Tuesday. I am just working in a different location. My brain starts picturing the important sunscreen steps that will be skipped without me: ears, exposed scalps, just below the waistband, tops of feet, perhaps entire children. A sunburn on Day One of a beach trip is catastrophic. I make a panicked call to Brandon from aisle 8. He assures me he carefully suncreened at least two of the five kids. This is the best we can do at this moment.
I eventually load a cooler with snacks and drinks and make my way down to the waterfront. I spot my people and pull the cooler down through the sand, which is the equivalent of pulling an airplane with your teeth. Brandon has been through the ringer with the shorts-for-swimsuit substitutions, chairs and umbrella rental, mediocre sunscreen application, the carting of All the Crap, the towels and toys dispersement, the swim cap requirement (sand in black hair makes lice seem enviable), the short-board tutorials, the sand castle propaganda, and the placating of hungry and thirsty children. When I finally roll up, he says:
“If there is not a beer in that cooler, I am going to drown myself.”
But once we get our systems in place and necessities purchased, we settle in. After our sweat dries and we finally sit down for a hot minute, we notice it: the smell of the ocean, the breeze, the warm sand between our toes, the shrieks and laughter of our kids. They haven’t quit smiling, because what do they care of sunscreen and rental fees? Being a kid is the shiz.
The bigs, who typically spend their hours Acting Cool, forget to keep up the ruse and splash and dig and play as much as the littles. Someone is already buried in sand, someone is already playing with the kids next to us, someone is shouting, “Mom! Watch! Mom! Did you see me??” They are running around in the prime of their childhoods with the freckles and blond hair and black braids and scratched up shins and brown shoulders that I’ve memorized, reminding me exactly why I love these hooligans representing the family brand: loud, funny, dramatic, silly, over-the-top, happy, beloved.
I look at Brandon next to me and we can’t help it: we break out in grins. We made this whole family! All these people belong to us! These are our Family Years and when they are over, we will forget the packing debacles and car refereeing and lost security deposits, and all we’ll remember is that we got to raise these kids, that they were ours, that we are the lucky parents of these five rabble-rousers and will always be their biggest fans. No, nothing was ever easy; no, nothing was ever quiet; no, nothing was ever clean.
But the Family Years packed in so much joy and laughter, the memories will last long after they are gone. And I know, no matter how annoying it is to hear from older mamas, that I will indeed miss these years, for they are all at once excruciatingly slow and horribly fleeting.
So around the end of this spring, you’ll hear Brandon and I start in once again:
B: Are we taking a family vacation this summer?
Me: Of course! It will be great.
B: So great.
Me: Can’t wait.