We just got back from a weekend in the mountains with all the children. Just typing that phrase makes me anxious. Trips with our six children sometimes have a Groundhog's Day air about them around here - lots gets repeated, little is learned and there's too much crying and too little vacay-ing.
We are new campers, and committed to getting away as much as we can during the summer months, and at least once in the spring and fall. We bought an RV with the idyllic idea that our kids could reap all the bonding benefits of family time spent together, and we could enjoy three seasons out in the sunshine. High hopes, high hopes.
This was our first adventure, and we set ourselves up for success. We chose a semi-local, kid friendly campground. It had plenty of activities on site, including laser tag, a pool and a playground. The town is built around a deep and beautiful cavern, giving us an excursion if we ran out of entertainment outside our front door. We cleared the children's calendars (a feat), packed the camper, and hit the road.
Fast forward two days later, and my husband and I are driving home in stony silence, ready to cancel our next trip and wondering what made us think six kids was easy-peasy.
What happened to our idyllic getaway, you ask? We made the same mistakes we do on every trip with take with this crew.
First, we overprepare. It takes us days to get ready to take our blended bunch out in the camper or to the beach. We plan meals, prep food ahead of time, make packing lists, and investigate local activities. Setting up the RV for a weekend trip takes time too - buying and packing S'More ingredients, Investigating places where we can turn around our 50+ foot SUV and camper in the event of a pit stop (and by "in the event of a pit stop" I actually mean when we stop every 35 miles because people didn't have to go the last time but now actually do).
Truthfully, we enjoy preparing because we're excited about the trip. We genuinely want to get away with our crew and make memories, and investing in that is important to us. So, we merrily go about these tasks.
For this trip, our preparation took the better part of three days. That means we head off to our camping trip with one tired mom and dad. Worse, though, is that's three days to dream about time spent around the campfire sharing stories, children delighting in the surprise activities we planned, and quality one on one time with our brood. Overpreparing mixes a dangerous pre-vacation cocktail of exhaustion and heightened expectations.
Those raised expectations lead to our second mistake: we forget which children we are bringing on the trip. Spoiler alert: the children you bring on vacation are yours. Not the children you've been daydreaming about as you prepare. In my mind, the children we were bringing didn't actually have independent personalities or thoughts, they were more a well-dressed, LL Bean catalog backdrop for my idyllic camping experience.
Our actual children are far more interesting than that backdrop, and by interesting I mean higher-maintenance and significantly more opinionated. Simon would rather be at the football game with his buddies, and Sara thinks it's unfair that she has to share a bunk, and Caden is stealthily annoying Lottie when he thinks I am not looking and Jack can't control the volume of his voice.
People are itchy and scratchy about the WiFi not working and snacks being doled out unfairly and the water bottle that spilled belongs to no one. Just like at home. Apparently no one prepared the children for the trip. And by prepared the children, I mean told them to be perfect because we have worked for three full days to get ready for this family fun extravaganza.
So, to recap, the adults are exhausted before we start, have unrealistically high expectations of our trip, and are parenting actual people, not cardboard cut outs of perfect children. This inevitably leads to our last mistake: we give up and miss the what's working.
I go to bed early on the second night. We don't go mini-golfing. We are overwhelmed by hungry children, so we ditch the picnic plan and get fast food. We are itchy and scratchy ourselves, and forget that we're a team. We look for all the ways that this camping trip has fallen short of our (unrealistically high) expectations, and get lost in the failure. We drive home, silent and frustrated, and uncomfortably familiar with this situation.
True, this was not a relaxing vacation. We spent most of the time rolling sleeping bags and picking up candy wrappers. It was, however, a successful family trip. The kids spent time together, learning new things and making memories. Touring the caverns was a hit, with all six of them listening to tour guides, taking pictures and sticking together on the trail, even when told they could move at their own pace. The outdoor movies captured even Simon's attention, and I got a good snuggle in with Lottie and Jack while we watched Frankenweenie. We achieved our goal.
So here's to learning from our mistakes, no matter how many times we've made them. Next time, we'll remember to invest less in preparation and daydreaming, and remember that we're the same people on the road as we are at home. We'll work hard to set appropriate expectations. We'll try to look beyond the everyday annoyances and see that we're actually doing what we set out to do. We're a work in progress.
That said, the next trip is still tentative.
Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 8-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and blended families, and her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and Stepmom Magazine. When she’s not writing, she’s feeding and watering the children and turning off lights in empty rooms.
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