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Family Vacations Are Hell! (Let's Have Another.)

The pictures from our summer vacation tell a lovely story: The water is sparkling and the skies are clear. My husband strides through the surf in a sort of Daniel Craig-as-James Bond pose. My daughter digs a moat in the sand to protect her castle from the tide. And though I’m usually behind the camera, even I made into a few photos, looking tan and happy in each.

But the photos lie. The best thing about these snapshots is that no one can hear all the screaming.

Family travel can be exhausting, even maddening. But you’d never know that from the online slideshows and Facebook photo albums we all post. In the digital age, it’s easy to cull a few excellent shots from a thousand, weeding out the 990 images that show the rest of the story.  That sparkling water was 60 degrees; my daughter set foot in it on the first afternoon only and never again; and my husband bickered with her so much that the only smiling photos of me were both taken in the last 18 hours of the trip, when I knew it would soon be over.

When we returned from the coast and friends asked about the trip, I was honest, which led them in turn to tell their own Bad Family Vacation stories. The basic outlines were always the same: parents and children clashing over itinerary and schedule, as the children refused to simply play along with adult expectations of how vacations should be.  Travel made longer by whining, meltdowns ruining a long-planned outing, wired children keeping grumpy parents awake all night—whatever the last straw was, there always came a moment when the grown-ups threatened to end the vacation early or, failing that, to never again take another trip all together.

Yet all these travel horror stories had one more thing in common: the parents were already planning the next trip anyway. What makes us such gluttons for punishment?

It’s a little like childbirth: just as the memory of body-ripping pain is eventually dulled enough by time to make (some) women feel like doing it again, the tear-your-hair-out insanity of a trip gone awry fades the further you get from it. In both cases, this softening of memory is a kind of alchemy performed by the children themselves. When they kiss you goodnight, show you their new dance step, or unveil a finished Lego tower, they’re quietly rounding off all the sharp edges that come with family life.  Little oxytocin delivery systems that they are, they inspire our best impulses, and make us crave more quality time with them—which, in theory, a family vacation provides. 

The problem is that most vacations—even ones we ostensibly plan for the kids—are about grown-ups. The adults typically pick the destination, plan the itinerary, and sweat the cost, and then hold the kids accountable for enjoying themselves. I’ve heard countless stories about family fights breaking out because a parent’s version of the “ideal” vacation was not being met, even though the children had never been consulted about whether that ideal was very appealing to them.  While, on the one hand, it is perfectly understandable for a grown-up to feel entitled to make the primary decisions about the vacation, not factoring in the needs and wants of your children is a recipe for blow-ups.

This year, we didn’t plan a family vacation until the last minute. We settled on three days on the coast of Maine, but didn’t book a hotel until we knew the weather forecast. While that meant we could guarantee maximum beach time, it also made for an expensive room, which ramped up the pressure. If we didn’t get 72 hours of wave-jumping, sandcastle-building bliss, we dads wouldn’t feel like we’d gotten our money’s worth.

For our daughter, however, vacation requires only two things. The first, and most important, is access to an indoor swimming pool, where she could happily frolic till blue. The second requirement is receiving ten bucks of “mad money” to spend on a souvenir, a sudden cash flow which turns her into a precision machine of focus as she compares prices on small toys.  As soon as she’s made her purchase, it’s all over but the swimming.

The inevitable clash of ideals was immediate. During the drive north, she said, “No!” so often and about so many things that, before we even arrived, I snapped that the grown-ups were making all the decisions. That’s an enforceable position, but not a tenable one; by the next day, I knew I needed to work harder on considering everyone’s needs equally, but by this point my husband had been pushed so far over the edge by the arguments, that he dug in his heels. I spent the remaining days running interference between a man insisting on his notion for vacation and a girl insisting on hers.

Not every trip goes like this, but we’ve had enough similar experiences that I’m finally getting the message: Vacations are not a time to insist on playing “My Way or the Highway.” You can’t force someone else to enjoy any activity just because your sense of vacation propriety demands it.

Beyond that, you have to be willing to acknowledge that much of what makes a vacation so appealing to adults—a real break from the daily routine—is what makes vacations so rough on kids, especially younger ones who thrive on predictability. If you start by accepting that transitions may be bumpy and that everyone (including you) might be thrown off, then you can work harder on relaxing your grip. Your child’s needs don’t have to run the show, but the same is true for you: you shouldn’t have to be in control every minute to enjoy yourself.

The greatest skill of all is letting go of the ideal long enough to make the most of the real. What startles me the most about the simplicity of that lesson is that I already knew it; in my first book, I described the exact same learning curve for couples. So why couldn’t I remember that logic when I became a parent? Blame it on lack of sleep or the million demands crowding my Papa brain, but at least I’ve gotten the memo now.

I’ll let you know if it sticks…right after our next vacation.