Last week, I took my kids on our first family vacation. This probably comes as a surprise to most everyone; after all, I’ve been a parent for 13 years, and you’ve seen me post pictures of my travels with the kids for the last eight years I’ve been on Facebook. Some of those photos were even taken at Disney World! How could this possibly be our first family vacation?
Well, for starters, I don’t count the Disney trip in 2013 as a “vacation.” I was traveling with my three kids and two parents in one minivan for 10 days without even one hour of solitude (even sleeping)! It was an amazing voyage filled with highs, lows, and everything in between. Also, it was made financially possible by the generosity of my parents, so, no, I don’t count the Disney trip.
But what about the other travels? Believe it or not, I’ve never had all three kids with me on any of our overnights in D.C. or Yorktown or camping. The only exception to this was a weekend beach trip five years ago, and again, my mom and dad footed the bill and provided the additional adult presence necessary for taking three young kids anywhere more than an hour or two.
Surely, you say, I must have gone on a vacation when I was married, right? Not really. Our extended families were all local, so we didn’t have to go far to visit anyone. We did mostly day trips. The only time my ex and I went away from home for more than one night was a long weekend when we left our then two children with grandparents. And when our son was four years old we took a train ride to D.C. to see the zoo and stayed overnight. Those little trips don’t, in my mind, “qualify” as a legitimate vacation.
I could probably fill whole journals with my explanations and excuses for not taking family vacations. When I was married I was pretty sure it was because my ex was some kind of workaholic who couldn’t leave his job at home for more than a day without freaking out. It turns out if I point a finger at someone else, it leaves three pointing back at me; I’m just as much a workaholic as he ever was. In recent years as a single mom, my excuses boil down to lack of money, lack of time, and lack of confidence at being able to handle three kids alone away from the familiar.
It embarrasses me to write this, but there are times I’ve felt like a complete failure as a parent because of my inability, whatever the reason, to give my children a proper family vacation. Social media hasn’t helped. My friends and even my brother have taken their families to some pretty exotic locales, including Thailand, Key West, Maine, and places in South America that I can’t pronounce. The ex took them on a Disney cruise last year. Not that I’m comparing myself to you, but . . . yeah, I’m comparing myself, and I come up short.
I haven’t just been comparing myself to you. I’ve been comparing myself to my parents. The family in which I grew up travelled to Pennsylvania for a week to visit grandparents at least twice a year, and we almost always made visits to historic side trips like Gettysburg and D.C. and even New York one year. We took occasional “big” trips to Florida and California, and we went to Disney World two times, Disneyland one time, and the beach for a week pretty much every year from the time I was a tween until I graduated from high school. To me, this is what normal “modest” families did, and this has been my expectation for myself.
(I realize the last several paragraphs of whining should be followed with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. If you’ve made it this far, you’re a real friend, and I thank you for putting up with me.)
This year I made a commitment to take my kids somewhere. I considered renting a beach condo for a week (too expensive), taking us camping (too hot and buggy and stressful), taking us to a luxury resort for a short stay (too little appreciation for the finer things). One friend offered her river house, but I didn’t want to impose a specific time, as there was only one week I could easily take off work. So, I opted for the most “basic” vacation I could fathom – a two night stay in a cheap hotel in Williamsburg with side trips to Virginia Beach, Colonial Williamsburg, and Water Country.
Although there was a little sunburn on all our shoulders, there were no meltdowns and everyone had a good time. I felt gratitude at being able to financially provide a good time for everyone. I had a 13-year-old son who could keep an eye on his littlest sister while me and the daredevil redhead took in a more adventurous waterslide. My three mild-mannered kids didn’t want to do anything at the water park except float in the lazy river and the wave pool, so it was actually pretty relaxing. The boy caught Pokemon everywhere we went, and we were lucky enough to get a room with a king-sized bed and a sleeper sofa, so no one had to sleep on the floor.
As I was driving home, it occurred to me we don’t have to be gone for a week to feel like we’ve been gone for a week. Although I still very much want to take my kids for a relaxing week at a big beach house one day, I’m no longer feeling guilty that I can’t take them for a week to Florida amusement park heaven. Our brief time away from the break-neck pace of summer day camps and evening dance classes put the whole vacation thing in perspective for me. My parents may have given me trips to Pennsylvania, but it was out of necessity (visiting grandparents); my kids get to have a relationship with their grandparents every day. My parents may have rented beach condos, but not until we were teenagers; before that, our experience with the beach was limited to long weekends and modest hotels planned around times when my dad had to go to Virginia Beach for work. Our pilgrimages to Florida and California were not just trips to expensive theme parks, but marathon visits with the many uncles, aunts, and cousins who lived along the route there; I now have Facebook to stay in daily contact with distant relatives. My ex may be able to take the kids on Disney cruises, but I get to wake up to their faces almost every morning.
Rather than focus on the glass half empty, as I’m inclined to do when I compare myself to others, I now see the glass as more than half full, and I realize how lucky I am. In preparing to write this reflection, I thought of a famous quote from Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
As a mother, especially a single mother, I need to remember it’s the small things I do with great love that will make a difference for our family. They usually don’t ask for big things anyway. It’s my big ego that insists on setting unattainable goals.