We just got back from a weekend in the mountains with all the children. Just typing that phrase makes me anxious. Vacations 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.
When we first bought the RV, we committed to getting away as much as we could during the summer months, and at least once in the fall and spring. We thought that way the kids could reap all the bonding benefits of time together, and we could enjoy three seasons out in the sunshine. High hopes, people, high hopes.
This was our first fall adventure, and we set ourselves up for success, or so we thought. We chose a semi-local, kid friendly campground. It had plenty of activities on site, including laser tag, mini-golf and early Trick or Treating. 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 Gabe and I are driving home in stony silence, ready to cancel our spring trip and wondering what made us think six kids was easy peasy.
What happened to our idyllic fall getaway, you ask? We made the same mistakes we do on every trip with take with this crew.
First, we overinvest in the preparation. It takes us days to get ready to take the bunch out in the camper or to the beach. We plan meals, prep food ahead of time, make packing lists, and investigate local activities. This trip included roasting a chicken ahead of time so we wouldn’t be starving on arrival and meticulously packing each and every part of six costumes so the kids could enjoy Trick or Treating. Setting up the RV for a weekend trip takes time too – washing pillowcases and towels and setting up beds. 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, it’s work Gabe and I enjoy, 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 Halloween decorations we bought, and quality one on one time with our brood. Overinvesting in preparation that makes you tired and allows for far too much daydreaming is a dangerous pre-vacation cocktail.
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, ensemble backdrop for my idyllic camping ad. 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 (ever – the boy should be a stage performer with that natural projection). Amy is hurt when Sara won’t take her to the jumping pillows and Lottie isn’t sure she wants to play laser tag after we pay for it. 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 freaking days to get ready for this extravaganza, dammit.
So, to recap, Gabe and I 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 good stuff. I go to bed early on the second night. We don’t go mini-golfing. We are overwhelmed by hungry children and all the carefully prepped lunch ingredients, so we ditch the 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.
After a good night’s sleep, a quiet morning alone, and a midday lunch date with my love, I have some much-needed perspective. This was not a terrific family vacation. I am not rested. Gabe is not relaxed. 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. They all absolutely loved laser tag, and report the Trick or Treating yielded the best haul of their lives. Touring the caverns was a hit as well, with the 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 actually achieved what we set out to do.
These are not blended family problems. Our experience is not unique to stepfamilies. All families face this – I know I did in my prior marriage (although shout out to big families: two kid vacations are different than six kid vacations). I remember my parents’ frustration on our family vacations thirty years ago.
So here’s to learning from our mistakes, no matter how many times we’ve made them before. 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. This isn’t a DIY remodel show with one big, sparkling reveal. We’re a work in progress. That said, the spring trip is still tentative.