Gabe is leaving me this weekend. He’s humming as he packs his suitcase, looking forward to the next several days he’ll spend on the road with his children.
You read that right, Gabe and his children are traveling without me.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of separate vacations made me anxious. A family vacation seemed like the perfect way for our family of eight to bond. Because we started later than a traditional first family does, and because the children aren’t always here all together, I thought we all needed to take full advantage of any travel opportunities that came our way. What would it say to the children if we focused on building one family at home but then vacationed as two?
Eight person family vacations do deliver fun and memory, but come at a cost.
A full-family vacation has scheduling logistics that require a project plan and six months notice. As if negotiating the timing with the rest of the coparenting tribe isn’t enough, we also have to think about competing school schedules, sporting matches, play rehearsals and dance. That’s just to free up all of the children at the same time. Then we have to coordinate the care and feeding of the mini-farm, book our travel and figure out where to stay. After that, our mission is to plan an itinerary that offers something of interest for all six children, knowing that at least one will be annoyed at all times. That’s all before we set foot outside the house.
On the trip, Gabe and I suffer from permanent sticker shock. Food for eight people on the road is expensive. We once spent $132 on airport food half of which we threw away. Activities are also costly; we’ve learned that multiplying any number by eight makes it much, much bigger.
Six excited happy children in a new place keep us on our toes. We barely have time to feed, nurse injuries, and yell instructions, let alone really connect with our crew. Even if we were available, I’m not sure the kids would want to spend time alone with Mom or Dad. They love to be together exploring the world, and often choose time with each other over time with adults.
Still, the several eight person vacations we’ve taken over the years were a success. We came home with the memories we’d hoped to form, and a bond that was stronger than when we left. We were also broke and exhausted, but we accepted the good with the bad.
The first of our separate vacations happened by accident. A schedule shift put my children with their father on a summer weekend when our calendar was miraculously open. We spent it camping with Sara, Amy and Jack, and had an entirely different experience. The two to three adult to child ratio felt almost excessive. Gabe and I each had time to relax and recharge. We talked and laughed with the children as we lingered around the campfire, because bedtime didn’t require military precision and a full hour to execute. We didn’t watch our spending quite as closely because multiplying by three kids instead of six saved 50% right from the start. It was a refreshing change.
Convinced it was a fluke, we traveled with my crew alone later that summer. The same magic happened. Trips with fewer children were simpler to plan, easier to execute, and kinder to our budget.
The children were comfortable in these smaller family groups. They missed their stepsiblings, often asking to bring them a souvenir or send a picture, but didn’t interpret the trip as any less than our others because we weren’t all together. No one worried about the stability of our family unit or complained about fairness. When we returned home, everyone had new stories to share.
Still, Gabe and I still clung to the idea that “real” family vacations involved all eight of our family members. Even just entertaining the idea of separate week-long summer trips sparked argument. Each of us felt pressure to meet some external standard for what a family vacation should look like. We felt rejected when the other talked about separate trips. It was messy.
After several strained conversations, we found our way through. We admitted to the feelings of rejection and put them to bed. By focusing objectively on the benefits we’d seen in traveling separately, we could let our preconceived notions about the “right” family vacation go.
We’ve settled comfortably into the space that’s right for our family now.
We take two or three long weekend trips as a tribe of eight in the summer. We camp together, and the children have gleefully discovered that our long weekends total more time together than a single week-long vacation. The shorter timeframe is easier on our patience and our wallets, and the camping tradition is important to our tribe.
We also take separate vacations, usually when school schedules don’t match. This year, that means Gabe is taking his children alone on Spring Break. I took my kids to Orlando at the end of their semester. Sometimes the stepparent joins on these solo trips, sometimes we don’t. These solo trips allow for great parent child together time, and are easier to plan and cheaper to execute.
Opening our minds to what work for our family, and letting go of our ideas of what we should be doing, allow us to capture the benefits of both types of trips. We bond as a wild and crazy tribe of eight and as our smaller subgroups. The secret of our separate vacations? They enrich our family story.