When Family Travel Is No Holiday

By Jill Hudson Neal
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 21, 2007; 2:34 PM

Now that it's hot as Hades, I should be looking forward to taking an annual family vacation. Except I don't do family vacations. Like, ever. The concept of the family holiday is an oxymoron, a tangy lie meant to lull you into believing that a little time away will rejuvenate your wiped-out clan. Please, it never does.

My idea of a great vacation involves big, leafy palm fronds, a stack of old New Yorker magazines, something yummy to drink in a frosty highball glass and long, relaxing stretches of uninterrupted quiet time. If my two kids were anywhere near that fantasy scenario, trust me, we'd have ourselves a very different picture. Instead of having hot, sweaty fun with my husband (get your mind out of the gutter, kids -- I meant in the water), we'd end up getting another version of our everyday routine, this time without all the kids' gear. So, within four minutes of dropping my beach bag on lounge chair at 9 a.m., I'd be struggling with a writhing two-year-old who wanted race his big brother into the deep end of a crowded hotel pool. Twelve exhausting hours later, I'd fall asleep wondering when we'd start to unwind.

Obviously, I love my children beyond reason and look forward to spending time as a family unencumbered by the stresses of work, school and the never-ending cycle of weekend birthday parties. But let's be honest, moms: Most vacations with children are really trips that cost more than you'd like to spend and leave you more tired than before you left. A few years back, my husband and I went on vacation with another family to Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. We scrimped and saved all year to pay for what we thought would be the best vacation ever -- and it would've been, if our kids hadn't been with us. After dealing with airport security, a faulty air conditioning system and the threat of a scorpion bathroom invasion, we slunk back from our holiday hot, tired and grumpy. "Yikes," I remember thinking as we touched down at JFK airport, "I passed on a whole lot of Starbucks runs to get what we had right at home."

Okay, admitting that I'd rather take a holiday without my children does make me feel a scooch guilty. After all, aren't you supposed to be blissed out over being away from home as a family? It's almost taboo to 'fess up to not enjoying it, especially when your children honestly do. I remember my family's vacation trips in the 1970s with spectacular fondness, but I can't seem to recall wondering for even one second whether my own mother enjoyed herself or not. I assumed she loved the entire experience: the pack-to-the-gills Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brogham headed south on I-95, the crowded room at the Holiday Inn, the long hours in the broiling sun at Disney World, the tender attention to an 8-year-old's sunburns, insect bites, hurt feelings, hunger pangs and joy at being someplace new and wonderful.

Maybe I should do what my mother probably did: learn to tweak my admittedly narrow definition of fun to include more than tours through beautiful cities, meals at great restaurants, nights in good hotel beds and lots of posh spa treatments. A family vacation can be fun when you focus on finding joy in seeing your children have new experiences, ones they'll look back upon with fondness and love. I'm not quite there yet, but I'll probably be closer in a few years when my boys are bit older. Until then, I'm perfecting a Jedi mind trick that'll persuade my in-laws to keep the kids for a long weekend. Now, about that beach in the Florida Keys. . .

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