My husband prefers spontaneity to planning. For the first few years of our relationship, his wait-and-see approach led to an adventurous lifestyle that threw my risk-averse self so off balance, I fell head over heels.
Under his influence, and without commitments, anything was possible. Craving sea urchin pasta? Let’s go to the new celebrity hot spot! Two-hour wait? Grab a drink at the speakeasy across the street. Wake up dreaming of the must-see musical? Cab it to the matinee. No seats? Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge! The world was our oyster, and we shucked it until our knuckles bled. (Literally, at an oyster farm up the San Francisco coast during a spur-of-the-moment drive, on a last-minute vacation, at sunset.)
He showed me a world full of the unexpected, and I grew to appreciate every last-minute thrill. My husband’s unconventional ways eventually became mine, too. Within months, I settled in as his favorite co-navigator on the road to anywhere.
Pre-children, this lifestyle was glamorous! Fun! Exciting! The perfect choose-your-own-adventure love story. But just as midnight did to Cinderella’s coach and gown, having children broke the spontaneity spell. The original realist came back, and now I was more cautious and prepared than ever.
Conversely, my prince remained unscathed. “Let’s take the kids for a hike upstate. Maybe we can stay overnight?” he would haphazardly suggest on a chilly fall Sunday, when the leaves had begun to rust and crinkle underfoot.
I was incredulous … didn’t he know? There were nap schedules, school schedules, babysitter schedules. There were movies that needed to be downloaded for long rides, clothes that needed to be packed. There were strollers and Ergos and backpacks to consider. Even the smallest of steps required careful, deliberate planning.
I went from enjoying the unexpected to anxious stress in anticipation of the unexpected. Understandably, my husband did not fare well with this turn of events, and despite the strength of our marriage, it was hard to deny that we were creating a fissure exactly where we had once created a bond.
Most of the time I managed to quiet his protests with proof that my way of doing things was best for the family. When our daughter unexpectedly spiked a fever on vacation, I had Children’s Advil in the suitcase. When our son threw up all over himself (and me) during a turbulent landing, I had a plastic bag for our soiled clothes and fresh everything for both of us. Tired? We’ll be at the hotel by nap time. Hungry? Here, have some Cheddar Bunnies. I knew where we were going, when we would get there and what it would be like once we arrived.
It was exhausting to always be one step ahead, but I believed that, as a loving, responsible mother and wife, it was my job. So when it came time to think about our winter vacation I devised the perfect mental break: A week at an all-inclusive family-friendly hotel in Mexico. Even our dinner reservations and nightly entertainment would be planned for us.
Unfortunately, this was the antithesis of my free-spirited husband’s idea of fun. In his mind, “all-inclusive” was code for “uninspired and predictable.”
“How about Japan?” He hopefully suggested instead, but I quickly squashed that idea. Too far. Too unfamiliar. Too much jet-lag. Too cold. What would the kids eat?
I persuaded him that we needed an easy vacation where we could laze on the beach and (finally) not have to think about anything. I coerced him with the idea of reading a book while our children, 4 and 6, played at the hotel’s kids’ club. I enticed him with access to unlimited margaritas. Riviera Maya would be simple and luxurious. He loved me so much, he accepted.
Sometimes it’s hard to determine if life is cruel or funny. The four of us driving to the airport was one of those times. My son was excited about leaving the country for his first memorable experience (he had no recollection of Jamaica nearly five years ago), and he was looking at the passports when he asked what the dates meant. He handed his back to me and a terrible acidic taste rose in my mouth. My son’s passport would expire in two days. We were five minutes from the airport, and we couldn’t go.
For all the pre-trip preparation — making sure their summer shoes still fit; buying sunscreen, bug spray, and anti-bacterial wipes; ensuring we had a spare cot, an ocean view and nightly dinner reservations — this was an epic fail.
“What do you mean we can’t go?” my son cried.
“But I want to swim!” my daughter said.
My husband and I looked at each other and tried to keep it together in front of the kids. It was hammering sheets of freezing rain outside and our car was packed with summer clothes. The dog had been sent away, the house closed up. “I’m calling an audible,” my up-for-anything husband announced. “Let’s drive south.”
Despite the control I constantly tried to impose upon my family, ironically it was the moment most out of my control that gave me clarity. It was like my husband and I had trained for this situation, and suddenly I felt my pre-kid muscle memory kick in. “Let’s do it,” I said.
Without snacks, one last potty trip, or audiobooks; without even a specific landing place or hotel reservation … we drove. Our destination was “south.” I felt a familiar thrill course through my body.
“Where are we going?” the kids asked as we passed the airport.
“On an adventure!” we answered.
My husband grinned at me, half with disbelief and half with recognition at the glimmer of the girl he fell in love with.
“I want to swim!” said our daughter, who apparently had one goal in mind.
“We promise, you will.”
While my husband hit the road, I hit my iPhone, voraciously checking between Trip Advisor, bookings.com, and weather.com to find a destination. Miami was 20 hours away (too far), and there were no decent hotels left during high season (at a reasonable price). Still, I was not deterred. We had to save this trip.
Luckily for us, the country’s weather was in a tailspin, which meant unseasonably warm temperatures in Northern Florida. “Ever been to Amelia Island?” I asked my husband. He had not. It would be the perfect adventure.
Several minor tantrums, a couple pit stops and seven hours later, we arrived in Nashville. We had never been there, and it was en route to our new found destination.
“Welcome to the Music City!” we told our kids in the morning. We ate the inn’s homemade breakfast, we hiked, and we drove to the strip, where we listened to music spilling out of open doorways, tried on cowboy boots and devoured barbecue.
“Nashville is cool!” said my son.
“When can we swim?” asked my daughter. I slipped my fingers into my husband’s palm. For the first time in too long, we were a team again. And we were winning.
Later that afternoon, during another 9.5 hour drive, I booked our second hotel. We knew nothing about Amelia Island except that the forecast for the next five days was sunny. “Have any rooms left?” I hopefully asked reservations as we passed through Georgia. We were in luck.
On a mission to find shark teeth? Time to go digging! Rather swim? Head to the pool. Craving seafood? Check out this place in town. An hour wait? Take a walk. No New Year’s plans? There’s going to be a mock countdown and fireworks at 7 p.m.!
With no agenda, anything was possible and we took full advantage. On the return drive north, we explored Savannah, traversing the idyllic squares and losing ourselves in history. Friends we had made along the way suggested we check out Asheville, N.C., and since we had no schedule, why not? We ended up in an amazing artists’ community and our children watched in awe as the people around them painted, sculpted and blew glass.
“This is the best trip ever,” my son said after every new experience.
“Did you see me swim?” my daughter added. I smiled gratefully at my husband, thankful for his partnership. As I allowed myself to enjoy the freedom of the unknown, I felt strangely at ease.
I had been so sure that my family needed an easy, thoughtless vacation, but we ended up with the complete opposite: A vacation full of discovery, not only of the unexpected treasures around us, but also of a forgotten bond between us. I couldn’t have planned it better.
Sara Stillman Berger is a writer and mother based in Chicago.
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