Parenting is a never-ending series of peaks and valleys. On an almost daily basis, I waffle between, “Wow! I am so great at this!” to “Holy shit. Who let me have children?” I have noticed, though, that as our little family adds miles to our travel log, days on the road tend to stay at the positive end of the parenting spectrum. Originally, I thought this was because Vacation Me is so much cooler than Everyday Me, but after careful consideration, I realized there are additional factors at play:
1. Public accountability
Vacation has a way of putting our family under a magnifying glass, especially because we travel with three very young and sometimes very loud little boys. I am also not the quietest human, and my husband draws strangers into conversations with quips and small talk. We get lots of nods, some smiles, and our fair share of side-eye stares.
When we spend our days and nights within earshot of other people, I have to be in tune with my children. I try to anticipate their needs, so as not to cause a ruckus in a nice restaurant or at midnight strolling into our hotel (on this trip, I used key lime pie to keep them quiet at night).
In public, I am almost hypersensitive to other people and their view of us. I’m pretty sure that’s not healthy, but it does make me a more attentive mother. I am slower to anger. I listen to what my children have to say. I pay closer attention. I actually parent.
2. My ‘to do’ list is at home
My mind is much quieter on the road. The mental workload of motherhood is not completely gone, but I leave the majority of it floating around my kitchen waiting for my return. There’s no space for bill paying and soccer sign-ups while on vacation.
Moreover, the mundane everyday chores – dishes, cooking, laundry, cleaning – we don’t have to do any of them. You drop your used towel on the floor, and a new one appears, folded and in its proper place the next morning. You don’t even have to clear the hair from the drain. Piping hot meals are placed before you, created by someone else’s hands. You do not clear your own table, put the condiments away or find Tupperware for leftovers. Showers and meals are simply more enjoyable when they are not followed by clean up.
3. There is an endless supply of free coffee
It’s cliché for a reason. Coffee is the lifeblood of parents to young children. For the majority of my twenties, I was fueled by hormones, booze and self-doubt. In my thirties, it’s coffee – and hotels have so much of it. Plus, it’s always hot and accompanied by perfectly portioned packets of cream and sugar. It makes me happy which makes me a better parent.
4. I remember we have three children
We had three children in four years, so we are constantly surrounded by the hum of laughter and sobbing. Truck noises and sobbing. Bear growls and sobbing. Paw Patrol and sobbing. Diarrhea jokes and sobbing. All this noise becomes overwhelming, and I’ve found that the quietest child gets forgotten in the chaos. For us, this has always been the baby.
Vacation requires me to keep a close eye on all the kids, so one doesn’t end up lost in the ocean or at a rest stop. It allows me to really see each of my children, and on our last trip, I made some astounding discoveries regarding our youngest. For example, he will dance on command, anywhere and for any reason. His macaroni dance and naked shuffle are my personal favs. He also speaks in sentences. “Water some need.” They’re in the wrong order, but still – I am his mother, and I did not know he could do that.
5. It’s all about teamwork
I’ve always loved taking family trips because it forces a kind of camaraderie upon my husband and me. It used to always be “us” against “them” (them being our children). As the kids get older, though, I’m watching “them” become part of the team, too. They help by carrying a bag, holding the baby’s hand when he’s over-tired and longing for home, or putting our stolen milks in the mini-fridge when we return from the breakfast buffet.
6. I actually want to do stuff
Our home can sometimes be a little too comfortable. There are streaks of time when it starts to become more “prison” than “house.” After a few too many bra-less days spent in pajamas, something inside of me breaks, and I find it hard to put on real pants.
This usually happens in winter when the frigid cold and sheet of ice blanketing the roads makes travel impossible, but it has been known to strike in the dead of summer, as well. It’s too hot to move, and the A/C feels good for my soul. The spring gets too springy, and if I walk outside, I will be reminded of the never-ending list of yard work to tackle. Better to stay inside. Then, there are days when the fall weather chases me into a hoodie, and the smell of Crockpot potato soup lulls me into hibernation.
On vacation, though, I am up for anything. Walking the beach at sunrise against the chill of the ocean air? Hiking with a kid strapped to my back and two others on leashes? Meandering around a zoo in the noon sun, wading through the barnyard stench coming from the cages? Sign. Me. Up.
7. My kids aren’t too far away to discipline
I cannot begin to count the number of times I hear my kids arguing or chucking blocks at each other, and I do nothing to intervene. I say their names a couple times, ask a question I never expect to be answered, “What is the problem, boys?” and accept defeat. The laundry room feels so far away from their bedroom, and I don’t have energy left to deal with whatever transgression has just occurred.
Hotel rooms are small, though, and the close proximity to my children makes me ten times the parent I am at home. First off, I witness the transgression myself (making it easier to determine the guilty party and appropriate punishment). Secondly, I shout less because I’m right next to them and because I’m not frustrated by stopping whatever chore I was doing to march across the house and play referee.
8. Time is a precious commodity
I know “time is fleeting,” and “they grow so fast,” but these adages get lost in the bustle of a normal week. Vacation days seem to be the ones where I really use up all of those dissolving minutes.
From the moment we buckle our seat belts, the hourglass is flipped and I feel every drop of draining sand. What new sights can we fit in along the way? How late can the kids stay up without being complete monsters the next day? What time is sunset? We need to make sure we are at the beach for sunset.
Do you know how many sunsets I’ve seen from my house? Zero. I’m usually half-soaked with bath water, counting down the minutes to bedtime round about the time that sun is making its final descent. The minutes seem to pass by so slowly at home, but on the road, there are never enough.
9. Strangers become your biggest cheerleaders
Everybody needs a cheerleader, and one of my absolute favorite things about traveling with kids is that nearly everyone we encounter offers words of encouragement. Even a quick acknowledgment of, “You’ve really got your hands full!” refreshes my perspective and reminds me that, “Yes, we really do have our hands full, and that is why I am so god-awful tired.”
We all just want to be seen, and when you are traveling with small children, pretty much everybody sees you – except that teenager at the gas station who let the door slam in my son’s face. That kid didn’t see anyone except herself.
10. We experience new things together
Seeing dolphins in the wild, watching the Blue Angels fly or seeing your first fighter jet up close and personal – these things are cool enough on their own, but when you watch the people you love experience these things for the first time, it’s just too good.
These shared moments become key memories in our family’s story. Not only that, but our children’s excitement and curiosity bring my husband and me back to our own childhood.
As we age, we are conditioned to limit our emotional responses and fall in line with what others expect of us. Our laughter becomes quieter in public places, and we temper our reactions to amazing things – but amazing things deserve an amazing reception. The company of children releases us from this unspoken set of rules; we are granted license to react the same way our kids do, with shouts and clapping, peels of laughter, awkward jumping and arm waving. Whatever our reaction, it’s okay. Take away the kids, and all of a sudden, we feel silly again. I love the camouflage my children bring.
Parenting is a tricky thing, and many of us slide up and down the spectrum from “parent of the year” to “worthless pile of crap” depending on when you catch us and our mindset at the time. Vacations seem to bring out my optimum “mom self,” but maybe you flourish somewhere else. Wherever you find your best self, channel that positivity and confidence to get you through the low points. If that doesn’t work, do what I do – start planning your next adventure.