It’s spring break in Grand Haven, but spring break or not, we’ve always been a family that travels. For a week or sometimes just a couple of days, we hit the road whenever we get a green light to go. We are privileged in this way, having been able to show our boys so much of this country at such young ages. Their excitement each time they discover something unexpected, something new, makes the work (and the whining) that comes with these trips worth it. Burrowing down into crisp hotel sheets at the end of a full day with all of my children gathered in the same room, I listen to them drift off one by one until I am the only one left awake. This is when I finally recount the hours, tucking the highlights away for a bit of warmth on a day when it’s hard to find the sun.
I love this part of our life. When we are out in the world together, there is nothing else – just us. But on this particular spring break, on this remarkably long trek, it is not just us. Our foster kids are along for the ride, too, and ever since we pulled out of the drive, I’ve been questioning if this was the right choice.
With our first foster child, it never would have occurred to us to take a vacation (or even leave for the afternoon) without him. But he did not come to our home years into his childhood. He was not old enough to carry the frustration of a child whose brain is constantly working to determine where it is that they belong. Is it in this busy house with this new family? Is it on this week away at the beach? Or is it somewhere else, somewhere that feels familiar but becomes fuzzier with each passing month?
These kids are carrying years of memories, joyous and painful, that follow them everywhere, even on vacation. And the longer we hold space for these children, the more joyous and painful our own memories become. This is no highlight reel. I’m not sure it even qualifies for the outtakes.
After returning from a weekend jaunt or cross-country trip, I often post our road trip “outtakes” on social media to laugh at the notion that lives must be picture perfect to be shared. Our adventures have been anything but perfect. There have been stomach bugs that struck enroute and Easter baskets turned puke buckets. I remember photos of sunburn blisters and faces covered in poison ivy, of screaming children and frazzled versions of myself. These pictures weren’t pretty, but they were us, and I loved them.
Leaving town, I threw a photo of our crew onto Facebook. “Mile 1 of 1,000. Pray for us,” I wrote in pseudo jest. “Can’t wait to see the bloopers!” came a cousin’s reply. I laughed, wondering what snapshots would make the reel, but by the time we reached our first hotel, I knew the problems we would encounter this time would not be picture worthy.
In this latest phase of our lives, the outtakes just don’t hit the same. No one dares capture a photo of me mid-obscenity on a dark expressway when I finally crack, releasing the entirety of the anger I’ve held for 11 months. I do not grab my camera as I watch my son struggle with a developing tick, a result of the stress we’ve brought to our family. My husband does not snag a picture as I sit sobbing in the bedroom closet the very minute we finally reach our destination. Half of our bags still lay in the hallway as I curled up on the floor, gasping for air, regretting the stupid, stupid decision we made all those months ago when we thought we could survive this thing.
My phone stays in my back pocket while I watch my husband struggle to keep his composure in the middle of an Alabama food court as our foster child, flailing arms covered in mustard, melts down for the 147th time of the day over the size of his cheeseburger. I reach for my husband’s arm instead. “I got this,” I mouth, calming the chaos momentarily.
Five minutes later, though, I realize I don’t “got this” as I glare into another child’s tear-filled eyes and feel nothing, every ounce of compassion I’d held had been drained hours before. “Go ahead and cry,” I say this time and turn away, wishing I could walk out of that bustling food court with just my boys again, leave everything else behind. The people around us stare, and I feel their judgement upon the choices we have made. “Why would they have so many children if they can’t handle it?” I hear them whisper, or maybe that’s me. Yet again, no one reaches for a camera.
Our out-takes don’t feel funny anymore. They do not elicit the same chuckle as floating feces in a jacuzzi tub. The old days are over, and with them, go the cheap laughs. I used to say that to travel with kids you needed “high flexibility and low expectations,” but I never understood just how low our expectations would have to fall. Simply reaching the end of the day is the high bar now.
I was not the final one to find sleep last night. In fact, I might have been the first. Exhausted from wrangling children and my emotions, I curled up next to my son to write and woke up with my laptop under my cheek and another child snoring on my shoulder. The rest of our family slept scattered throughout the remaining rooms, but we made it. High bar completed.
As always, I recounted the events of the day – a game of tennis, a tantrum, the thrill of a dollar store coloring book, raised voices and regret, kids choosing to sit side-by-side on a vast expanse of sand, rolling waves and bursts of laughter, my son whispering “I love you” right before I closed my eyes. I tucked it all away, the picture-perfect moments and all those outtakes when no one dared to capture a photo. These newer, uglier outtakes, though difficult to look at, still deserve to be shared, still deserve acknowledgement. Their lingering shade make our highlights shine just a bit brighter.