I just read this completely brilliant piece in the Huffington Post about vacationing with children and how it is in no way the same thing as vacationing without them. While this is not my standard post about writing and life, I feel compelled to say something about this because I am bracing for our family beach week, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am letting you know right now that there will be no more blog posts if I do not survive.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “vacation” derives from the Latin vacationem, meaning “leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty, immunity earned by service.”
These are LIES.
Well, okay, once they were true, back in the days my husband and I refer to as B.C. (Before Children). I have a vague memory of this honeymoon thing where we went to a bed and breakfast and ate stuff and slept. This is what “bed and breakfast” means. If you are not in a bed, you are eating breakfast. Oh, and there was also this time when we went to Florida and visited friends and family and ate different stuff and slept in different places. Good times.
But now we have Things 1 and 2, and the beach is a very different place. It used to be a magical Shangri-la where I gazed out at the seemingly infinite expanse of the Atlantic, pondering such questions as “What is the meaning of our fragile human existence when set against the backdrop of the vast continuity of time?” and “What mysteries inhabit the sunless depths, what monsters glide beneath the faceless surface of these waves?” and “What if there is somebody standing on the exact opposite side of the ocean and we are looking right at each other and we don’t even know it?” It used to be a place where I stayed up way too late reading and then woke up late and slithered out of bed and ate whatever ridiculous thing I wanted. It used to be moonlit walks on the beach, hand-in-hand with my husband. I used to never wear a bikini because I was convinced that my nearly flat stomach was ginormous. This is darkly funny to me now.
Now, I look out at the ocean and think, “”What is the right amount of water to give them so that they won’t be dehydrated but we won’t have to slog back to the beach house through three thousand miles of burning sand to use the potty because Thing 1 refuses to pee in the ocean?” I will stay up too late watching the local riptide reports, and I will wake up before dawn because Thing 2 has jumped on my spleen, and I will eat the disgusting fake fruit Pop Tart because Thing 1 has eaten the entire box of chocolate ones. I will run frantically down the beach in the dark in one direction after Thing 2 while my husband runs frantically down the beach in the dark in the other direction after Thing 1. Before we fall asleep, exhausted, we will wonder aloud why Thing 2 (who fears loud noises, boats, and embarrassment) and Thing 1 (who fears almost everything) have absolutely no fear of the Atlantic Ocean, which is full of killer waves and kid-eating sharks and lethal jellyfish and the kraken from Pirates of the Caribbean. I will wear a bikini, but I will wear it like beach-underwear beneath the board shorts and rashguard that hide my post-baby tummy and protect me from flying sand crabs. I know it’s cool to hate on the Twilight series, but I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank Stephenie Meyer for making pasty skin sound hot.
Because going to the beach with two small boys who do not respect the awesome power of Nature is pretty tame stuff, we will also take Cancer Dog. This will involve my rather impressive canine pharmacy, which is so complete that when a friend tells me her dog is sick, I can not only recommend three medications that might help, but also provide them. I am anticipating adding to my mad research skilz by having to figure out where at the beach one can rent a carpet steam cleaner, since Cancer Dog is nothing if not generous with her bodily functions. My mad engineering skilz will also be put to the test, as my husband and I experiment with different methods of barricading the trash can so that the dog will not be able to use its contents to redecorate the beach house after her own tastes, which tend toward the Jackson-Pollock-meets-Oscar-the-Grouch school. After all, as this piece from the Onion so aptly explains, family vacations are all about doing the same stuff in someone else’s house.
Lest I attract the attention of the haters trolling the comments section of the Huffington Post piece I mentioned earlier, I will say that family vacations are magical. (So are Jafar, Maleficent, Sauron, and the Evil Queen.) I will love watching my fearless boys romp in the waves and build sand castles, their bleached-blonde hair bright against their suntanned skin. But there’s a myth of parenthood out there, people, and it is insidious. According to this myth, we need to document the heck out of our kids’ childhood, but through a rosy lens. We need to pose for artistic, color-coordinated family portraits on the beach. We need to look happy, and we need to BE happy, all the time, because childhood is fleeting and, as well-meaning old ladies like to tell me in the grocery story at peril of their own lives, THIS IS THE BEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE.
But the thing is, it isn’t. This time is freakin’ hard, which is not the same thing as saying it is not good. And I don’t think it’s selfish (as the comment trolls insist) to acknowledge that. To be nakedly real about the fact that a family vacation is not the same thing as a vacation–is not, in the literal sense, a vacation at all. It is not “leisure,” it is work. It is not freedom, but responsibility. It’s sure not exemption or freedom from duty, either. If there is immunity involved, it’s the hope that you won’t catch the strep throat that sends you and your kid to the emergency clinic three states away from home.
The commenters criticizing the Huffington Post piece have missed the point. If we can’t laugh at this stuff–at the mess and the chaos and the mind-numbing exhaustion–then we’re going to end up in the grocery store one day, looking longingly at all the overwhelmed young parents and wondering what happened to the “best days of our lives.”