5 Surprising Things I Learned on My Family Vacation

Two days into our family road trip vacation, I realized something: being with kids is far more enjoyable without the distractions and responsibilities of everyday life. Without housecleaning, grocery shopping, work deadlines, or school schedules, things are just ... calmer. Less grating. Richer and sweeter.

Duh, right? Of course everything's better when you're on vacation. But after nine days of driving around Oregon, staying in everything from luxurious ranch cabins to a $50 bare-bones motel room in the middle of nowhere, I feel like I got a much-needed parenting reboot that just might help get me through the rest of the summer -- plus some lessons in how I can bring some of that vacation magic into our regular life.


I don’t mean that it was easier, exactly. The thing is, once you become a parent, vacations aren’t quite the leisurely me-time getaways they used to be. (Although things improve drastically once your kids are a little older. Frankly, vacationing with babies and toddlers is just your daily grind made more difficult by a change of locale, a hosed sleeping schedule, and the need to constantly monitor all the millions of things that aren’t baby-proofed, such as, say, oceans.) My summer trip involved a lot of nagging, disciplining, picky-eater meal-strategizing, shushing, and memorably, a panicked trip to Urgent Care to get the 6-year-old stitched up after his browbone lost a fight with a hotel table. It wasn’t really a relaxing spa visit complete with hot stone massages and burbling Zen fountains, is what I’m saying.

But oh, it was lovely all the same. Not just because of the wild beauty of the lands we were visiting, but for the way our natural family dynamic emerged, unobscured by the daily grind. A few things I learned:

We were happiest when we had fewer distractions. The days when we were staying in a rural cabin on a cattle ranch were the best days. Without TV or an Internet connection, we went for long hikes in the warm summer evenings, and played games at the dinner table before counting stars from the porch. My husband and I read books instead of poking around in our phones, and the kids played raucous imaginary games together instead of begging for Minecraft.

Putting the kids to bed at 9 or later was surprisingly awesome. Being allowed to stay up late made the kids insanely happy, and they subsequently carried out their pre-bed routine of pajamas/teeth brushing/etc. with a minimum of chaos. After such full days, they pretty much fell asleep the instant their heads hit the pillow -- and no one woke up before 7:30 a.m.

Having my husband around all the time was amazing. Just ... yeah. There are so many days when I only see him when we're both wiped out and caught up in the evening routine. This was like an extended weekend, except it was a magical weekend when no one had chores or appointments or projects. The four of us had no higher priority than hanging out together.

Taking a break from housekeeping improved everyone's mood. God, it was nice to ease back on the Sisyphean tasks of picking up, putting away, wiping down, and doing it all over again five minutes later. The fact that we were in temporary surroundings allowed me to regard something that normally makes me crazy -- a toilet seat liberally sprinkled with pee, say -- and instead of seeing a never-ending horizon of peed-upon toilets, the toilets of yesterday and the day before that and the day before that all lined up and looping into all of my tomorrows, a Mobius strip of gross toilets, I saw one instance of someone's bad aim and I grabbed some toilet paper and took care of it and that was that. Same with the crumbs on the table, the shoes dumped in the entry, and so on. It wasn't that I didn't notice these things, it was more like I didn't have the same reaction I do when I'm at home and I feel that bone-deep weariness of having picked up a million shoes from that exact location. Letting that chronic frustration go not only felt good, it meant I didn't find myself constantly snapping at the kids.

It was all about living in the moment. I didn't have to think about what needed to happen next. I wasn't burdened by an unraveling to-do list. I wasn't throwing a pity party for the parts of my life that feel repetitive and unrewarding. I was just ... enjoying my family, toilet pee and all.

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The best part of this vacation was seeing how good things really are. We didn't have to pack up and hit the road for that to be clear, but sometimes you need some breathing space to appreciate what you've got, you know?

Now that we're home, I can see everyone sliding back into their familiar routines. This is to be expected, of course. Vacations don't last forever, and it's time for the grownups to re-shoulder our responsibilities. But I feel like there's something I can bring back with us, along with the photos and the rock collections and the bug bites. Some slight changes, maybe. Shifts in perspective. I'm not saying I'm going to throw out the television (the horror!) and beg my husband to quit his job (the bankruptcy!), but I think I can make it a goal to be more present, be more thankful, and be more willing to let the mess slide.

What do you miss most about being on vacation when you come home?

Image via Linda Sharps

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