It’s July and the occasional breaks in the English rain, followed by a three day long heatwave, suggest it might be summer. Since having children I marinade this time of year in a mix of excitement and light dread sprinkled with various hysterical ‘to do’ lists. Holidays are coming and I’m longing for a break. I feel the need at a molecular level. My protons and neutrons are ready to don sombreros, break into a conga and then chill the fuck out.
I want to lie in dappled sunshine with 20 books and 25 gin and tonics. I need to see something that isn’t the wall in front of my desk. I must eat delicious things and have the kind of relationship-affirming chat with my partner that reminds me why we bothered to glue ourselves together.
But then I remember the children. My two delicious, fantasy-holiday destroyers. They won’t tolerate city breaks, they get cranky when hot, are unpredictable on flights and don’t understand about relaxation. And yet somehow they have become the point and essence of holidays for me.
Put simply my family holiday ambitions are being together, doing something different from the day-to-day and making shared memories. How to do that without too much stress, money or conflict is another thing
On average Britons spend £1300 on summer breaks. But despite the expense, this ritualised exodus to somewhere exotic (or the windy British seaside) has been programmed into our national psyches. In 2015 we went on more holidays, stayed away longer and spent more money than ever before. Yet a 2014 survey claimed that 6% of new parents cut their holidays short citing stress. One in four went further by putting a stop to family holidays altogether because of the anxiety they caused.
Pre-children my holiday ambitions were relaxing, romancing, exploring and (most of the time) I got just that. The issue came in projecting these same ambitions onto my first holiday as a parent. Hoping to meet goals which my baby did not share and had already stamped on unwittingly by her very existence. It was (in part) a lesson in what happens to holiday expectations when a combination of babies and naive new parents hits. Two couples with six-month-olds in tow set off for Mallorca. Much of it was lovely: the weather, our friends and their cooking, the babies’ faces as they played together in a paddling pool for the first time.
But our daughter woke every 40 minutes every night. I spent most evenings slowly lowering her in to the travel cot, lactic acid burning in my arms, trying to work out how I could keep my nipple in her mouth without standing on my head or cracking my spine. We went to the beach (once) and discovered how much babies like to eat sand. And all our parenting and life props from home were missing. I would have done terrible things to get my hands on the magic vibrating chair that stopped the baby from screaming. I was brain-meltingly tired and though I did drink several vats of wine and ate some delicious food (very fast, with one hand, while breastfeeding) I didn’t open my book once. I wasn’t relaxed, we hadn’t explored much and there was little romance. I needed new goals.
Six years and a range of joy, mud and stress spattered holidays later and I finally find myself getting closer to identifying those goals. Put simply my family holiday ambitions are being together, doing something different from the day-to-day and making shared memories. How to do that without too much stress, money or conflict is another thing. As is working out the key practical considerations for holidays with young children – as anyone who has spent their holiday stuck in a hotel room post 7pm, whispering as their children sleep, will attest.
I asked my friends (via the trusted research medium of a Facebook thread) if and why they took their children away and whether it was a source of stress or joy. There was a consensus that going away with the children is a good thing. That it is worth the hassle for fun, new experiences and fantastic memories. Experienced nanny and mother Jo told me she found life got a lot easier when she stopped calling them “holidays” and renamed them “going somewhere different with my family”. That the family holiday is not a holiday in the pre-child sense is perhaps something that we need to acknowledge so we can enjoy it on its own merits and not mourn the loss of uninterrupted sun lounger time.
A wise friend Lottie pointed out that changes of scene feed curiosity and build courage in our kids and ourselves. The very shake up in routines and distance from the props we rely on is a good thing. Sticking rigidly to the schedule of our life day in, day out, makes us “more fearful and less adaptable to dealing with all the shit that life inevitably throws at all families on and off”.
Though most agreed there was added stress and a major adjustment in expectations, no one advocated for calling the whole thing off. Even my friends with children on the autism spectrum – for whom being out of the normal routine brings serious challenges – stressed that something about holidays was worth that challenge.
I want to lie in dappled sunshine with 20 books and 25 gin and tonics. I need to see something that isn’t the wall in front of my desk
I think back to my own childhood to try and capture what that special quality was. Summers were almost always spent at the same basic but magical cottage, halfway up a mountain in North Wales. We had two trips abroad as kids but each time we were clamouring to go back to ‘Uncle Bill’s’ cottage the next year. On that mountain was the simple freedom to run wild. Our parents had nothing else to do and became all the more able to just be with us because of that. There were plenty of disasters – like the year we forgot to bring any clothes for my parents, or when the well ran dry, or when my brother locked the keys in the glove compartment of the car. But those were all shared problems that engendered a Blitz spirit, entered our family mythology, and knitted us a little closer together.
If we readjust our expectations and judge family holidays fairly then the stress becomes part of the goal. Shaking things up, seeing what happens, treasuring the good bits while relishing surviving the cock-ups, and then feeling more robust in our ordinary lives, is what it’s all about.
So this summer I’m taking my own family to try and do just that. We’ll road test the family holiday and see the practical things that make it easier, simpler and less stressful while trying to embrace the inevitable chaos. I’ve no doubt I will love it and also that at times I’ll wish we hadn’t bothered. But a few months on – when I’ve forgotten how cold the wind was on Snowden, or how much sick I had to clear up in the hire car, or the feeling of a 5am toddler wake up on a cider hangover – I hope I will realise that this is the scaffolding that holds up our family.