The Politics of Family Vacations

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From our ongoing multigenerational travel series with Barbara Graham, a columnist, explores the many issues that arise from multigenerational travel and “the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today’s world.”

The Politics of Family Vacations
The Politics of Family Vacations

My husband, Hugh, seemed edgy at breakfast this morning about our summer plans. “What’s up?” I asked him. Personally, I’m thrilled to be fleeing our miserably hot, swampy East Coast town for a two-week vacation to visit with the grandkids in cool, breezy San Francisco. “Aren’t you excited about seeing the girls?”

“Of course,” he said. “It’s just that I have so little time off and, as much as I love being with them, I don’t want to spend every single day doing childcare, the way we did last summer. I’m dying for a break.”

My Confession

The truth is, I feel the same way—even though I feel guilty admitting it. It’s been a tough year, and Hugh and I are both desperate for a vacation. But like many long-distance grandparents, we spend most of our holidays visiting our son and his family. And though we don’t stay at their house—there isn’t room—we rent a place nearby. Very nearby.

More to the point, Hugh’s and my ideas about our visit/vacation don’t always match our son’s expectations.

To put it bluntly, although we love to spend time with the girls, ages 1 and 4, we also want time to relax and do things as a couple, as well as with the grown-up members of the clan—our son and daughter-in-law. They, however, seem to view our presence—at least in part—as time off for them. And who can blame them? It’s exhausting to be the parents of two adorable but very demanding little girls.

But who can blame my husband and me, either? We, too, are desperate for a break.

If I Were Queen

This is not the way things would be if I were queen of the world—or, at least, the potentate of our family. We would live close to our son, daughter-in-law, and the kids, and see them often, casually with plenty of babysitting included. I would be able to pick up the girls on a whim and take them to the zoo or the park. And Hugh and I would periodically take trips that were pure vacations, no complex family dynamics involved.

But, alas, this is not the case. And no matter how sensitive we all try to be—my son and daughter-in-law included—these visits/vacations are high-wire balancing acts that can lead to unfulfilled expectations, resentments, tensions, hurt feelings and disappointment on all sides. So this year I’ve come up with five strategies to help us minimize the stress and maximize the fun. Here goes:

1. Set boundaries from the get-go.

Make it clear to your adult children before you board a plane or set off in your car that as much as you love to be with them and the kids, this is also your vacation. They need to know that you will need time away from the family to relax and play—and in our case, sleep! This is obviously harder to pull off when you’re all staying under one roof, but not impossible. Skillful communication and clarity up front is key.

2. Make plans to do things separately.

Unlike last summer, this year I’ve reserved an escape hatch midway through our two-week trip—our nights in a wonderful little cottage on a bay near Point Reyes National Seashore. This should provide the breathing space Hugh and I so desperately need and make us more available the rest of the time. Even if you don’t go away, carve out some time for yourselves to do things you love (including nothing), and let your adult children know your plans in advance.

3. Make plans with the family.

Of course you want to spend plenty of time with your precious grandchildren. Check out local listings and take advantage of the many kid-oriented summer activities. And set aside days and evenings when the whole clan can be together. Since I don’t get to see my son and his family very often, I relish those times that we go en famille to the park or the beach, or cook together and sit around the dining room table and just talk. And I always try to plan a walk or lunch alone with both my son and daughter-in-law, so we can really catch up.

4. Set aside time for babysitting and/or overnights.

No question, your adult children could use some R and R, too. I find that when Hugh and I take care of our own need for relaxation, we really enjoy giving our son and daughter-in-law some time off as well. And we love having the kids to ourselves, either during the day or for an overnight or two. This is a great opportunity for bonding, especially when you know you won’t see the little darlings again—in our case—for several months.

5. Be flexible!

Of course this is your vacation, but as we all know, life happens while you’re making other plans, especially when young children are involved. So, although certain plans, such as hotel reservations, may be difficult to change, other plans will be more fluid. The adults may unexpectedly need your help on Thursday instead of Tuesday, so be prepared to adjust, but without giving up all your free time. Repeat the mantra “This is my vacation, too!” three times, as often as necessary.

What works for you when you travel with the kids and grandkids? Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email with your comments or questions.

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