To Parents Vacationing With Small Children: It Gets Better

I promise.

family-rubber-ducks-beach
Photo by Junos/Getty Images

“This is not fun. We should have stayed home.”



It was the first night of vacation. My husband and I were unpacking groceries in the small kitchen of our Maine beach house rental, and we’d agreed in tense whispers that the refrigerator door should remain open for the duration of the effort. We couldn’t risk closing it between the loading of string cheese, Yo Baby yogurt and gallon jugs of milk lest the faint whisper of suction wake our children, who were (we hoped) finally asleep upstairs.

Bedtime had been a brutal, drawn-out affair, with one toddler screaming for two hours (tears, snot, hiccups, dry heaves) and the other wailing about the lumpy bed, a witch’s shadow on the wall, a piece of thread stuck between her toes—and, of course, the unacceptable proximity of her screaming brother.

My husband sighed. “I think we need to manage our expectations for this week. It’ll probably be more of a relocation than a vacation.”

I gazed over his shoulder at the lanterns on our deck, at the twin Adirondack rocking chairs where I’d imagined we’d sip cocktails every night. Instead, we fell into bed, wincing at the squeaky box spring, exhausted and annoyed with each other. It was only a matter of time until one of us would be awake again, pacing the splintery floors with our insomniac baby. In the morning, we’d be up before dawn.

For 10 years, this was our pattern every summer: anticipation for the annual Maine vacation, followed by the slow dawn of reality once we arrived. Wherever you go, there you are—and wherever Ethan and I went, we had three little kids who didn’t share our enthusiasm for reading on the beach or playing Scrabble by candle light.

We planned for these trips with military precision, e-mailing the packing list back and forth so we could each make additions and subtractions based on the ages and interests of our offspring. There were the big ticket items that claimed the most real estate in the back of our minivan—Pack and Play, booster seat, red wagon, beach toys, beach chairs, boogie boards—and countless smaller necessities to be parceled into a rainbow fleet of duffle bags: regular diapers and beach diapers; wipes and to-go wipes; SPF in solid, cream and spray form; picture books and board books; beach towels and beloved blankets; and, of course, clothes. No matter how many times we reviewed the subsection of our list enumerating bathing suits, jelly shoes and floppy-brimmed hats, at least one member of our family had to borrow underwear from a sibling for the first few days in Maine.

The relocation settled into a predictable rhythm once we made a pilgrimage to L.L. Bean to buy everything we forgot (plus monogrammed lunchboxes and gifts for our pets). Every morning we loaded up the red wagon, packed our cooler and walked down a pebbly lane to the beach. One adult ran back to the house to retrieve a forgotten sand sifter. Soon, another adult would carry the baby back to the house for a nap; but inevitably, the baby would have other plans, so that adult would have to roll a ball back and forth across the floor for an hour instead of napping himself. When the beachside adult returned, laden with clamshells, five towels forming a mega-cervical collar around her neck, the two adults would have a stand off about who had earned the right to opt out of shucking corn that night. At five o’clock, “Little Bear” came on and everyone was happy for a measly 24 minutes.

I used to eyeball other families on the beach, certain that they were better rested and less argumentative than my frazzled crew. I sulked under the brim of my straw hat, convinced that I’d never have another peaceful vacation for the rest of my life—that I would never again find myself alone on the beach in the late-afternoon, or nap in a hammock, or enjoy a piece of fudge for breakfast without having to explain my choice to a budding nutritionist in a Crewcuts rash guard. I didn’t expect to feel unencumbered—I wasn’t completely delusional and I did love having three eager helpers when I made dribble castles—but I was tired of feeling like a pack mule. I needed a vacation from vacationing. We all did.

And then, little by little, the packing list got shorter. The booster seat migrated to the closet; and the Pack and Play to a rummage sale in the school gym. One day last spring, I pulled the red wagon down the street to a neighbor’s house and left it there with a cupful of Maine sand still in the compartment where we used to store Goldfish crackers and granola bars.

“You don’t want to hang onto it for your grandchildren?” my neighbor asked, absent-mindedly stroking her pregnant belly, a look of pity on her face. New and future parents always assume you miss the stage they’re in; usually, I don’t.

“No thanks, my wagon-pulling days are behind me,” I said. For the record, our kids are now 8, 11 and 14; I’m not expecting grandchildren anytime soon.

I didn’t bother to explain my favorite thing about having big kids, even the teenager who rolls her eyes at my navy swim skirt as she shimmies into bikinis not much bigger than the ones she wore to the beach in Maine when she was 6. Vacations are actually relaxing again. These days, I only pack for one person: myself. I have time to read a book, I no longer have boogie boards bungeed to my back, and Ethan and I can enjoy a moonlit stroll whenever we feel like it. We also sleep late; the toddler who once used the Pack and Play as his sunrise pulpit is now 11 and sleeps until 10. When he finally joins his sisters in the kitchen, the three of them make their own pancakes.

It’s easy to romanticize the relocations when I look at an old picture of our kids in front of a shed festooned with lobster buoys. They’re sweet, with their sandy toes and knotty hair and bellies full of Lobster Tracks ice cream. I miss their awe and their energy. But I wouldn’t go back to that stage, not if you offered me a free month in the most luxurious waterfront digs.

Because the calm I used to crave is nothing compared to the adventures and companionship you can share with three well-rested, semi-grown, self-perambulating humans. If only I’d known what I had to look forward to, I might not have lost so much sleep back then. I wouldn’t have joined in the crying at bedtime. I would have put patience and perspective at the top of the packing list. It was only a matter of time until our long journey deposited us where we are now: the fun part.

Elisabeth Egan is the author of the novel A Window Opens.