METAPHORICALLY speaking, the road to the family vacation is full of potholes.
This won’t come as news to any parent who’s ever spent a “holiday” crammed into a vehicle with squabbling children. Still, set aside the navigator’s inability to read a map, sibling rivalries, covert pinching, crushed iPods, parental mood swings, car-sick dogs, and unsuspected allergies to bee-stings, and you’ve usually got yourself a good time. Planning for that good time, however, can be a giant headache.
I could have told you that even before I read it last week in the National Post. Surprisingly, it took a gathering of 5,000 academics at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences to bring out the hardcore vacation critics. They’ve concluded that “the escape value of holidays is diminishing, and becoming just another stressor in increasingly demanding lives,” wrote the Post’s Anne Marie Owens.
In Saskatoon, Owens wrote, a sociology professor called Susan Shaw from the University of Waterloo would reveal her findings that “Family leisure was not seen by parents as simply having fun together with their children, but as a highly significant part of child-rearing through which children would be exposed to a range of positive developmental influences and would learn lessons important for their success in life.”
We Baby Boomers ruin everything. Not content with overburdening our own lives, we have to stick a meddling finger into everything our kids do, too -- especially in their time off. According to the Wall Street Journal, many parents today deliberately take their children to un-kid-friendly places in an effort to groom them into whatever they’re not.
I can’t say I’m guilty as charged there. My modus operandi when planning a trip is to try desperately to avoid conflict by letting the children (one a mean-ager, one a mad-olescent) have a lot of say in what we do. This approach may sound frighteningly laissez faire, and actually, it’s sheer luck that so far, it has worked. The potential pitfall is that in my house, we are divided -- two of us love to plan, the other two prefer to remain oblivious until we get to our destination.
Last year, we were all in agreement that a trip to Maui would be fabulous. It was our first trip off the continent together. My son, 12, is a person who needs to know what to expect and doesn’t enjoy surprises. I like to foresee and forestall boredom and discontentment by knowing all my options and choosing the “best” one. So Bart and I happily pored over the guidebook and numerous websites beforehand. In my case, each time I opened the book (Maui Revealed, highly recommended) there was something new to be discovered, mostly because I’d forgotten whatever I had learned the time before. Unlike mine, Bart’s brain is not yet packed with useless information about whatever happened to Penny Marshall, so he actually retained a lot of useful information for later.
Stanley and Petunia, however, will only plan in certain highly personal situations. Stanley is incredibly well-organized in all barbecue-related capacities. He spent several years hauling equipment and ingredients all over Western Canada as he promoted his cookbooks at classes, stores and events. But when it comes to family holidays, getting him to commit is an exercise in reiteration. I always wind up blowing my top in frustration at his non-response, and then forging ahead doing the bookings on my own.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Petunia perpetually has her own agenda, about which she is remarkably tight-lipped. Last summer, neither one took more than a cursory glance at the guidebook or the typed notes I had made about where we were staying, what vehicle we were renting, what we’d be doing, or what there was to see on the island.
The great treat was that nobody complained about, or objected to, my suggested activities and everybody had a wonderful time. Still, it does prove that what sociologist Shaw found was true -- much of vacation planning falls to mothers, who do most of “the organizational work, the cleanup work and the emotion work of facilitating positive experiences.”
I don’t claim to be hard done by, though. In Maui, as always, Stanley was more than happy to foot the bills, shop for food, and cook dinner every night, so it was hardly a one-way street. Once we got there, my “important work” consisted of reading the novels I found in the rental condo one by one, washing the beachtowels, and taking whoever needed stitches to the clinic.
I find planning a vacation to be a wonderful experience, as long as your group is small and acquiescent. Combing through possibilities is one of the best distractions from real work that I can think of. Earlier this year I began scheming about a summer trip to the Baja Sur and enjoyed many delightful online tours of its hotel rooms, beaches, and landscape. I bought three guidebooks and cross-referenced their comments with those found online.
I was all ready to commit to a condo I’d found on e-bay when I heard from two sources that you’d have to be insane to vacation in the Baja Sur in the summer. One person who goes there frequently at other times of the year claimed it was so hot the one time she went in July that she broke out in blisters on her legs and under her arms and walked around awash in sweat.
We abandoned ship on the Mexican plan as we didn’t want to spend that much money to be miserable and unsightly -- that, we can do for free at home. I must say, though, that I was sorry. In my mind I was already there, strolling dreamily through Todos Santos with a small mariachi band wafting behind me and refried beans on my breath, and vice versa. My son, too, was sad to leave his fantasies of death by Mexican shark behind for the time being. At least now we both know the Spanish word for shark is “tiburón.”
Lately I’m focusing on the idea of L.A. and its more urban delights. This time, I’ll borrow the guidebook from the library rather than buying it -- just in case the trip doesn’t pan out. I’ll let my reveries centre on going to Mexico later, in March, along with every other Canadian who can afford it. Then, one wet and weary day this winter, I’ll start planning for the Baja Sur again.
My guess is, contrary to sociological findings about mothers and their awful vacation stress, I’ll relish every warm, transporting moment.