We are at the rental car desk in San Francisco after traveling for seven hours with two young children, it’s almost midnight Chicago time and we’re hungry and impatient. My husband and I are exhausted; our kids are not.
Our son is climbing on our luggage, knocking it over into a mountain and sitting on top; he is drinking from a water fountain with his mouth hugging the spout. I am too tired to care.
Meanwhile, my daughter continues a line of questioning she started a full ten minutes ago: “But, why is she giving us her car?”
“Who?” I ask, distracted by my son biting his grimy fingernail.
I sigh and explain for the fortieth time, “Avis is not a person, it’s a company. We are paying to borrow a car from a company.”
“Oh, okay, so we’re not keeping it.”
“That’s right.” Relief. Finally, she’s got it. She starts wrestling with her brother. I know as sure as I sit here on this sticky vinyl chair that this match will end in tears.
My daughter pauses, mid half-nelson, to ask, “But will we get to meet her?”
And we’re back to talking about Avis again--like she’s some long-lost Aunt we’ve come to California to visit and frankly I don’t have the stamina for it. I tell her, “It’s late. Avis is sleeping.” Note to self: next time rent from Enterprise.
My son’s head hits the metal chair base with an audible conk. Tears.
If you were to walk past me at this moment, you’d see a mother wiping her son’s tears with her sleeve; you’d hear her say, “I know, that hurt. It’ll feel better soon baby.” But if you could zoom past my empathetic expression and move into my thoughts, you’d hear: of course you got hurt, you’re treating the waiting area like it’s the WWF; enough with the crying already, it doesn’t hurt that much and I can see your sister starting to calculate the uneven distribution of attention and preparing to cry herself; when, oh, when will I get the break that is the hallmark of vacations?
The tears reach a crescendo with both children crying now, overtired and irrational (which also describes my state). Then I realize that this is it--this is what a vacation with children looks like; there is no break. There are questions, negotiations, nonstop interaction and tears. In fact, it looks suspiciously like being at home.
My husband jokes, “I’m having second thoughts.” About this trip? I ask. “No. About having children.” In this moment, in the hum of the fluorescent lights and the drone of the rental agent’s apology for the wait, the next nine days look a little bleak.
Prior to our trip, my daughter and I made homemade granola bars in anticipation of long drives up and down the coast with very few places to stop for snacks. Granola bars are exactly the sort of thing I always imagined I’d make as a mother--that, and my own baby food. I’d love to be the type of mother that mixes her own cleaning supplies and buys only organic produce. Instead, I pack artificially-flavored Cheez-Its and environmentally-unfriendly Capri Sun foil-packs for snacks. On a daily basis, convenience trumps wholesomeness.
I decide that I can be that mom, if only for spring break. My daughter and I mix old-fashioned rolled oats with oil and salt for toasting. We are supposed to bake until they are “pale gold” like fall leaves but when we pull them from the oven they are dark brown like dead, fallen leaves that have been flattened by my car. I also cook the honey/brown sugar mixture a tad too long. Yet, I still have hope that the oats, nuts, vanilla, cinnamon, and syrup will yield a tasty, nutritious snack.
It turns out that homemade granola bars are surprisingly easy to make. Good homemade granola bars? You’ll have to ask someone else. Mine taste awful. There is a burnt flavor; not smokey, but burnt. Their aftertaste requires a chaser and they smell strongly like sugared leather--like a sweet, worn saddle--not bad, exactly, but not appetizing either. And I have 36 of them.
I pack them up anyway, hoping that if I pretend to like them, the kids will be tricked into enjoying them too. Look, the Emperor’s fully dressed--now have a granola bar! The smell of the bars is seeping through the soft sides of our luggage as we wait at Avis (and my daughter waits for Avis). My children are running around like animals and my bags smell like a zoo.
My husband and I have a code word that we use when our tempers reach a boil, when we are about to say something to our kids that might thrust them into psychotherapy: man-down. Man-down tells the other spouse that it’s time to take over; tag, you’re it. The first couple of days of our trip has us uttering “man-down” so much that you’d think we had word-specific tourette's.
But then something happens to our children--they break. I somehow forget in the first frustrating days of any trip, that our kids are disoriented. They crave routine and theirs has been upended. They need reminding for everything. Brush your teeth. Yes, of course you have to wear underwear. Yes, seatbelts too. In a new environment, they are seeking re-definition of their boundaries.
There is an almost tangible moment when the kids snap into their vacation selves. Finally, they stop whining and start noticing what’s around them. They ease up. And once they realize that the rules of behavior haven’t changed, we are able to start the small indulgences that vacations are all about. With no schedule, we can linger in the magic shop or turn back for ice cream at that quirky hippy place we passed earlier (the one where we are the only patrons and “Hey Jude” plays on repeat). By the time my daughter is squealing over the hills in “San Fran-six-go,” I am in love with her all over again.
At home, my kids don’t play well together. They are a boy and a girl separated by three years. But on this trip, I see them shedding their roles--or at least setting them aside for small stretches of time. They collaborate in the backseat of our rental car. My daughter says, “I’ll be the baby and you can be the dad.” My son says, “Yeah, but you don’t know I’m a spy.” Spy and baby play quietly and happily.
That’s how our vacation goes: moment to moment. There are happy surprises like Big Basin National Park, which finds them balancing on logs and jumping off of stumps and in general acting like free-range children. By this point in the trip, all of our clothes reek of burnt, oily oats. I momentarily worry about bears, walking as we are, smelling so pungently of food. But even they are discerning. Indeed, when my children perch at the bottom of a skyscraper-high redwood to rest, my son takes one bite of a granola bar and says conspiratorially to his dad, “These are terrible.” I realize that my children know more than I give them credit for.
Travel gives me an opportunity to see who they really are. At home, they are dependent upon their physical space to cue their actions--this is what is okay at home, this is what we do at school. Going to new places teaches them how to be in the world. It need not be expensive or extravagant, the important part is the away.
A friend recently commented after traveling with her kids: “It wasn’t a vacation, it was a trip.” A trip is something you take for work; it infers long exhausting days filled with tasks you wouldn’t necessarily choose to do. Check. A vacation, on the other hand, requires sunblock and implies levity and laughter. Check.
Our travel unfurled the luxury of time together without television, email, phone calls, and the relentless crush of the everyday. There were tears but also inside jokes. We bonded. In the end, ours was a trip and a vacation.