Family vacation stress

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I read an Associated Press article on Monday, July 16, 2007, which reports that vacations are becoming less pervasive in American life, primarily because of lack of money and too few vacation days being offered by most employers. Orbitz, the online travel company, reports that people are “busier than ever with their lives, family activities, and kids… and they find it difficult to take an extended vacation…”

Another factor is that 25% of American workers in the private sector do not get any paid vacation time (Bureau of Labor Statistics), and 33% of Americans in the private sector take only seven days vacation per year.

“Please Don’t Make Me Go on Vacation” is the title of a New York Times article from last year citing that “overwork is the red badge of courage,” and that competitive employees feel they MUST be at the office.

According to the Stress Institute, it takes 3 days to just “disengage” from work!

These are just a few of the stats I found when I started my search for the latest news on what the New York Times calls “The Shrinking Family Vacation.”

I felt almost overwhelmed as I read these articles, following the various threads of WHY we hesitate to vacation. I’m still in the mindset that vacationing is integral to the psyche. I want to role model that kind of care of myself to my kids.

But the changing mindset about vacationing in America affects ME too. Although I idolize the Europeans who simply close up shop and leave for the coast or wherever for a month (do they REALLY do that???), I feel like I should stay responsible to my work (as a freelance radio producer and writer, I feel like I have to be at the top of my game all the time–pitching story ideas, responding to people’s emails, always ready for the next great opportunity, and constantly sifting through the latest news and my own ideas about family, motherhood, children….).

I also feel a money constraint that seems to be getting tighter and tighter as our two-artist family strives to cover health insurance and household costs for a family which is now comprised of a breadwinner and a crackerwinner, and three growing teenagers. How long can we even afford to be away from home?

Last year I was on a long road trip with my kids, producing a radio piece about being on a long road trip with my kids. About ten days into our extended vacation, with me checking in with my editor every day and frantically recording our every move, I postponed the whole thing and mailed my laptop home. It was the best thing I ever did. My work allowed me that luxury (the editor didn’t need the piece for another month) and I actually had to just put my own constraints on what I needed: a vacation. I finished the piece back at home and was proud to have it air the last weekend of the summer on Weekend America.

Now let’s talk about the actual STRESS of family vacations. I talked with Tom Crann of All Things Considered at Minnesota Public Radio about this. He remembers a more idyllic time when there were less gadgets available for the kids and their parents to use when on vacation. Kids didn’t have access to iPods and dvd players. What’s it like now? Does the entertainment gadgetry enhance our trip or alienate us? How does this add to the stress of the trip?

I think that families NEED to have time together in which they aren’t plugged into their own entertainment systems. We still have a cassette deck in our car (remember it’s a two artist family….) and we listen to cassettes as a group. The kids do have their own iPods and every year their playlists get longer. But we have a system where we trade off listening to different mixes as a group too… using that OTHER gadget called an iTrip. We also do something sort of antiquated: we read a book out loud together. We’ve had various success with this. We’re still trying to figure out what the best book is to read for this vacation. “Finn Family Moomintrol” is what we tried last year, and it just never really engaged us. But “Cricket in Times Square” had me weeping at the end one year.

Okay, but what about bringing along a cell phone (for “work”)? So… you’re walking into the lobby of some fabulous museum and you “quick” take a call that has to do with a report that you’re helping finish up? Is this stressful for your kid? For you? Is anyone able to really pay attention to the experience at hand? Are the parents beaming up their laptops at the hotel or even at the campsite to finish one last thing? Are the kids using the laptop to watch movies in the car? Isn’t the ROAD the movie???? Is all this adding to the stress?

And… the work of getting it all together. That’s stressful, right? As I write this, I’m on deadline (self imposed) to get all my work ( a couple of proposals, some follow up phone calls, a report or two blah blah blah) done, so that I can help pack a 7 day wilderness canoe trip for all five of us. The kids and my husband have taken off for Target with an intricate list I helped write. We’ve bought all the food, but it needs to be packaged into dinner-by-dinner bags. This will surely take two to three hours. I know. I used to do this for a living.

The equipment pack (camp stove, fire grate, cook kit, etc.) needs to be carefully packed. All the tents need to be looked at, set up, repacked… do we have enough sleeping bags? Where are the maps?

The Stress Institute suggests that we all get a good night’s sleep before we leave on our trip. What? Does this mean I should not pull an all-nighter finalizing all details of departing the house, watering the plants, packing for myself???? What a great idea…. to be ready to go at least 24 hours ahead of time…. I wonder if I can do it… I wonder if anyone ever has…

As an exclusive (to this blog only!!) experiment, I’m gonna try. It’s still three days away. I’m feeling hopeful.

I hear my voice rising in pitch as my teenagers roll out of bed at the crack of noon. “Today we need to get all the equipment packed and I’m really hoping that everyone has a chance to at least canoe ONCE before we go…..”

But on Monday,

….we’ll get in the car. I will have forgotten something, I’m sure. Someone else will have too. We’ll head out, a bit nervous, a bit reluctant (doesn’t one always leave on these kind of things reluctantly?), a bit excited, and MAYBE a bit overtired (but I really really hope not)…..

Next, we’ll be TOGETHER (and I mean TOGETHER, unlike we EVER are at home….) for SEVEN WHOLE DAYS in the wilderness! Maybe some issues will come up between my husband and me, as we paddle some windy lake looking for a campsite. Maybe one kid will be hopelessly tired or even get sick.

Maybe our son will feel alienated from all of us simply because he’s seventeen years old and doesn’t really have that much to say to each of us 24/7. Maybe our two daughters, just 15 months apart in age, will get into one of their famous “I hate you because…” routines, a routine that can last sometimes for several days.

Maybe it will rain and rain and rain. Maybe we’ll get lost. Maybe I’ll cry for the first three days, just because that’s what I usually do when I let go a little. I’ll cry about the big things: son entering senior year of college, missing my dad, who I used to go canoeing with…. and the little things: embarrassed that I can’t carry as much as I used to on a portage, irritated by someone in the family unit, tired (Wait – I’m not going to be tired, I forgot…)……

And if we’re lucky, there will be some golden moments too.

I’m bringing along NO radio equipment. So I can’t record these moments. I’ll just live them.

I’ll bring along my secret stress-o-meter and see how we all rate.