We just returned from a quick, relatively last-minute family trip to Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, Maine. It was a long drive (about seven hours each way) for just over two days of vacation, but oh so worth it. We decided on this trip earlier in August, after our 15th wedding anniversary on July 26 passed with only the most minimal of celebrations. Remembering how much we loved our Maine honeymoon, we decided to return there with the three fruits of our union, and the only chunk of time that worked happened to be the days right before the kids’ schools started back up. We returned last night around 5:30, undertook a whirlwind of tasks to switch from vacation mode to school mode (groceries, book- and school-supply-finding expeditions, showers, laundry), and sent the kids off to their classes today. (Ahhh….)
Our too-short days in Acadia and Bar Harbor were perfect. The weather was gorgeous, and our surroundings offered something for everyone: hiking, swimming, quiet moments soaking up the sun, searching for critters (from periwinkles to seals) in tide pools and on a harbor cruise, lots of ice cream. I learned a few important lessons on this trip, such as that I AM capable of last-minute spontaneity (let’s just say that planning a trip less than a month in advance is not exactly a habit of mine) and that periwinkles will come out of their shells if you sing to them (really!).
But the most important lesson I learned is that I’ve been planning the wrong kinds of family vacations for the past twelve years. This is embarrassing to admit, but most of the vacations we’ve taken as a family to places like Cape Cod and the Virginia shore haven’t actually been that fun for me. A part of me has simply endured our vacations, instead of enjoying them. I usually breathe a sigh of relief as we head home.
A big part of this attitude, of course, relates to the fact that, until this summer, I’ve always had at least one child under five. And the truth is that vacation for a stay-at-home mom of young children often means doing the exact same stuff we do at home, without the well-worn routines and comforts of home—figuring out what we’re going to eat and either preparing it or steeling ourselves for a meal out with young kids, balancing the wishes and needs of three very different children, refereeing sibling arguments, calming overtired little people, always keeping an eye on the clock to ensure that needs for food and sleep are met before disaster strikes. Now, with my youngest approaching seven, we can accommodate later bedtimes and restaurant meals much more gracefully.
But there’s another reason that I haven’t loved many of our family vacations: I really don’t love the beach. And what do you do at the Virginia shore and on Cape Cod? You go to the beach!These past few days in Acadia, we didn’t go to the beach! We went to the shore, but we went to watch and listen to the waves, sit on sun-baked rocks, and examine tide pools at close range. We went to a few ponds, where the kids could cool their feet in the water while I took in the breathtaking background scenery. But the days did not center around sitting in the hot sun, watching children like a hawk to make sure no one drowns, drinking lukewarm juice boxes and eating gritty sandwiches.
And I loved it. When we got into the car to head home yesterday, I was sorry to be leaving and already thinking about how great it would be to come for a whole week. We could do all the things we did this time around, plus more—a carriage ride through Acadia’s woods, hikes on different trails, even a day (ONE day) at one of Acadia’s sandy ocean or lake beaches.
I’ve always said that Cape Cod is our fall-back vacation destination because I love the Cape. And I do love the Cape. I love gazing at lighthouses, walking through town, taking a short walk on the beach at sunset. But I don’t particularly like spending the bulk of the day—every day—at the beach.
This realization is not huge as far as life lessons go, but it’s still seems important in a few ways. It’s an example of how we can go through life holding onto these grand pronouncements of who we are and what is important to us, and then realize we’ve been mistaken all along. It reminds me that when I’m not enjoying this mothering thing as much as I think I should, maybe I should pay attention to why that is, instead of just chalking it up to the self-sacrifice that comes with the territory. After all, won’t we all have better vacations if we are all having a great time, me included?
The Five Dollars have agreed that in Acadia, we’ve found a new favorite family destination. We may still end up on Cape Cod or the Virginia shore for vacation now and then. But I can’t wait to go back to Maine to test out my new revelation—that it’s possible for me to spend our family vacations attending to my children’s needs AND having a great time as well.