Family Vacation Is Just The Worst No Matter How Happy Everyone Looks In The Pictures

by Nicole Leigh Shaw
Originally Published: 
Family from the movie 'Vacation' travelling in a car looking happy.

Remember when we planned our very first family vacations, back when we had tighter abs and idealism and were stupid? We were so cute (and idiotic, like single-celled-organism dumb) and excited about the convenience of renting a beach umbrella at the resort and the joys of the splash pad for our 13-month-olds. Of course we were, because we hadn’t been on a family vacation yet and it all seemed magical and special and just the thing to bond as a family for all eternity. The memories! The adorable snapshots of our babies in oversized sunglasses! The sun-kissed tan! All this would be our vacation bounty.

But we’re older and wiser now, and we wear a skirted tankini, and if there’s one thing we know now that we have a decade of vacationing under our belt, it’s this: Vacations are memorable because of what goes wrong at least as often as they are because of what goes right. And this: Putting sunscreen on a child is harder than cardio kickboxing or getting a master’s degree or figuring out compound interest or giving birth. Harder even than all of those at the same time.

Ah, we exaggerate, don’t we? Vacation isn’t so bad. It’s still the best part of the year!

Except for the packing. But other than the packing and stocking up on road-trip treats, it’s just the best. Yes, other than the packing, stocking up on road-trip treats or planning your path through a major airport with strollers and their occupants, it’s fabulous. That’s strollers folded up and put through security, road-trip treats, packing, and booking the kennel. That’s all you need to do. Just those things and finding someone to water the plants and feed the fish. A few items on the old checklist and you’re golden! Just the packing, the snacks, airport anxiety, the kennel, the fish/plant-sitter and putting your mail on hold. It’s those six tiny bullet points and you’re all set. Yep, all set with those items and booking the rental. Just a few weeks of researching a rental that’s affordable yet close to the beach/lake/theme park plus 20 hours or so of shopping and laundry and getting the dogs to the kennel and…you know what? Screw the houseplants and the goldfish, they’ve had a good run.

It will be worth it so that we can relax…so long as we set our relaxation bar very low. Reading a book on the beach, for example, is never going to happen. Not when we have kids between the ages of 2 and 12. Maybe when they are all teens we can finally sit on the beach and read Confessions of a Shopaholic, which we picked up on the way to Orlando back in 2004.

Until then, we live with reality. We finish up the laundry at 5 a.m. the day we take off for sunny Somewhere Else. Google Maps is Google-mapping and the bag with car snacks is right on the kitchen table where we left it. That’s how the sunset dolphin cruise budget gets reallocated for rest-stop french fries. Another win for Big Sodium and water retention.

Looking back now over the years of family trips, can we admit that most of our memories center on boardwalk funnel cake and surviving a hurricane in a rental house? Good-time memories are outdone by rainy days, jellyfish stings, and waiting four hours for AAA to tow our busted cars to the nearest mechanic.

Our greatest hits include these horrors. There was the time when the baby threw up down the front of our blouse when we were on that antique house tour in Historic Southern City. What about when we veered off trail to pee in the woods on that National Park hike and got poison ivy on our…legs. That disaster reminds us of the time when everyone got sunburned on the tops of their feet so that no one could wear shoes for two days. That’s the stuff that family bonding is really made of, you know.

There’s a consolation prize made of lies, thank goodness. We leave every vacation with a dozen smiling pictures of the kids. One dozen smiling pictures of them and zero smiling pictures of us, because every time these photos are taken we are doing laundry or grocery shopping or waiting back at the hotel while the baby naps. If our sun-spotted faces do make it into the frame, it’s because someone wearing a polo shirt and holding a camera has set our crew in front of a green screen at a national landmark or local zoo. In those photos, we’re always looking grim. Vacation law dictates that right before these pictures, we’ll be fresh from a parking lot spat with our spouses. “Look kids, aquarium photo op! Stand still and pretend Daddy didn’t make us park three-quarters of a mile away in 99-degree heat so we can ‘beat the traffic’ on the way out.”

Sprinkle in a few perfect beach days and remembering to pack antacids and there are—miraculously, wonderfully, intoxicatingly—enough genuine good moments that we do it all over again roughly 12 months later. Just like baby amnesia, we like to remember our vacations as easier, less expensive, and with more time reserved for napping than they really are.

Family vacations aren’t about where we go or what it takes to get there (that is, all our disposable income and Xanax). They are about making the kids happy and finding some damn thing to occupy our time until school starts again. They are about the thrill of seeing a sand crab on the beach at dusk, followed by 72 hours of the kids being too scared to step into the water because of…crabs. It’s all worth it, if we plug the laughs and tears and ice cream and seeing the Grand Canyon into a complicated emotional algorithm. But if we really wanted to do something Zen over the summer, we’d send the kids to sleepaway camp.

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