When I hear the words “spring break,” I think of watching the hordes of people in neon swimsuits in waist-deep water, holding up drinks and bobbing to overloud music on MTV. I think of being in a car full of friends, windows down over the bridge to the beach, salty air in our hair, our textbooks stacked away in our empty bedrooms. Goodbye obligation, hello celebration. I still think of that.
Then I remember that I now have four small children, and that spring break means a lot of things — but “break” is not one of them. As it turns out, spring break with toddlers isn’t so different from a party bus in Panama City Beach. Sunburn, shenanigans, and too little sleep? Check, check, and check. Whether you’re off to Disneyland or at home simply stringing together enough Busy Toddler activities (don’t knock dot stickers ‘til you’ve tried ‘em) to get you through the week, Spring Break’s realities may take a hard left from your expectations.
Expectation: Everyone will simultaneously wear the precious gingham swimsuits you ordered five months ago on Cyber Monday for this very week.
Reality: Two children fit in said swimsuits, another has somehow grown three sizes since Thanksgiving, and yet another has imprinted on the Paw Patrol surf shorts he saw at the beach gas station.
Expectation: The ice painting activity you set up in the driveway will engage the children’s creative minds, and occupy them for some time with wholesome sensory play.
Reality: The children are eating the ice and painting each other.
Expectation: You’ll start the novel that has the pretty cover photo of a straw hat on a sandy towel. Just start it.
Reality: You will not.
Expectation: The kids haven’t been swimming since last summer, so they’ll probably be slow to warm up around the pool.
Reality: Someone just dove into the shallow end.
Expectation: A break from packing lunches will be a welcome reprieve.
Reality: Everyone still needs to eat lunch.
Expectation: The mornings will be calmer without the school-time schedule rush.
Reality: Everyone can sense that things are different, that you’ll say YES to normal NOs, and so they ask to put M&Ms in the pancakes, to help you pour the batter, to eat picnic-style on the floor, and you say yes, and it’ll be something, but it will not be calm.
Expectation: The kids will relish the gift of boredom, from which true genius and curiosity are born.
Reality: They will ask you “how much longer” (until we get there, until dinner, until the front of the line) ten times more than is reasonable for people with no concept of time.
Expectation: Anything you forget to pack you can just buy at your destination.
Reality: Your toddler’s Lovie — a hippo that is blue-loved-to-gray — is still lying in your driveway where it fell from the car. It will still be there when you return, if slightly damp, but miraculously unmoved, and your son will introduce it to the oversized polyester koala you bought him in the hotel gift shop to stop the hyperventilating (his, and yours) at the realization of Lovie’s absence.
Expectation: At some point, over the course of the entire week of spring break, a photo will be taken of your entire family.
Reality: You took the photo.
Expectation: You will be glad to head home when the week is done.
Reality: When you roll the windows down over the bridge one more time, you’ll turn around to see the children squealing with delight, and you’ll think about how one day they will spend spring break at an all-inclusive resort in Cabo without you, and you’ll want to stop right there on that bridge, to live in that moment of the salty air and swirling hair, the little one holding up his huge koala, cheering, and you’ll be crying to think that childhood and spring break must ever come to an end.
Hampton Williams Hofer lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and raises babies. Her work has appeared in Flying South, Walter Magazine, Architectural Digest, and Food 52, among others. Family aside, her great loves are a South Carolina beach, a Roger Federer backhand, a Charlottesville lawn, and–most of all–a good story.