Our son is 12, and he’s been learning a lot about American history. We thought it might be fun to spend a few days at the National Mall and visit the Smithsonian this summer. I want to say “the standard DC trip,” but I’m not 100% sure what that means, really. Because we’ve never successfully made it there as a family. We had plans to take this epic trip to Washington DC this year. I emphasize the “had” in that sentence.
I have a feeling this will sound all too familiar to many of you.
We started saving. We set aside a set amount each month for our “vacation fund.” By the beginning of April, it was looking promising. If everything went to plan, we’d reach our goal. This was some serious adulting. I’d never felt sexier. And then we took our two oldest kids to meet with an orthodontist, found out they both needed braces, and left with an estimate that made my knees weak.
So we were left with a choice: use the money we saved for a vacation for a trip to DC and ignore the orthodontist’s recommendations , or use it as a down payment for braces and then lock into a multi-year braces payment plan.
You can probably guess what decision we made. We canceled the trip and handed that vacation money over to the orthodontist. It was a major bummer, but the best choice for our family. And to be honest, I don’t know why it’s always like this, but it is. This is exactly the way my parenting life has always been, and I have a feeing that it always will be. My wife and I work in education. We live on a tight budget. We pay our mortgage and make sure the kids are fed and have decent, but not extravagant, clothing. But when it comes to the frills — e.g. the family vacation — well… something always, inevitably, comes up. Our vacation fund is nearly always consumed by some unexpected (but important) expense.
Last year, Mel and I had this grand idea of going to Hawaii. We started to put money aside, and BAM, the van broke down. The year before that, it was a family cruise, and — surprise!–we needed a new washer and dryer. Not that we haven’t ever gone on vacation; we have. When I was in graduate school, I was accepted to speak at a conference in the middle of nowhere. The school paid for some of it, so we turned it into a family trip. In theory, it sounded like an awesome cost-saving idea until we actually arrived in what is probably one of the smallest do-nothing towns I’ve ever been to. The highlight was the hotel pool — for not only the children, but also me too. So yes, it was affordable, but it wasn’t exactly what most people have in mind when they think of their yearly trip.
Now, I don’t want you to think that we are 100% vacation failures. The stars aligned, and we did once make it to Disneyland. Our kids had a blast, and it was worth every penny. But on the whole, something always seems to be in the way when it comes to taking a family trip. Does this mean that we need to be better with our money? Does it mean that we need to do a better job buying nicer, longer lasting appliances? Does it mean we need trade in our kids for ones with straighter teeth?
Gosh… I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think it’s just the way the real world works with kids and family and trying to make it all work.
And yeah, I’m with you. I see pictures of friends taking their children on some multi-week vacation to Europe, dancing around Stonehenge or visiting Iceland dressed as hobbits, and I wonder if they are doing all the right things, while I am doing all the wrong things. And you know what? I can’t explain that. I can’t explain how some people have money to do vacations outside of the backyard, or to spend time somewhere that doesn’t involve the whole family sleeping in my mother’s living room, all of us bracing for the inevitable moment my stepdad forgets we are there, and wanders out in his underwear.
But what I can say is this, if you are in the same vicious cycle of saving up for a summer vacation, only for it to be pulled out from under you by unexpected this or that, realize that you are not alone. Despite our best intentions and preparation, it happens to many of us.
Don’t feel like you are failing, and realize that sometimes life just sucks that way. Will it get better? I don’t know. I haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m optimistic that it will. In the mean time, though, make the best out of that backyard fun. Take the kids on a local hike. Pitch a tent in the living room, put up starlight, eat some marshmallows, and pretend like you’re at Yosemite. The real value here is family time, and as much as we’d all rather spend that time in some amazing place, far away from Mount Laundry, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have wonderful rewarding family time right where we are.
I’ve learned to embrace our backyard Summers. I’ve also learned to be grateful for where we are at, and what we have, even when it doesn’t include those fancy trips.