Traveling With Grown Kids: What Were We Thinking?

by Galya Gerstman
Justin Paget/Getty

One of the few benefits of Covid-19 has been no family vacations. You’d think I’d have learned over the years but, ever the optimist, they are always my idea. For our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary two years ago, I told my husband I wanted to go to Europe. With the kids. We were recently made empty-nesters, with our youngest starting college. I thought it might be the last time in a long while we’d be together since their schools had different periods off, and our eldest preferred to spend his summers visiting his girlfriend. It might be the last time in a long time that we’d be together before they started pairing off, starting families, moving away permanently. “It’ll be fun,” I convinced him. What in God’s name was I thinking? It was one of those ideas that are better in your head than out loud or in real life.

In retrospect, I realize I should have planned, should have drawn up an itinerary, some sort of tourist schedule. But as my husband and I usually wing it on our travels and are happy to just stroll through foreign streets and take in exotic scenes, we didn’t make any plans. We figured that as usual we’d see the greatest hits of a city, like Paris’s Louvre and Champs Elysees or Madrid’s Prado and Puerta del Sol. Indeed, I hadn’t done any homework for that trip to Spain and hadn’t known that Picasso’s work was in the Reina Sofia Museum, so we didn’t get to see Guernica as hoped but we were happily surprised to see Hieronymus Bosch. That’s how it goes with us; we miss out on some things but happen upon others.

My children, however, found our lackadaisical attitude toward sightseeing appalling. And indeed it became appalling because when presented with no itinerary, each took it upon him or herself to choose and then demand that we visit what they wanted to see. But of course they couldn’t agree; that would have been too easy. If Isaiah wanted to go to Monaco, Jacob wanted to go to Cannes. If Claire wanted to eat in Le Petit Bistro, Isaiah wanted crepes. One wanted to go to the beach and another wanted to tour the castle. The only thing they could agree on was to go shopping, which my husband and I naturally opposed, especially as all they wanted were the same Adidas sneakers and Calvin Klein T shirts they could have gotten back home in the mall for a third of the prices. Thus the one activity we all agreed to participate in was fighting. At one point the boys, who were sharing a room, came to blows over which bed they would sleep in.

As if the constant bickering weren’t enough, Jacob, the youngest, asserted he didn’t come on vacation to get up at the crack of dawn, and would insist on sleeping in and meeting us later wherever we would be. My husband would rail about our son’s laziness and that we had paid for five breakfasts not four, while I would fret about how Jacob would find us in the middle of Barcelona, especially since we could only communicate when we had Wi-Fi which was almost never, and since I could barely find our way to the Gaudi museum in spite of possessing a map. Of course, Jacob didn’t need a map because unlike us, he knew how to access his cell phone’s Google Maps. My son always found us no matter where and no matter what, so all our worrying and yelling were for nothing, making us look like we were the unreasonable ones.

What rattled me the most was what all this said about my mothering skills. How had I raised such spoiled and combative children? To come to blows over a hotel bed? “When I was growing up, all five of us shared the same shower,” I had yelled. “All five of us!” I made it sound like we were the Waltons (of the old TV series, not the Walmart heirs). My mother used to tell me about having to use the outhouse when she was little. And here these brats were scuffling over which bed was closer to the bathroom. They’d been so loud that someone had complained and a guy from management had knocked on their door! Yes, I realized that that was the part that really upset me. If they had been more circumspect about their dust-ups, if they had tried to kill each other more quietly, it would have been less heinous to me. I felt humiliated. I was a bad mother. At least whenever my kids went to other people’s houses, the other parents always told me how well behaved my children were. So it seems they only let loose with us.

My parents never asked me and my brothers where we wanted to eat or what movie we wanted to see or where we wanted to sit. I realized that at least part of the problem was my husband and I had always treated our children like equal partners, not as dull-witted underlings. Thus they felt it their due to opine on our itinerary or our dining options. They felt their votes counted with the same weight as our own. Similarly, there could be no hierarchy as to the eldest getting more (or the better bed) than the youngest. They were well aware of their rights, and would not cow to the other nor to us. This was what we had wrought. Equals. Equals who wouldn’t back down or give in.

As I said, my parents never asked my brothers or me our preferences or opinions. They told us and that was that. Sure, things went a little more smoothly for them but it also created a space between us, that is, between us, the younger generation, and them, my parents. We loved them but we didn’t view them as equals. We didn’t view them as friends. I call my mother, who is a widow now, because I love her, of course, but also out of duty. But my daughter calls me just because. Because we are best friends. Her words, not mine. Thus I’m not sure my parents’ dictatorship, as benevolent as it may have been intended, was any better than my own form of nurturing, despite the fact that my kids felt they could “let loose” with us.

Then again, maybe that was the point. They could be themselves, warts and all. Yes, sometimes they’re monsters, but they are also our companions, on trips and in life. Like I said about our travel philosophy, sometimes my husband and I miss out on some things, but happen upon others. Our kids may at times be bitchy, whiny companions, to be sure, but they are our companions nevertheless. We’re buds, me and my crew. Which was why my husband and I spent almost two hours nursing some very overpriced Perriers while we waited for our offspring to bathe in the crowded shore at Cannes. Because that’s what friends do. They hold your drink while you dance.