Notes from a rough-start vacation

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You know your family had a good vacation when remnants of it stay with your kids long after you’ve come home.

In our case, we were eating dinner on our enclosed back porch the other night when Lily started singing several of the songs she’s learned at U-M’s Camp Michigania, near Petoskey. (The songs almost always begin, “This is a repeat-after-me song!” since the kids are often being marched to various areas of the camp). Neve joined in, singing the every-other-word or so that she remembered, and Joe and I provided back-up.

It was dorky fun, and made us all remember the week that the kids spent playing at the beach, making tie-dye shirts, and getting the occasional boat and horsey ride (plus, in Lily’s case, squeezing some archery and art projects in); Joe and I, meanwhile, spent the week napping, going for runs together, and reading (plus, in my case, attending daily yoga classes, trying archery, attending a late-night astronomy talk, and getting a massage). Ahhhh.

I so, so appreciate these trips to Michigania – we’ve gone annually these last 5 years – because what parents with small kids desperately want, more than anything, is a vacation from parenting.

But that’s like trying to escape yourself by way of travel. Guess what? You can’t ever really do that.

But you CAN hand your kiddos off for a few hours each morning and afternoon for one week while they happily play with other kids and counselors.

And that’s a glorious, glorious thing.

Here are a few notes, good and bad, from this year’s trip.

* Things get worse before they get better. The day before we do the 4 ½ hour drive up to camp, Joe and I take the day off to pack and run errands while the kids are off doing their activity/preschool thing. (After doing this for 5 years, we’re more efficient than we used to be, but it still takes all day.) One of the things we do is prepare a little car-trip bag of goodies for each of the girls – a new coloring book, some new markers or crayons, some goofy, squishy toys, etc.

This year, the girls, ages 6 and (at that point, just days away from) 3, played and looked at the stuff for a few minutes, then wanted to watch a “Wonder Woman” episode. OK. I set them up, but one set of earphones is kind of spotty. So I keep unbelting myself and torqueing my body toward the backseat – because if the earphones aren’t in the DVD screen’s immediate vicinity, they don’t work – to get the phones working again. I do. But then Neve says she “doesn’t like the bad guy.” This is a pretty regular refrain, and unfortunately, even the most lighthanded conflict in children’s entertainment involves some kind of “bad guy.” So I tell her that if she doesn’t want to watch for a while, she can take her headphones off.

She removes them and soon says she wants to roll down her window. We’re going about 80 on the highway, so we tell her she can’t because we’re going too fast. She says she wants to see the cars. “Sweetie, you can see the cars through your window. They’re transparent. That’s kind of the whole function of windows.” “Wonder Woman” ends and Lily comes up for air, only to start making the case for how her yellow squishy toy is preferable to Neve’s blue squishy toy. Neve takes the bait and gets angry. I intervene and consider committing hari-kari in the front passenger seat. Oh, dear God, are we there yet?

“How on earth did my parents do 22 hour car trips to Florida with 3 kids?” I ask Joe in wonder.

“I have no idea,” he says.

Neve tells us she has to go potty, and she’s pretty new to this diaper-less life, so we get off the highway. I turn to tell her, “We’ll find a place for you to go potty. It will just take a minute.”

Neve yells, as if irritated with us, “I don’t have to go potty!”

Of course. That makes perfect sense, given that you told us the opposite 2 minutes ago.

We somehow make it a bit further before stopping for lunch at a Wendy’s, where a line snaked out the door.

The kids sit at a table with Joe – who’s taking one for the team, following my stressful stint in the passenger seat – and I waited, and waited, and waited in a Disneyworld-esque queue. After I get our food, I arrive at the family table, where Joe is pleading with fidgeting, dancing Lily to go to the bathroom. She’s agitated, insisting she doesn’t need to go. (In Lily’s stubborn mind, until she’s on the verge of exploding, she doesn’t need to go potty. Period.)

Sigh. We all know exactly where this is going, and it’s nowhere good.

I shrug and say, “Let’s just sit and eat. What happens, happens.”

Just as I’ve distributed the food, Neve tells me that she needs to go potty. OK. I herd her across the restaurant, breaking through the still-endless line, and get her to the potty. Well, one of them won’t need to change clothes, anyway. We wash hands and head back, cutting through the line again.

I come back, and indeed, Lily’s is standing, looking tragic, and Joe’s gone. She has, indeed, had an accident, and Joe’s out getting wipes and clean clothes for her.

“Oh, Lily,” is all I can say.

I look at my food, knowing it will be a while before I will be eating any of it.

After Joe returns, I shuttle Lily off to the bathroom, saying “excuse me” as we cut through the line again, and as I get her changed, I wrack my brain as to what to say. We’ve said it all, and nothing works more effectively than anything else. So I’m just quiet. And Lily tries to explain herself.

“Sweetie, let’s just get you cleaned up and have some lunch. Let’s not talk about it right now. OK?”

We head back out to where Joe is scrubbing Lily’s seat with a baby wipe and drying it off with napkins. It’s the best we can do under the circumstances.

We all finally sit to eat when Neve says, “I need to go potty again.”

I give up. I set down my sandwich one more time and take her, cutting through the line once more.

When we return, Joe is munching on his salad with a sour, resigned expression of misery. “Hey, at least you’ve gotten to eat for a few minutes,” I think. But rather than grouse, I sit; I eat my long-neglected lunch; and I think about how it seems we had to be reminded of precisely why we needed the vacation before we could experience and appreciate it fully.

* I (didn’t) call top bunk! Lily was set on sleeping in a top bunk this year, and at first, Neve was too. But shortly after we arrived, and the girls were playing on the bunks, Neve’s guardrail just fell off (with a resounding CLANG!!!). Bad start.

Joe contacted the camp director about this, and a couple of guys were sent out the next day to fix it. Turns out the guardrail had been upside down, and Lily’s was, too, so they turned hers around. This resulted in a much lower barrier, but whatever. (Since Neve had just recently moved into a toddler bed from a crib, I said no-go on the top bunk, regardless of whether the guardrail was fixed.)

Cut to the wee, pitch-dark hours of the next morning, when we woke to Lily crying and screaming.

Joe and I rush into the kids’ room to find Lily coiled on the floor, between the bunks, hysterical. Neve was sleeping through this somehow, so Joe and I pulled Lily up and into our room. “Lily, what happened? Did you fall? Did you have a bad dream?” (Obviously, she fell, as I realized by the clear light of day the next morning. But when you’re jolted awake from a deep sleep, your capacity for deduction is greatly reduced.)

She couldn’t calm down or stop crying.

I held her in my lap and rocked her, trying again to ask what had happened. This seemed to agitate her more, and her crying got louder and more intense.

“Sweetie, please try and calm down, please,” Joe said.

“We can’t help unless you tell us what’s wrong,” I said.

“I don’t know!” she yelled, and I knew she was telling the truth.

A parent’s mind isn’t always rational, particularly in these circumstances, so I started imagining all sorts of worst case scenarios – something awful had happened to her that she couldn’t tell us about, but it haunted her dreams; or she was starting to suffer intense anxiety and night terrors; or she’d just suffered a concussion that would change all of our lives.

I combed through all possibilities as I encouraged her to lie down with me, which soon calmed her and led her back to sleep. I was suddenly wide awake and paranoid, of course, but hearing her breathing deeply next to me had its own therapeutic effect.

In the morning, she complained about her head hurting, and when I reached out and lightly touched her head to detect a bump, she screamed. She was a bit listless, not quite herself, but then we took her to breakfast. This perked her up, and she wanted to go off with her group, so we let her, alerting the counselors to watch her carefully.

We picked her up a bit early, and she was tired, so we let her nap a bit. But after that, she had lunch and was her old peppy, happy self, for the most part, so we started to breathe a little easier. We’d apparently escaped with nothing more than a bump on the noggin – thank goodness.

But the whole experience get me thinking, “Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to put a kid’s bed 6 feet in the air?!”

* Active or inactive vacation? That is the question. In the past, I’ve done nothing at Michigania but read, sleep, and go for an occasional swim or run with Joe. This year – perhaps since the kids are a little older, and we’ve thus been able to sleep through the night regularly for some time now – I tried archery; the Michigania Mile; and I went to a yoga class every day.

Frankly, I didn’t know whether I’d do that, if given the chance. But the answer, apparently, is yes. Some classes felt better than others, and I preferred one instructor over the other; but generally, one of the best things about yoga is the way it forces you to focus on the present, and that’s something I really, really wanted to do while on this laptop- and gadget-free vacation.

So for the first time ever, I earned 2 marks on my Michigania name badge. One for hitting a bullseye at the archery field; and an “Om” for attending 3 or more yoga classes. Made me feel all Girl Scout-y again.

* Ever heard Carol Burnett belt out the song “I’m Shy”? Lily’s like that. In the days leading up to our trip, Lily confessed to feeling nervous about not knowing anyone at Michigania. Hmmm.

Coming from anyone else, I’d sympathize – but when Lily says something like this, I’m more inclined to roll my eyes. It’s as though she’s heard others, or characters in books say this, and she’s playing a role; because this is what really happens when Lily’s introduced into a new group and a new setting.

By our third day at camp, Lily arranged for a post-dinner playdate with a boy in her group, and the following day, she had a sleepover with a girl her age that she’d become tight friends with. (In a weird coincidence, the girl was the daughter of a woman who’d been a classmate of Joe’s throughout his childhood.) So if anyone reading this ever hears Lily express nervousness about meeting people – um – don’t worry. I’m pretty sure she’ll muddle through somehow.

* Having dependents on Independence Day. This year, the 4th of July fell near the end of our vacation week, on Friday, and we’d planned to let Lily stay up and watch the fireworks that night.

But on Thursday night, after Neve collapsed from exhaustion, we all heard a series of booms across the lake that suggested a full-out show was underway.

A handful of us padded through the dark to a nearby gazebo to watch the colored explosions in the sky, and soon, everyone from the 3 families in our cabin (except Neve) were huddled together, watching the fireworks.

Then one of the guys said, “So do you want me to go back in case Neve wakes up?”

I’d been thinking about this the whole time I’d been standing there, of course. There’s no “off” position on the Mommy switch. I’d thought, “I’d hear it if she cried out, right? The windows are open. And it’s not that far away, is it?”

The analysis had been deliberately slow as I angled to linger, and see more, despite knowing I’d have to head back and miss out.

They’re just fireworks, though, right? I mean, how many times have I seen fireworks in my life? A lot.

Yet as I turned and said, “Yeah, we’re bad parents,” and eschewed Joe’s offer to go in my place, I felt a pang of sadness. Why? I wondered. Again, they’re just fireworks. You see them after a random Tigers game now. They’re not that rare anymore, and I’m not 6 anymore, either.

But it was just one of those passing moments when you feel that all these things are happening around you, yet you must stay in your confined parenting bubble. Yes, one day, you’ll have a all-access pass to the world again, but it won’t be for a long while yet, and sometimes, you inevitably push and strain against your limits. And yes, you’ll occasionally feel bummed out by them.

The sense grew when, 10 minutes later, Joe returned to the cabin to take a shift so that I could go out and watch for a while. I went to the gazebo just as the others turned to head back to the cabin, too, having gotten their fill.

So I stood by myself in the gazebo, now feeling kind of pathetic for watching this loud, bursting finale all alone. When the booms stopped, I heard music coming from the camp, and I decided to follow the sound.

I’d heard about a couple of guys who played music on their porch at night, and I’d remembered them from the previous year, too. (At the camp’s end-of-the-week, adults-only talent show, the duo had done a parody of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” wherein they suggested that that’s what happened after parents dropped the little ones off at kids’ camp.) I strolled toward their cabin, where a couple of dozen people stood around the porch, having drinks, chatting, and listening. I didn’t know anyone, but it didn’t matter. I just wanted to hear the music, and get a small taste of having this kind of experience once again.

Yes, my job affords me more chances than most parents have to get out and see shows and talk to some really intriguing people – sometimes writers or performers I greatly admire. I appreciate this, I’m thankful for this.

But that doesn’t mean that saying “no,” week after week, to after-work happy hours, recreational sports, dinners, classes and workshops, girls’ nights out, concerts, bookstore readings, etc. comes more easily.

I do it, though. And I don’t obsess over it or resent my family in the least. I made the decision to have children very carefully, when I felt ready to make the sacrifices I knew would be necessary.

Yet in some moments – like when you wish your husband could join you under the stars to listen to a couple of guys play music on a porch, or maybe even dance with you – you inevitably yearn for a little more freedom than you have.

* Neve’s excellent adventure. Though she was a few days shy of being 3, we nudged the counselors of the 3 and 4 year olds to take Neve on, and she did have a ball grooming the horses, going for boat rides, visiting the camp’s “Cookie Man,” playing at the beach, etc. But taking an afternoon nap is just now in her rearview, so after going all day every day, by Thursday, she was konking out by dinner.

At this point, you play the parenting version of Russian roulette: do we wake her, or do we roll the dice and see if she’ll sleep through the night?

Not wanting to take chances, we woke her, and she was surly and sleepy until we put her to bed the usual way. Poor little thing. But again, until she hit that wall, she was in heaven – as evidenced by the fact that when I told her we had to go back home and take care of Pumpkins, our cat, she suggested that someone bring him up to us; and when we did drive home, she entered the house, burst into tears and said, “I don’t want to be home. I want another cabin!”

I feel ya, kiddo. I really, really do.

The thing is, 3 year olds can’t wrap their heads around the concept of a vacation. To Neve, sharing a large, 3-family cabin with Mom and Dad’s college friends and their kids, while other people prepared our meals and washed our dishes in a special building, was simply Neve’s new reality. As far as she could tell, from this point on, our lives would always be like this – a natural wonderland (with an occasional unicorn sighting) where everything is done for us, and where we always travel where we need or want to go on foot.

I mean, she’d adjusted to and embraced this brand new life. Why were we insisting, at week’s end, that she let it go?

Because the sad descent back to reality – unpacking, picking up the cat from his “pet hotel,” doing laundry, paying bills – is hard but necessary.

But, hey, we can keep singing camp songs occasionally at dinner, and thus briefly re-visit our happy place, little one, until we get to go once more.

I’m looking forward to it already.

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