Photo: deathtothestockphoto.com

This time of year always finds me itching for an escape. The regular routine of our life together seems to drone on endlessly. Check the school folders, take out the recycling, walk the dog; wash, rinse and repeat. The weather is warming just enough to make me ache for long sunny days and warm breezes, and I find myself irrationally angry at any dip in the temperature.

I’m longing for a vacation.

Vacations in my early years meant spring break cross-country trips with my girlfriends, flopping on friends’ floors and renting manual shift cars to save money and maximize time spent on the beach. As I built my career and bank account, our destinations became progressively more exotic, our drinks frostier. Over the years, partners joined us on our escapades, applying our sunscreen and teeing off on the golf course during our mani-pedis.

When I married and had children, the travel remained, but the focus shifted. The palm trees swayed above us in endless lines at crowded theme parks, and the warm breezes off the ocean blew sand onto the sippy cups.

Our vacations had turned into trips.

Vacations are for relaxing and recharging. Vacations inspire new ideas and strengthen connections. Trips take your usual show on the road. If you are doing the same thing you do at home, just in a new location, you are on a trip.

Parents are often hard-pressed to take a vacation. They may rent a beach house, or a cabin in the mountains, but those weeks away involve cooking dinner, threatening to pull-over-if-you-do-that-one-more-time-goshdarnit, and reading bedtime stories. Bottom line? If the children come, the long-awaited vacation becomes a trip.

Trips are troublesome.

Trips involve logistics and planning. Trips are expensive. Trips require changes in routine, and changes in family routine often spark discomfort. Trips don’t result in relaxation or recharging. Trips result in frayed nerves, high credit card bills, and stony silent drives home.

Trips are often fun for kids and no fun for adults. More than once, my husband Gabe and I have returned home happy to be alive and with our marriage mostly intact.

The good news is we’ve finally figured trips out.

Over the years, we’ve developed a handful of strategies to cope with troublesome trips and even the score between trips and vacations.

We adjust our expectations: Whether that be our expectations of the trip itself or the people on the trip with us, we often consciously talk about what success means before we leave our driveway. If I am dreaming aloud about blissful days spent in the botanical gardens with our half-dozen monkeys, Gabe gently reminds me that the crew’s limit for learning is about two hours. By ensuring that we are realistic about the time we’re about to invest in our family, we avoid disappointment later.

We abandon the shoulds: For a long time, we thought a family trip should be a week-long. We thought all members of the family should travel together. Those preconceived ideas added pressure and raised our expectations. Abandoning the shoulds and focusing on what works for our family freed us to enjoy each other. This summer, we’ll take several small trips with our blended bunch instead of one big one. Gabe recently traveled with his children alone. That’s the rhythm that works for us now, and we embrace it wholeheartedly.

We focus on the big picture: Trips have a purpose. We build our family culture on trips, making memories and deepening our shared experience. The kids learn about new places and often cooperate in ways they avoid at home. It’s okay if a trip takes our regular show on the road because the road has lots to offer.

We plan an annual adults-only vacation: After arriving home from one too many stressful stepfamily trips, strung out and barely speaking, Gabe and I made a decision. Once a year, the two of us would take a vacation, a real vacation. Alone. It may be the single best decision we’ve made in our marriage.

We’re headed off into the warm breezes next week. The eight of us are packing the RV and hitting the road for our spring camping trip. The school calendar says Spring Break Vacation.

I know better.

And I’m ready for our trip.