If you have ever taken a family vacation with a small human (or with several small humans), you may understand me when I say that the real relief of vacationing, that “deep-sigh, hair-down, sun-on-your-face, first sip of an ice-cold drink relief” that accompanied family vacations pre-parenthood, doesn’t quite hit you until the trip is over. That type of relaxation comes when you have blessedly returned to your home and are on your couch, unpacked and back in your routine.

After all, when you’re in the early years of parenting, routines are lifeblood, and what is vacation but a break in routine? I don’t know about you, but for me, a break in routine doesn’t sound relaxing in the least.

I don’t mean to be a Debby Downer. Family trips with littles obviously have positive aspects. Your children’s first vacations to Grandpa and Grandma’s house or to the mountains or to the ocean are replete with living moments. You use your iPhone to capture images of your child playing in the sand with his great granddad, fishing with his uncle, dancing at his aunt’s wedding, or baking cookies with Grandma. All of that is magic.

However, vacationing with young children is also filled with frustrating moments. The kids are over-sugared, overstimulated, over-sunned, overstuffed, and off schedule. Naps are short and nights end promptly with the early summer sunrise. Especially because you forgot to pack the blackout shades, and retired relatives are up and at ’em early, puttering in the kitchen, making coffee, and baking the scones from scratch.

On the one hand, the scent of the beach house, the coffee, and the scones is lodged in your childhood memory like a hallmark of growing up. On the other hand it is so early.

So. Very. Early.

The day stretches out in front of you, as far as the ocean outside, endless, murky, and deep.

Vacationing with toddlers is all about uncovering the answers: Why are we doing this again? How do I fill these hours away from our neighborhood playground? How do I make all the memories? How do I not disappoint family members who want to spend time with my very clingy, very stubborn, mommy-focused child? How do I ignore my relative’s well-meaning but ultimately misguided comments on my son’s behavior, tantrums, sleep schedule, and eating habits?

Also, who the hell keeps buying chips and cookies and sodas and leaving them in plain sight on the kitchen counter? Don’t they remember the cardinal rules of living with toddlers: avoid power struggles and distract, distract, distract?

In addition to all of the noise, stress, and questions, there are other things too. There’s your parents, relatives, and grandparents remembering their own early days of parenting, They reminisce about those sweet days when their own children were screaming and dreaming in diapers. They’re also secretly high-fiving one another (when they think you aren’t looking) for getting through it. Family vacations with young children means watching the adults that helped raise you celebrate crossing the finish line of the great parenting race. You watch as they genuinely enjoy their adult children.

My father-in-law tells me that he enjoys his adult children and grandchildren so much that he sometimes wishes he and his wife had had more children. They have four. Four. As a mother of one precocious and independent two-year-old, having four children sounds baffling.

I am in absolute awe of my in-laws’ ability to raise four wonderful children, own and manage a successful business, and hold it all together. I can’t even fathom the sheer number of meals prepared. Yet now, in these later days of life, their early efforts are rewarded over and over again with a full dinner table at holidays, birthdays, graduations, and vacations. I watch as my father-in-law raises a glass to his adult children. He toasts to all of our blessings and to making it through, and to loving one another over the years and into the future. I imagine the days of vacationing with his young children seem so far away, and also so near to his heart.

I’m convinced that all of the early mornings, long days, and over-sugared, over stimulated toddler tantrums are worth it because, ultimately, they are a gift. They are a gift that we give to our children, but also to our parents, to our relatives, and to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be home, but getting off schedule and away from our routine was worth it. In 30 years, I hope I will look back at the pictures and remember these endless days with fondness. If I’m lucky, it will all be so sweet that I’ll wish for more of it. More early mornings, more sun, more sand, more water, more long car rides, more little moments, and more blessings.

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Featured Photo Courtesy: Pamela Savage