The biggest disadvantage of having three kids covering a seven-year age span is that it is virtually impossible to find a family activity that makes everyone happy. Movie night, for instance, means either the 9-year-old hides her eyes during Pulp Fiction or we all have to sit through Beverly Hills Chihuahua. When the kids were younger, I got around this little unforeseen glitch in family planning by instigating something called “Mandatory Fun.” I must have read about it in a parenting magazine, but it meant that the five of us took turns choosing an activity each weekend and no one was allowed to utter a single complaint–even if it meant spending a beautiful Saturday inside Chuck E. Cheese–because your turn was coming up soon. It worked beautifully for awhile, at least until our weekends started getting overrun with sports and birthday parties.
My husband and I also realized early on that the best way to survive family vacations was to avoid them altogether. We started going away with friends even before our third child was born. The first time I was nervous: we rented a house on the Jersey Shore with friends we loved but didn’t know terribly well and their three young daughters, who ate a lot of Cap’n Crunch. And though my kids–then six and two–discovered the joys of chocolate milk that week, I didn’t anticipate how much being with another family would divert them from whining, fighting and demanding I play Legos. I remember enjoying a glass of wine on the deck with the other grown-ups, listening to the five kids giggle away as they choreographed a new dance, and thinking, “I am never going away without friends again!”
Mostly, we haven’t. I worry, occasionally, that this means there is something wrong with us. But mostly I rationalize it by convincing myself that we’re still together–just not alone together–and that fun with other people is definitely healthier than dysfunction on our own.
The wisdom of this vacation philosophy became abundantly clear during Hurricane Irene. We spent the storm marooned with some dear friends on the Martha’s Vineyard island of Chappaquiddick after the Coast Guard canceled all ferries from Edgartown. We had a marvelous time. Though the wind howled alarmingly at moments, we didn’t get much rain and never lost power; the sun even peeked through now and again. Ten of us–six children and four adults–spent 36 hours alone together in the house. We ate well, read, held a core-exercise class, did jigsaw puzzles, watched episodes of “Glee” and played board games. The kids, in ever-changing combinations, played Monopoly, poker, penguin bowling, and “store.” They hit golf balls and attempted “trash bag sailing” on the giant gusts of wind. The two big girls teamed up in an online quiz to name the top 200 most mentioned Harry Potter characters. No one fought. No one cried. The only arguing came between siblings or spouses during heated rounds of Bananagrams and Pictionary. (“Money check? Money check?? What the hell is a money check?” my husband yelled at me when I couldn’t come up with “Paycheck” in time.) In fact, at several points during the day, different people remarked, “I love hurricanes!” or “This is the best hurricane ever!”
I couldn’t help but think if we hadn’t been with our friends, Irene would have been just the beginning of our vacation’s violent storms.