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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

The End of Family Vacation

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Last summer, we went to New Mexico for a week, to spend time with my extended family. On the first day, Henry’s ear buds broke and we spend fully a third of the week trying to find a replacement pair that sounded exactly the same. This meant driving to a Best Buy store that was nowhere near where we were staying — twice. It meant managing the nightly panic attacks Henry had about how he was going to survive the drive back to Oklahoma City without his music. It meant borrowing a car from my parents so that we could split up during the day and give Henry a chance to unwind and recover.

It was not fun. At all.

We went in to that vacation thinking we had it all figured out. The summer before, we’d gone to Colorado with Wade’s family and had managed to have a fairly pleasant week. We’d planned lots of activities to keep everyone busy and built in lots of down time for Henry, to let him recover. The trip was a success, but it wasn’t at all what I would think of as a “vacation.”

In fact, it was kind of a beating.

When my kids were little, my friends used to joke that traveling with children was never really a vacation; it was a trip. Taking small people on the road is a lot of work — the packing and unpacking, the sleep deprivation, the new foods. But eventually, those little kids turn into big kids and travel gets to be fun and being away from home is restful and relaxing. A vacation, in fact! Right?

Not always.

Charlie is a good traveler; he can sleep anywhere and he will eat anything and he’s up for every adventure you propose. He likes the mountains and the beach, he loves museums and sporting events, he’s happy get his shoes on and go or just hang out and visit. Whatever you’ve got planned, he’s in. Every time.

Henry is — not surprisingly — a terrible traveler. Vacations come with too many variables for him. He never sleeps well and it’s a struggle to find things he will eat and while he’s enthusiastic about the idea of the activities, there are very few things that really hold his attention. His anxiety makes him edgy and unpleasant, and every vacation ends with a sad apology for being so stressed out.

After the trip to New Mexico, I told Wade that I was done with family vacations. Finished! Not doing that ever again! I cannot remember one time in the last five years when we have gone away as a family and it has not been stressful and exhausting. In 2008 we spend a week in Galveston, at the beach, and it was super fun. Since then, it’s been all downhill.

No more vacations for us. Not as a family, at least.

Next week is the boys’ Spring Break; Charlie and I are going to St. Louis for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament — just the two of us. Wade and Henry are staying home; they have a big weekend of movies and German food and video games planned. And honestly, I’m not sure who’s more excited, Henry or Charlie. They’re both getting their perfect vacation.

When I started planning this trip with Charlie, I worried that Henry would feel left out, that he would be angry that we were going to St. Louis without him, that Charlie was getting to spend four days with his cousins. I thought and thought about the best way to tell Henry about our plans. I tried to guess what would upset him the most — the fact that we were flying? the idea that Charlie would be with the girls? I braced myself for the inevitable outburst when he found out.

And then one night when we were having dinner alone (because Charlie and Wade were at basketball practice), I said, “Charlie and I are going to St. Louis for the basketball tournament. You and Dad should think about some fun things to do here while we’re gone.” And I offered to take him to New Mexico, by himself, this summer. “We’d have to fly,” I told him, “because it’s a long drive.”

“Maybe,” he said. “I’ll think about it.” And then he looked at me and said, “But what would we do in Albuquerque? And where would we stay?”

“I don’ know,” I told him, “we can think about it.”

He nodded. “Ok. Maybe.” And that was the end of it.

One of the hardest things to accept about Henry’s issues has been the way in which his anxiety cuts him off from trying new things. We’re starting to find ways to keep Henry protected and push Charlie out of the nest, at the exact same time, but it’s hard. Specifically it has meant giving up the idea that we will do things as a family — or at least that we will do big things. Instead, we make a point of having family dinner, in the dining room, as often as possible. We all pile into the game room at night to read together. We go to the movies or out for donuts. None of these things is even remotely like a vacation, but if the goal is to spend restful, relaxing time together as a family, this is a close as we get.

I see more one-on-one trips with the boys in our future. Charlie wants to go to Washington DC and the beach and Paris; Henry wants to play laser tag and see “Divergent” on opening day. It’s not at all the same thing, but it’s a way to connect with each of them, to share a little of their world. I’m looking forward to my five days in St. Louis with Charlie, and I’m hoping I can talk Henry into a long weekend at my parent’s house this summer, but I really do think that we are done with the big family vacation. Forever.

Have you given anything up to accommodate a child? Or are there some things — like vacations — that you just make work for everyone?

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