Childhood Ideals – Sometimes, We Just Need to Let Them Go
Me: “Hey kids, what do you think I was like as a child?”
Cassidy (7yo): “You had super red hair…”
Tye (5yo): “Correct.”
C: “I think you had a coo-coo personality.”
T: “You were beautiful and…”
C: “You got teased.”
T: “You were a good listener and a great adventurer and were feeling happy about those things.”
Growing up, I faced my fair share of challenges. In fact, those who know me well know that my family could’ve easily been featured on about a dozen different Jerry Springer episodes. If it’s been written about in a country song, my family went through it.
When making decisions about my own family now, I often do the exact opposite of what my parents would have done. If my kids are sick, I tend to them. They don’t wear keys around their necks, and they don’t make themselves dinner. I won’t ever miss one of their events, if I can help it. And if I say I’m going to be there, then I’ll be there. I shower them with “I love you’s” and I take time to answer their questions. I try to do the things I wish my parents would’ve done for me.
And yet, there is a nostalgia associated with childhood – even the broken ones – that is impossible to deny. Ideals that we formed when we were kids that cling to us into adulthood.
Right after Thanksgiving, for example, my dad, my brother and I would traipse out to a Christmas tree farm on the outskirts of Cleveland. My brother and I would complain about the cold and the snow, but we would run around trying to see who would find the perfect tree first. I always wanted a White Pine, though my brother preferred a tall, even Douglas Fir. Once we agreed on one, we’d cut it down and drag it back to the car, cold and numb from the hunt. Then, our house would have the unmistakable scent of Christmas for the next month.
This was ideal. Christmas, somehow, wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
Every year, I mourn the fact that my family has a fake tree. Because even a broken childhood has pieces that remain whole. Pieces that, way back when, held us together when the world around us was falling apart.
For me, vacations were one of those pieces. Not so much because we had all these Cleaver-family outings that bonded us, but because we could almost always count on my dad being manic rather than depressed when vacationing. He was so much kinder when he was manic.
Maybe my nostalgia was born from that kindness.
Either way, I’ve always equated family vacations with non-stop activities. Chaos.
For the past several years, my husband has wanted to take a beach vacation. He reminisces about his childhood family vacations with a fondness that’s foreign to me. He talks about playing on the beach for hours, body surfing, collecting shells, and fishing from the shore. He tells heartwarming, fantastic stories about the critters they’d catch, both in the ocean and on land. About the time his brother happened to catch a snook with his bare hands. Or when he hooked a seagull when casting his line.
I could listen to my husband talk about these vacations for hours. But the thought of taking one just like it was unsettling to me. Terrifying, even.
Sitting on the beach for 2 weeks? With a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old? But what would we DO? I mean, not that first day, probably… but once everyone was bored? Or what if it rained? Every day? What would we DO??
This past summer, my husband had finally hit a point with his work where he felt he could take away a full 2 weeks at once. I’m now a full-time mom and writer, so I, too, could take the time. This, my husband said, was the time for the vacation of his dreams. We were going to the beach, and we were going for 16 nights.
He couldn’t wait.
And I was skeptical, at best.
Greg refused to discuss any planned activities at all. The resort had a kid’s club – he didn’t want to hear about it. They had 3 pools at the opposite end of the resort from our cottage with slides – they held no interest for him. They had parasailing, jet skis, boat and dolphin tours… so much that I was excited about. For Greg, though, just talking about these activities created stress. He. Wanted. Nothing.
I knew from past experience that my emotional grip on childhood traditions was illogical. I hated the “go-go-go” of our Europe trip when I was 12. I hated the itineraries, the schedules, the tours… the stress that came with running late for all of it. I hated the tension felt by all when the RV or the boat broke down. Even traffic or long lines would dampen our spirits during a Cedar Point excursion, a favorite pastime of mine.
But just because I can manage chaos well doesn’t mean that it’s ideal.
In the past 16 years of marriage to my husband, I’ve begun to recognize that there’s magic in flexibility. The whole idea that it’s ok to wake up and not know what we’re going to do that day… it’s still strange to me, but it’s no longer unfamiliar. I don’t need to schedule every minute of every day. I can when I have to, and honestly, I operate a whole lot better than my husband when we do. But I’ve also learned how to kick back.
How to do nothing.
So I took a deep breath, I packed up our family, and I prepared to do just that.
For the first 5 days we were at the beach, we pretty much stuck to our plan. We had driven to Florida so we would have access to all of our beach and fishing gear, and we had gone grocery shopping before hitting the resort. Our counter was laughably full of a selection of bourbons, rums, wine bottles, spices, and oils.
Everyone UNWOUND. We settled into a little routine where Greg would make breakfast every morning while I did laundry. After eating, Greg would set up the beach tent, chairs, and miscellaneous goods while I put sunscreen on the kids. Then, we’d play.
For hours, we snorkeled. We collected shells. We fished. We found sand dollars which stained our fingers orange. We rode the waves on boogie boards. We made sand castles. We chased crabs and lizards. We fed the seagulls. We flew kites. We got up early to watch the sun rise. We stayed up late to watch it set.
We made memories in a way that I never dreamed was possible.
By scheduling nothing, we allowed ourselves to do everything that mattered.
We spent time together.
Then, about 5 days in, something else really cool happened. After watching the parasailers in the distance for a few days, my daughter finally commented.
“That looks fun,” she said. I grinned. “Tell that to your father,” I said. Then we both looked tentatively at Greg.
He smiled. “Well, maybe you and your mama can go on Friday.”
“REALLY? REALLY, DADDY?”
“Tye, do you want to go, too?” I asked.
“NO WAY,” he said flatly. “That looks scary to me.”
I looked sideways at Greg. “You sure you don’t mind? You’d have Tye on your own.” I felt the need to reiterate this, as our 6-year-old boy is a human hurricane.
“Nah, I think you guys would have fun. Go.” I looked at his smile, his relaxed stance, and I knew that he was fine with it.And just like that, we’d met in the middle.
When we marry, we enter into a lifelong commitment to compromise. I’m constantly asking myself, “Does this matter more to you, Shannon, or does it matter more to him?” If something is creating tension and it matters more to him, I let it go. If it matters more to me (at least in in my mind), I’ll fight for it. When planning this vacation, though, I couldn’t argue that it mattered more to me – because it didn’t. It mattered more to him, and I knew it.
But it required my willingness to let go first for us get there. I had to let go of the vision I’d always held as the ideal family vacation. I had to let go of my innate need to move. I had to let go of the idea that “things” have to happen for a family to have a good time.
So I let go. I gave him what he needed. And that, eventually, allowed him to give me what I needed, too.
Over the course of the next week+, we rented a golf cart and tooled around the resort almost every day. We went to the marina to visit the manatees, where between one and three were almost always hanging around the pipes, rejoicing in the fresh water that spilled into the lagoon. We went on a wristband treasure hunt, reading all sorts of tidbits about the island and its creatures along the way. Cassidy did a mermaid photo shoot, the highlight of the trip for her.
And two days before we left, the whole family went parasailing again. Since only 3 could go up at a time, Greg and the kids went up first. They spotted sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, flying fish, and an otter from the sky. I can only imagine the squeals of delight… from all 3 of them
As we packed to leave, I realized that this had, in fact, been the perfect family vacation. We’d left a tangled, stressed collection of people. But we were coming back a family.
The kind of family I always wanted to have when I was a kid.
And I can’t imagine anything more ideal than that.