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Family Memories: The Stress of Our Perfectly Imperfect Family Vacations

I had big plans for that wagon.

Oh, it was going to accompany me and my two toddlers on magical discovery trips along well-paved nature trails. The back compartment was for the picnic lunches we’d pack. Once there, we’d sit on a blanket, gloriously sharing our cheese crackers and juice boxes, while creating one more Perfect Family Memory.

But the kids hated it. Never liked it, in fact. Today, I can’t drive past a certain neighborhood corner without reminiscing about our virgin outing. There was some discussion about who wanted to pull the wagon. The discussion turned heated. (Oh, all right, there was some toddler hitting, thrashing, and crying.)  So I turned back home, head down, questioning my parenting skills for the 1026th time. That month.

Now that my children are teens, empty nest not far away, I think about all the other wagons we have encountered along the way – those early plans we made for our family that we were sure would help make us The Perfect Family.

Perfectly Imperfect Family Trip

Disney World 2001. Surely the molding of a Perfect Family includes this on the must-do list, even though this particular adventure to me is akin to Tom Hank’s enjoyable experience in the movie Cast Away. Crowds, lines, and amusement park rides top my list of Things I Detest. But I was fully prepared to suck all that up in order to create a Perfect Family Memory.

Any mother who has ever planned this trip should be awarded Travel Agent of the Year award by the time they interview, Google search, plot, and make the 6 a.m. call a year in advance to share pancakes with Cinderella. And, in 2001, the trip would not have been complete without the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue.

Here is where I failed miserably. Because the only available spot for the rollicking-family-fun-wild-western dinner party was the late 9:30 p.m. show. I signed us up anyway.

So, off we went. In the first few days, we managed to cross everything nicely off the itinerary. The kids were smiling. Life was good. We were on our way to excluding one more story from a future therapist’s couch.

Then came the long-awaited day of the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue! But, oh, I was ready. Start the day early at Animal Kingdom, exhaust them, let them nap, and off we’d go watch semi-talented East Coast college students pretend to be 1950s ranchers.

Sure there were monsoon-like rains at a very crowded Animal Kingdom. No matter, because I was sucking up my intense dislikes and consulting my itinerary! Upon return, I calmly put the kids down for their naps, started laundry, and silently congratulated myself on my mothering skills on the way to our Perfect Family Memory of the Wild West extravaganza.

Until my husband uttered his famous words that will forever be part of our family’s folklore.

“You aren’t going to wash the whites?”

I remember that I was folding fresh clothes feeling smug about how this was going, despite wet hair and fog-filled eyeglasses from our day at Animal Kingdom. When he uttered those words, some of the factory-installed springs inside my body upon creation, well, sprung. Big time. Apparently I sucked at sucking it up.

There was some hyperventilating on the other side of the closed bathroom door. Lots of tears. And apologies. I think we even had to tell the kids that mommy was ill, because the –uhh, disturbance – woke them. They were no longer going to be well-rested for the perfectly planned evening.

If you look through our photo collection from that trip, you will find the 5 x 7 family photo (of course they sold photos!) of us as we entered the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue. Look closer as we smiled broadly, you will see my red-rimmed swollen eyes and a smudge of mascara that could easily be mistaken for a Cindy Crawford mole.

How many other pre-navigated roads for our families turn into something other than planned? Sometimes the detour is exactly what makes them more permanently etched on our hearts. When I reflect on my plans for creating Perfect Family Memories, I realize it’s the events I didn’t plan that have shaped us most.

Today, the wagon is filthy, parked at the side of the house. It has become our family’s makeshift wheelbarrow. (Turns out the kids have always wanted to pull their own wagons). And we can’t reminisce about our Disney World journey without laughing about mom’s little, umm, diversion.

As a mom of teens on the verge of leaving my nest, I see barely played musical instruments tucked away in the attic and athletic equipment for sports they never liked. I notice unread books I chose for them that are gathering dust on shelves — especially Little Women. which my daughter and I never got around to reading together. These glaringly represent unfinished works and make me wistfully yearn for a do-over. But when I set my gaze on the young adults they have become, I realize there was much that did get done.

“Life is what happens when you are busy making plans,” is a quote that has been attributed to many wise people. May we all recognize that for our families as we map out future roads and beyond.

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