"We're all together. This is supposed to be fun."
I would tell myself this every Saturday as I'd sit in the car with my husband and then-toddler, heading to whatever outing we had planned -- the aquarium, local fair or maybe a theme park. But as we'd shell out $15 for a parking spot blocks away, wait in long lines in the sun, and spend most of the morning calculating whether the kid should take a nap before or after our overpriced lunch, I'd feel so many feelings that were not enjoyment. Mainly distraction (I have so much other stuff to do this weekend), annoyance (Seriously, why are we subjecting ourselves to more sticky, whiny children?), and total exhaustion. Of course, at the end of the day, the three of us would pose for a cute photo next to the giant jellyfish and I'd post it to social media -- hashtag family time! -- thus contributing to the tyranny of the damn Family Day Out.
When I happened to pick up The Idle Parent: Why Laid-back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids at the library, it spoke to me in a way that no other parenting book has in a while. British author Tom Hodgkinson, who takes a strict leave-them-alone approach to raising children, writes about this problem as a problem -- a first-world one, sure -- but one that I feel contributes to an unhealthy push toward Instagram-perfect parenting.
There can be no more absurd invention of modern industrial society than the family day out. All week you have been stressed out at work, as you have tried to conform to someone else's idea of who you should be. You are tired, grumpy and guilty because you have hardly seen your children. It's time, you reflect, to give the kids a treat, do something together. I know! Let's chase some fun! Let's pile everyone into the car and join all the other desperate families at the local theme park! We can spend a pile of cash there and everything will be all right again!
Do you feel this? I feel this, and for a while, I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I do like my family, right? [Thinking ...] Yes. I do. And it isn't that we never have moments of fun and silliness during our Family Days Out, but I've found that it's usually just better when we're together at home. Family Movie Night, Family Game Night, Family Backyard Picnic, Family Sunday Morning of Absolutely Nothing -- all good, calm, lovely things. But Family Days Out usually result in more stress than joy.
Now, we do like to escape the cave sometimes, and Hodgkinson offers some solid advice for that: Split up.
My other important piece of advice when it comes to family days out is: split up. Any combination of family members -- any -- is easier, we find, than the five of us squeezed together in the metal box. In fact, any other combination tends to be a joy. I would far rather take the three of them on my own somewhere than go with all five of us. On my own, things can be easier: I do what I want. There is no one to argue with and no one to shuffle responsibility on to: the responsibility is all yours. This also has the added bonus of giving Victoria a break. For this reason, I am happy to look after the kids alone for three days, if V needs a rest or wants to go to visit friends. In some ways it's easier, because you give yourself up to the task fully, without half hoping that the other person is going to do the work. Then I can have three days alone at some other point. Constant breaks from each other are essential.
My daughter is four now, and my husband and I are masters in the art of relay parenting. On weekends, he might take her out in the morning, while I run some errands, and then we'll switch. We'll come together just before dinner and talk about our days. This lets my husband and I do the things that we each like to do and be fully present as we do it. He has fun taking our daughter to the local aeroplane museum (I have no interest), while I enjoy hiking with her to the beach to collect rocks (he hates the sand). And we both get a breather, too.
It works for now. In the choice between going big or going home, I am choosing the latter.