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Postcards From the Edge: the Case for the Family Vacation

For those who can survive the family trip as full-grown adults, unexpected charms ensue

Upon reaching a certain age—let’s say, 30—a lot of things that you had never imagined happening become all too real. Some are pleasant surprises: finding the perfect loft for you, your boyfriend and your hairless cat; managing to stay gainfully employed in media for nearly a decade. Some are less pleasant: sleeping on the same full mattress you’ve had since graduating college; scrounging leftover change from coat pockets to buy a loose cigarette or two. And others, like choosing to spend a week traveling with your parents and grown siblings, would seem downright unbelievable were it not for the hundreds of iPhone photos documenting your reenactment of a favorite National Lampoon’s plot. 

Like many adults of a certain age, I believed my family’s days of traveling as a core fivesome had run their course years ago. It seemed we outgrew the tradition on a 2009 visit to Paris when, quite literally, we went in different directions: my parents toward their churches (Sacré-Cœur and Notre-Dame), I toward mine (Colette and Ladurée) and my siblings toward whichever wouldn’t create a further rift. In the following years, my mom and dad began to take trips as a couple (as empty nesters do) and my brother, sister and I chose to travel with our significant others or friends (as independent twentysomethings do). But a 2015 pilgrimage to our homeland of Italy—during which we road-tripped Griswold-style from Lake Como to Venice to Florence to Siena to Cinque Terre in a rented van—resurrected our custom of traveling en famille. Every year since, much to my surprise, we’ve made the time to do it again. 

The majority of Americans have a finite number of vacation days, and medicated or not, the simple act of traveling from one place to another can be riddled with frustrations. As a result, most adults are inclined to keep holidays as stress free as possible—which typically means they don’t travel with family. A lot of people react with shock to the idea of our family vacations, particularly when they learn that neither my siblings nor I—all of whom are in serious relationships—travel with significant-others-as-buffers (my parents’ friends, all of whom have grown children of their own, are especially surprised). I myself am often among the non-believers; I vividly can recall thinking “never again” at the end of each of our last few trips. 

Don’t get me wrong: The itineraries themselves are spectacular, and the fact that my parents want to subsidize their grown children’s ability to see the world is not lost on me. We genuinely have a lot of fun together and, as my mom and dad approach their sixties, their zest for adventure and living life to the fullest is infectious, even to this jaded New Yorker. But psychologically, the trips can be exhausting. Awkward parent-child dynamics tend to creep back to the fore, and innocuous decisions my siblings and I make every day—from what to wear to where to sleep—are no longer our exclusive jurisdiction with our parents back in the picture. 

Take our recent trek to Arizona this spring. Before a planned bike tour of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, I neglected to pack the appropriate headgear for temperatures at 6,800-plus feet above sea level in March. My mother, of course, insisted on buying me a souvenir hat to wear under my helmet. I assured her I would be fine—I was raised in upstate New York after all—but each time I thought the matter was resolved, she brought it up again. She couldn’t help herself, and neither could I; it recalled the tiffs we had over what I would wear to Sunday mass as a kid, the main difference being that I now had years—decades, in fact—of experience dressing myself appropriately. Ultimately, we compromised and I agreed to borrow my sister’s pom-pom-adorned beanie. While I can’t say my protected ears allowed me to better enjoy the scenery, I’d like to think they allowed my mom to.  

Throughout the trip, which included a stay in Sedona, the accommodations for all five of us consisted of no more than two bedrooms at any given time. This would have been ample space for several children, but it was not nearly what my siblings and I were used to inhabiting after living on our own for close to a decade. And frankly, it was pretty tight quarters for any five adults, related or not, traveling with at least two pieces of luggage each. Inevitably, one of us had to sleep beside or within earshot of our parents, and close quarters take their toll. 

But for every moment of discord, there are moments of deeper connection. Even though my family talks daily (our group text moves at an alarming rate), I’ve found that the trips give us a unique opportunity to re-forge the bonds that only come from time spent under one roof—even if it’s just for a few days at a time. A perennial topic of conversation on our vacations is how they’re unsustainable: The time will come when marriage or children will prevent one of my siblings or me from separating from the new families we’ve started on our own. This knowledge outlasts any personal frustrations lingering after the trips and ultimately drives me to make new ones a priority. Yes, we bicker, and yes, we roll our eyes each time my mom whips out her tripod to take a family portrait in a public place. But the fact that we can pick up and travel is a luxury. And the fact that we continue to choose to do so together is rarer still. 

Main image: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

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