“It was a great trip!”

It was NOT a great trip. It had some great moments. But it was not the “great trip” I had imagined. Yet, seconds after we dropped off my sister and her three children at their home before the remaining six of us – mother and five children – returned to our own house, my children exclaimed: “It was a great trip!” They then proceeded to name individual parts of the trip – sights we’d seen – that appealed to each child the most. Each wished we had stayed longer at one or another place, and they asked if we could return soon to do and see more.

I could not believe what I was hearing. After driving 3133 miles in 13 days, from Atlanta to the Canadian border in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and back, with ten people in our 12-passenger van, they wanted MORE! Believe me: it had been stressful for the two mothers. Okay, it had been wonderful to spend that much time with my sister, but our children kept us occupied with conflict negotiation and battle break-ups for the entire trip. I can count on one hand the number of times everyone was happy AT THE SAME TIME.

Let me back up and set the stage. The Falcos are travelers. One of my goals in parenting has been to take our children to as many places in the United States as possible before they graduate from high school. We’ve been to California, New York, and the Grand Canyon. We’ve traveled the Southeast and some of the Midwest. We’ve been to Denver and the Black Hills of South Dakota. But we had never been to the Great Lakes.

My sister’s family, on the other hand, has not – historically – traveled far from home. They go to the beach, church camping trips, and soccer tournaments. My sister is my best friend – after John – so I thought: “Let’s plan a trip for the Falcos and take my sister’s family with us.” My lofty goal in the beginning was a month-long adventure that would include Yellowstone Park where we traveled in a RV. Six months ago (or more) I began my research. RVs that could accommodate 10 people were astronomically expensive. Plan Two: We could take our two vans. Then it occurred to me that my sister and I would be traveling without adult companionship and conversation. (Our husbands would be working and not going on the trip.) Plan Three: Taking one van would save half the gas money and give us the opportunity to share driving.

My sister – a novice at long trips – quickly nixed the month-long idea. Being away from home for that long made her too nervous. I suggested three weeks. Actually, she said, she was comfortable with a two-week trip.

Where could we go that the Falcos had not already been in two weeks? The Great Lakes! I began the planning process to get us to as many of the 5 lakes as possible in 2 weeks. It would be 4: Michigan, Superior, Huron, and Erie. (Ontario was too far east.) The timing of the trip continued to change, but we finally set a date.

The AAA Triptik is a wonder. I can’t tell you how much time I spent plotting and re-plotting our route using the AAA travel books to point us to recommended attractions in cities along the way. Once I had a plan, I sent it along to my sister and asked for input. I called a meeting of the travelers: 2 mothers and 8 children. I gave them my proposal and asked for feedback. My sister was interested in national parks. My oldest daughter seemed interested in seeing universities. My 15-year-old son liked cars and war history. My 13-year-old wanted to see stuff related to animals. My 11-year-old asked about water parks and swimming. My nephew wanted to see the largest mall on our route. My niece wanted to go to wax museums. Hmmm. My inclination, as a student of history, is always to look for interesting historical sights. I went back to the drawing board and did some re-planning based on the feedback. Once I was done, I believed I had found something for everyone. We would have to push ourselves to see it all in 2 weeks.

Parents are idiots. We keep hoping for the best when the cards are stacked against us. My children don’t get along with each other. Yet, I was hoping they would not only get along with each other but also get along with their three similar-aged cousins – cousins with whom they had never traveled for long distances in tight quarters.

It is not my intent to name names and embarrass individuals, but I do want to tell you about some of the conflicts – OR the conflicts as I perceived them. Indeed, perception was part of the problem. Each family and each individual in each family took their own way of seeing and experiencing the world with them. As I’ve already indicated, my goal is to learn as much about our country and its history as possible. I like exploration and adventure. But I’m also a stickler for organization and keeping to a schedule. My discomfort arose when there was grumbling about seeing some wonderful sight on my plan, when we got behind in our travels, or when there was shopping involved. Shopping. Why had I not considered my sister’s interest in shopping? – an interest she had cultivated in her children as well. I shop out of necessity. My sister shops for bargains and because she enjoys it. She is great at it. But shopping at every stop had not been factored into “my plan.”

There were also parenting issues that affected everyone. I don’t think my parenting style is much different than my sister’s parenting style. (She might disagree.) But I do think my children are wilder, more demanding, and less compliant than hers are by nature. If I was a tougher parent, if my children were frightened of my punishments, my children might be better behaved. But I’m not as effective an authority figure as I’d like to be. It became clear over time that I did not have control over my brood. This caused lots of cousin bickering and misunderstanding. We changed seating arrangements. We had family discussions and meltdowns. No one was perfectly behaved and feelings got hurt.

Skye’s and Becton’s unwillingness to respond appropriately to my requests, and Journey’s whining were aggravating. Emily’s staunch adherence to her view in the face of other opinions caused problems. K.J., for his part, defected to his cousins’ family and sided with them in every conflict. With respect to the latter phenomenon, my feelings were hurt. I guess I’ve grown accustomed to – though not happy about — the no saying, whining, and defiance. What I was not prepared for at all was my son’s disowning of his family.

We had divided the traveling group into a boys’ room (with my sister) and a girls’ room (with me). Once I became acutely concerned about K.J.’s defection, we decided to divide the hotel rooms by family. That first night was painful. K.J. did not want to be with us. He declared his hatred of everyone in the family and started to storm out of the room. I would not let him go. I asked him to stay and talk it out. Through his tears and angry words, he shared his misery. Becton – the singer/dancer, wild boy – was not like the male cousins who would play ball and other games, read comics, and fart or shoot Nerf guns with him. The female cousin was protective of him over against his louder, opinionated sisters. I told K.J. that I understood why he would choose them over us; and I didn’t want to take him away from his cousins. BUT, somehow, he had to remain a part of our family and keep trying to include his little brother in the activities of the boys. K.J. had experience with Becton that the cousins did not. He could be an interpreter and helper to Becton. Emily, Skye, and Journey all expressed their frustrations with K.J. and with each other. The airing of grievances was cathartic. All our issues with each other were not resolved, but we collectively agreed to keep trying to hear each other and to make the relationships work. Things began to settle down and I felt a sense of peace I had not experienced in several days.

This is not to say that the rest of the trip went smoothly. There was someone unhappy everywhere we went. One cousin wanted to spend more time at the mall. K.J. wanted to spend more time at the Henry Ford. Journey wanted more opportunities to swim. Emily was upset by the short time we toured Mammoth Cave. I was sad not to see the Underground Railroad Center in Cincinnati. The Kentucky Horse Farm was Skye’s favorite spot, but some of the travelers did not appreciate it. There were disappointments about rides not taken or the cost of events or being dragged to historical sights. There were disagreements about what television programs to watch and which restaurants to eat at. There were arguments about who had the right to a specific device – iPod, iPad, etc. – in the van and for how long.

What did I learn? What do I take away from all of this?

1. Compliant children are better travelers, but so are children with enthusiasm about seeing, tasting, and experiencing new things.
2. People with similar interests travel better together, but so do people with differing interests as long as there is a willingness to learn from one another.
3. Talking about the conflicts and hurt feelings that arise on trips is helpful, though painful.
4. Compromise with others is necessary for a long trip in close quarters.
5. Having a plan is a good thing, but being flexible is even more important.
6. Memory will erase much of the bad and enhance much of the good.

It is because of the last point that I will be seen on the road again with some or all of my family members to explore new places despite my knowledge that travel with children is hazardous.

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