This summer, I couldn’t wait for our family vacation. I took to counting down the number of days left on the calendar until our annual beach trip, and announcing it each morning over breakfast.
“18 days ’til vacay!”
“10 days ’til vacay!”
Until finally, it was upon us.
It had been what felt like ages since I’d seen the ocean and breathed in the salty sea air, which has somehow always seemed to soothe my soul. To say I was excited would be the understatement of the year.
We set off in the early morning on our long drive from Maryland, down the east coast to a small beach in North Carolina. But it wasn’t long into the drive that my excitement began to wane. I started to feel unsteady. A familiar feeling was creeping up within me and soon, the monster known as anxiety was sitting on my chest like an elephant.
It didn’t help that my 3-year-old son was carsick, either. After two vomiting sessions (and two outfit changes), we were hours behind schedule. Every time my husband changed lanes, I clutched the door handle with a fierce grip — his driving always makes me nervous these days.
Once we finally arrived, we unloaded our gear and stood on the deck, watching a storm pass overhead. We walked out onto the beach and the evening was beautiful. There was a rainbow painted over the ocean as my daughter joyfully ran in and out of the waves and my sun chased seagulls. For a few moments, I felt at ease. I couldn’t wait to truly relax. I vowed to keep my computer closed and to limit my cell phone use. I really wanted to be present and just enjoy myself, to let the waves of calm wash over me for this one week of the year.
That was the plan, anyway.
Later in the night, we decided to head out to dinner, but it wasn’t long before the kids grew overtired. My son sobbed straight through the meal, slamming his fists into the table and sending stares our way. My daughter complained about her meal and pretty much everything else she could think of. Fighting back tears, I shot my husband a sad half-smile, slugged the rest of my wine, and asked the waitress to wrap up our food.
This is sometimes a reality of life with small children, and I know this. But still I felt distraught as we headed back to our condo.
“That was money down the drain,” I said angrily to my husband, lamenting our failed outing.
For the next few days, I tried hard to enjoy myself — really, I did. But no one was sleeping well. My son was still tired from the long drive. The kids were having a hard time settling down at night and were up at the crack of dawn. And it all led to one cranky day that bled into the next. By Day 3, I felt like I was about to lose it completely. I felt sad, defeated, and so anxiety-ridden that I started to wonder why I’d been looking so forward to vacation at all.
The truth is, in recent years, I’ve battled hard against anxiety. Harder than I’d really like to admit. And though I’d been so looking forward to vacation, this year felt different — like my anxiety stuck a little firmer to me than I remember. I couldn’t quite settle in; my zen was just out of reach.
That’s the thing I’m realizing about anxiety, though. Things that I use to enjoy feel more difficult than they once did. And it’s not just the kids, or the uniquely stressful situations I often find myself in as a mother. It’s also me.
No matter what I do, I have to fight hard to stay ahead of my anxiety so that it doesn’t consume me. I exercise daily and practice taking deep breaths. I eat well and take care of myself as best I can — otherwise, it’s a losing battle. These days, I even take a low dose of anxiety medication so that I can get enough rest each night, otherwise, I’m wired until morning.
Anxiety is becoming something I can hide from less and less. Even a change in location doesn’t mean a vacation from it. From the financial strain to being in an unknown place to sleeping in other people’s beds and trekking to the beach with two young kids, vacation can feel like two giant elephants sitting on my chest, instead of the usual one.
And the worst part is, I’m supposed to be having fun. That’s even more pressure to add to the mix, which means if you’re a person who already struggles with anxiety, here comes … well, more anxiety.
But on Day 4, the tide finally shifted. After feeling like I was crawling out of my skin, I decided to take some much-needed alone time. So I sent my husband and kids on an errand and did a long workout, enjoying the quiet of the space around me. Resting on my yoga mat after I finished, I felt good. Calm, even.
Then, I had an idea: I scribbled a napkin note for my husband, and left it on the counter for him to find when he returned: “Send them to the beach!” it read, in hopes of giving him some alone time, too.
I darted out the door with just my beach chair and my book, waiting for my kids to join me.
For an hour, I sat all by myself. I thought about how the ocean used to soothe my soul so completely. I could lay out on the beach for hours, just staring at the waves. My friend once asked, “How can you just sit there? Don’t you need a book?” Nope. I didn’t need a distraction from the beauty that was all around me; I just wanted to drink it in, and so I did.
It’s no wonder I was so zen back then. I could sit for hours without having to do anything. Now, I can barely look out at the waves for two minutes before I’m up and chasing a toddler down the beach. For a few moments, I let salty tears run down my cheeks. I stared out at the waves. I read a few chapters of my book. I decided that while I might not be able to get back to that total zen I once used to feel — at least not now, with two small kids — but I could still appreciate it in small doses. I could still stretch out those tiny moments of happiness, and feel them deep in my soul.
Once my kids were down on the beach with me, I felt myself restored. I played with them in the sand and in the ocean and really soaked in those moments, instead of trying to escape into my book. We combed the beach for seashells. We built sandcastles. And for the rest of vacation, I vowed to keep my expectations as low as possible. That night we stayed in and put frozen pizzas in the oven. We watched a movie and put everyone to bed early, determined to have cheerier children come morning.
From that point on, everything suddenly started looking up. We under-scheduled and under-planned. We didn’t attempt any more fancy dinners. We just went with the flow.
We rode bikes when the kids asked to, and even though everyone was sweaty and crying in a matter of minutes, my husband and I had anticipated as much. We walked behind them, slow as snails, as they toppled over and struggled to pedal up hill. We chuckled (quietly) at the ridiculous scene, because it was all we could do to keep our sanity.
So there you have it: The secret to an enjoyable vacation with kids may in fact be low expectations. That, and truly seeing the small moments of joy for what they are. Especially when you have anxiety, and especially until there’s any actual sustained relaxing going on. Because the truth is, no matter where I am, anxiety may never take a vacation. But I’m learning to accept it. I’m learning to move through it. And I’m learning to adjust accordingly. I can finally see how there’s strength in that, too.