Last night, after a thirteen-hour travel day (car-ferry-car-shuttle-plane-train-car), we returned home from a week of vacation in the San Juan Islands. This was our first vacation as a family of four to somewhere entirely new, where we weren't visiting family, or going somewhere for an occasion, like a wedding. It was magical- impossibly sunny weather; the orcas; the possibility of orcas, which is almost as glorious as the real thing; tide pools and beaches; unscheduled days to fill with art activities (thank you, Melissa and Doug, for sponsoring our trip); movies for the girls while Scott and I read on the deck in the afternoons. It was amazing.

And... it was also a lot like our real life, in some not-so-amazing ways. May was crazy for us (judging from that YouTube NSync parody, “It’s gonna be May,” this is just how it is as an elementary school parent. Throw in two performances for me and a dance recital for Margaret, and there you have it), and I felt such a strong need to disconnect from routine and social media and just be with Scott, Julia and Margaret on our trip. In retrospect, I think I had this idea that if I just put down my phone and had no obligations, we would magically have some sort of conflict-free week. But along with our pre-packaged art activities and sticker books, we ultimately brought ourselves on this trip, and all of our dynamics; both the smooth and the jagged edges of ourselves. While the girls get along amazingly sometimes, they also compete and fight with an intensity I don't remember having with Garrett when I was a child. And there were moments (sigh, hours) while Scott and I mediated squabbles about who was going to do which coloring page, or responded to the statement "I don't WANT to go look for whales! I want to watch a movie!" when I found myself frustrated and stressed.

Julia is a voracious reader, and lately, we haven't been able to keep her in books. She used to be happy to reread the same chapter books over and over, and knows the name of every chapter in every Ramona book. Lately, however, she only wants to read new books, and one Sunday night a few weeks ago, Scott brought out his stack of “Calvin and Hobbes” books from his childhood to tide her over until we could get to the library the next day. We brought a few “Calvin and Hobbes” collections with us to San Juan Island, and during a particularly trying moment, Scott opened one up to a segment about family vacation. On an ill-fated camping trip, Calvin complains about everything: the bugs, the water temperature, the hard ground. Calvin's dad insists on having a wonderful time, despite his family, and his mom seems to vacillate between Calvin's perspective and her husband's. Scott and I have long had an inside joke about experiences that build character-- I had forgotten that the line came from "Calvin and Hobbes." I laughed out loud when I read this, oddly comforted by the universality of "expectations versus reality" of any vacation. Our girls certainly "built character" as we forced them to do terrible activities, like watch whales instead of television (but there was plenty of television, too), or visit a lighthouse, or go to happy hour on a dock in a harbor. 

The metaphor of parenting being a roller coaster feels especially fitting as I prepare to fly with the girls again this weekend-- this time to the east coast, where we will visit my parents for my mom's birthday, and go to Story Land, an amusement park in northern New Hampshire. One minute, Julia is complaining about how she thinks she had "enough outside time" for the day; the next, she's shrieking with delight right along with me as we watch a family of orcas from the rocks near our house. One moment, I'm lecturing the girls about how tired I am of listening to them fight about getting in the car, and then Julia cuts me off to say, "Margaret, when we get home, let's play Calico Critters in my room together!" Just as I'm preparing for the free fall of a fight, digging in, and steeling myself for more conflict, they're already back in the upswing, completely in the moment.

In so much of my writing about parenting, I notice the formula: I thought it was going to be like x, but instead it was like y, and then I realized that it has always been like both x and y all along. Our vacation contained both conflict and joy (sometimes both within seconds of one another). It contained tears and laughter. It was, imperfectly and wonderfully, perfect just the way it was.