Is Taking A "Holiday" With 2 Small Kids Really Worth It?

Packing the kids, the dog, and the kitchen sink can sometimes feel like too much trouble

We’ve just survived the 5+ hour drive home from the Northern Ontario cottage on the Canada Day long weekend. A Minivan, a black labrador, a 2-year-old girl, and our soon to be 8-year-old boy. Everyone still a little damp from the last minute swim in the lake before joining the mass reverse migration down highway 69 back to the GTA. It sounds pretty picture perfect Canadian, eh? The long weekends are a piece of cake compared to a real seven or 14-day summer vacation. While I now contemplate this year’s potential summer family vacation adventures, some memories of past holidays come back to haunt me – so is it really worth it?

Taking this crew to a cottage for a week is serious work. In fact it kind of feels like we’re moving! The term Minivan is thankfully a misnomer. When you are packing for two adults, a dog and two small kids, the “stuff” accumulates. But it's truly remarkable how much stuff we bring with us. Lord knows we can’t leave behind the dog’s toys, and what about the swimming noodles, or the propane tank for the BBQ? And did we remember the beach towels and beach umbrella? Is bedding included with this cottage rental?  Let’s not forget the jackets in case we get a cold snap, or for late night bonfires. Which reminds me; should we bring some firewood? Will there be enough lawn chairs or should we bring some? And do we have some movies and games for a rainy day? For the love of God don’t forget the portable movie player and the iPad? And the bikes… got to bring the bikes! Is there room for the dog’s bed? 

And remarkably, somehow, it all fits in that van. And just when I think it’s full, the wife hands me three more bags. I always think we’ve gone over the top and then I see my neighbour pack up his two kids in his Minivan…. with a box trailer in tow! For those car snobs out there that sneer at the thought of owning a mini-van with a movie player, you’ve clearly never spent five hours in a car with my kids.

Now that we’ve established a route and the van is finally packed, I REALLY need a vacation (though, not a workout). Once we finally manage to get everyone on board after one last pee, the debate begins about where the first stop will be. Somebody is already lobbying hard from the second row of seats for “chicken nuggets and fries”. It sounds pretty easy, right? Oh wait, what about the dog, we can’t leave Bella in the van in the blazing sun while we head into the restaurant. I’ve changed my opinion of Drive thru’s, but I’m still amazed how some chicken nuggets, burgers, fries, milkshakes and a diet coke can come to over $40. I guess they said it was fast food, not cheap food…

With any luck at all, exiting the city is not a complete nightmare on overcrowded highways, with my 8-year-old back seat driver pointing out with lightning speed how I was slow to turn on my indicator light, and wanting clarification on what I called the driver of the BMW that cut us off to get two car lengths ahead. Are we having fun yet?

All this and we haven’t even arrived at our destination yet. We’ve rented cottages in various parts of Ontario and have generally been pretty lucky that the cottages actually resembled what was advertised. Though inevitably there are some omissions, like the parking being eight flights of stairs and a wilderness hike away from the actual cottage. Suddenly that fully loaded van seems daunting – do we truly need all this stuff in the cottage? Today?

Of course, the kids are excited to explore a new property and cottage. Isn’t this wonderful, I think, after making 30 trips up said hill and stairs? Now I’m even more ready for a vacation! So finally we get settled enough to actually explore the cottage and the lake.

Now we have time to focus on swimming in the gorgeous, inviting lake – but then a new problem arises in the world of a 7-year-old. Apparently, swimming in a lake when you “can’t touch” is a problem, even though swimming in a pool when you “can’t touch” is just fine. However, as we know, life in the world of a 7-year-old moves fast. Ten minutes after the first dive we move on to the next idea, which is to swim to an island two miles away. Seems reasonable…

After a swim and some dinner comes the next question. Where will everyone sleep?  Of course, any good cottage will have bunk beds, and every kid wants to sleep in a bunk bed.  The only trouble is, our kids tend to do cartwheels in bed when they are asleep, and their Mother is NOT impressed with the idea of our 7-year-old heading to the local ER at 2 am after falling out of bed. In the end, the boy gets his way, and his Dad places the sofa cushions on the floor beside the bunk bed, as an insurance policy.

Now, the first night at a new cottage is often an adventure. Our little one is not impressed with the new sounds and complete darkness that comes to a cottage where street lights have never been seen.  The Pack & Play is not as comfortable as a crib, and she is still angry that big brother got to sleep in the top bunk. But sleeping between Mom and Dad on the double bed is quite cozy – unless you are Mom and Dad who are awakened every 20 minutes by a two-year-old elbow or foot in the face. Is it morning yet?

Day two of the vacation brings new hope and, yes, some fun is had canoeing across the lake. The seven-year-old learns that swim masks don’t float when you drop them out of the canoe in 80 feet of water, and sadly the closest Canadian Tire is 70 km away. But the evening campfire on the lake with old friends is nice. The uniquely Canadian call of the loons tells us that all is right with the world.

Travelling with kids also means that agendas are also often planned around naps. Fortunately, our kids will sleep in the car, but it’s frowned upon for Dad to sleep in the car when he is the driver.  But we do see some sights, meet up with family and friends, experience some wildlife, and before we know it the week is over and it’s time to reverse the process and pack up the van to head home. And then comes the remarkable realization that this much laundry could accumulate after seven days away, even though we only wore bathing suits all week. And how did we possibly get all this stuff into the van last time? 

But the truth is that parents suffer from serious memory problems. All the memories of work, temper tantrums, lack of sleep, aching backs, and expenses just disappear after witnessing the sheer joy of the kids jumping off a dock into a pristine lake and zooming down a zip line at Santa’s Village.  

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