In South African terms, my family of five is a relatively small one – but then we all coupled up and bred. My family of five grew to be a family of thirteen. Now, I know for many South Africans this is still quite small and gatherings for other families can easily reach twenty or more people. And this is only counting the early branches on the family tree – parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and the in-laws.
But in my case thirteen is more than enough to handle, especially when it comes to the annual family holiday. You see what I have come to realise, is that like most things in life, there is always a bright side and a dark side. Not to get all yin and yang deep – but it’s true there is always a catch.
When you go on holiday and the whole family stay under the same roof, parenting becomes a spectators sport and all the spectators double as referees.
Catch #1: The Trip
Ironically, you cannot go away on a nice relaxing holiday without taking an incredibly stressful trip to get there.
I am terrified of flying – sweat dripping, eye darting, white knuckling, praying out loud terrified. But turns out I am more terrified of being trapped in a vehicle for eleven hours with my toddler, so on the plane we got.
Having travelled by several modes of transport and observed many a family endure the headache that is travelling with children, the trip is always unpleasant. This fact is true whether the trip takes place on a plane, a train, a bus or in a car.
Unless you are a masochist, in which case the trip may be a highlight of your holiday. Masochism brings me to the next catch.
Catch #2: Feeding The Family
We already know that it’s “women’s’ work” (read: sarcasm and rage) to do grocery shopping and to cook said groceries and feed the family – men are in charge of other things, allegedly. But I am not even going to go down this road – it’s another can of worms for another day for another post.
Anyone who claims to enjoy grocery shopping and cooking for large numbers of people is either a professional chef and therefore being paid for this torture or is, again, a masochist.
Roughly every three days we rolled out of the supermarket with two trolley loads of food. I spent my monthly food budget for a family of three in just two of these shopping trips – because my family are not casual diners, they are foodies.
There is a general belief in my family that a braai with only one meat group, is not a braai – there must be at least three types of meat. Breakfast is not breakfast unless there is a fruit salad and yoghurt to start and piles of bacon, eggs and toast in the middle and maybe some champagne to finish.
Now all of this lux may sound wonderful – some might go so far as to call me a holiday Grinch – but when you are on an average joe budget and the rest of your family are rolling like they won the lotto, a humble meal of peanut butter sandwiches every now and then wouldn’t hurt anyone. Would it?
It’s also important to point out that if this was all we were spending on food then fine, I guess thirteen mouths is a lot of mouths to feed. But in my family’s book eating in every meal does not a holiday make. We must go out and explore the local cuisine. I am not talking cheeseburgers at the local pub, I am talking seafood platters at restaurants which require we book our table for thirteen at least six months before the holiday.
At least the clean up after feeding was easy, especially with all those minions, I mean kids, around to help clean up. Oh sorry, I thought I was writing a work of fiction for a moment. In our house, to get a fourteen and eighteen year old to help clean up is like expecting said teenagers to grow wings and fly to the moon – in other words ridiculous. The younger ones tried but it takes as much energy to constantly remind them to help as it does to just do it yourself.
This leads me neatly into my next catch.
Catch #3: The Clash of the Parenting Styles
It’s amazing how four sets of parents can have such varied approaches to parenting, even though half of them were raised in the same house by the same people.
When you go on holiday and the whole family stay under the same roof, living in each other’s back pockets, parenting becomes a spectators sport and all the spectators double as referees.
This holiday’s child compliment was made up of one recently matriculated eighteen-year-old boy, one fourteen-year-old girl, one eight-year-old boy, one six-year-old boy and one eighteen-month-old girl. Oh, and of course the three middle-aged children that still fall under the rule of our elderly parents. Never mind the three adult children whose parents are not a part of this little equation but are bound by marriage to this train wreck of a power struggle. This is intersectionality at its most basic.
Never a day went by when there wasn’t at least one strop (explosion or implosion). The king and queen of the stop were predictably the teenagers, who failed to understand why the holiday was not tailor-made around their desires. Their chief complaint was that they are not children and why are the adults not being nicer to them – this being muttered under breath whilst determinedly glaring at a screen and moaning to the diaspora of equally downtrodden teenagers dotted around the country via WhatsApp.
The younger ones were just as stroppy but thankfully they do not yet have the endurance that the teens have built over the years, so their strops were intense but short-lived.
While the shenanigans of the children added some unneeded salt and stress to the holiday, the adults were the worst when it came to being high strung and hypersensitive. This one didn’t say good morning to that one, that one didn’t put their coffee cup in the dishwasher, this one went to the beach and didn’t invite the rest of them, that one ate all the leftover braai meat, I can go on for a while but I think my point is made.
These offences were never more barbed than when relating to something your child has done that he or she shouldn’t have done or something you have not done but should have done for your child.
There were several recurring topics of conversation that everyone felt free to weigh in on; “should you really let the baby eat beach sand?”, “she will probably be speaking better if you didn’t let her always have her dummy”, “do you think you are feeding her enough vegetables?” (often said as this very same person is offering the child in question a non-vegetable based sweet), and my personal favourite, “she’s old enough to start having time outs if I was you I would put her in a time out.”.
I would love to say I was the only victim of this, but in truth, we were all like a pack of wild dogs jostling for position – so everyone got their kicks in and everyone got kicked.
“I know he is eighteen, but should he really be having another Jack and Coke.”, “He hasn’t finished his good food, are you really going to order him pudding?”, “Those shorts are really short on her, do you think it’s appropriate?”, “That attitude is unacceptable, I hope you plan on having a conversation about it.”, just to name a few of the grenades thrown.
I believe that a lot of this ‘friendly’ fire is due to the fact that individuals within one family grow up to have very different attitudes, beliefs and styles from each other and even from their parents. This causes tension as it seems to the rest of the family as incongruous. It seems so foreign to the group, that a member of the same group would have traits or ideas at odds with the rest.
The last catch, for me and my husband anyway, is that these holidays almost always occur at the beach. To many, a beach holiday would be a point that falls in the positive column but this is not true for everyone. This is one such idiosyncrasy my family cannot begin to comprehend.
Catch #4: Sunscreen, sand and OCD
You see a beach holiday is not actually everyone’s cup of tea, there is a small but passionate population of people who would be happy to never experience a family trip to the beach. These people are characterized by being incredibly fair skinned (meaning we don’t tan, we burn, go pink, peel and return back to lily white), we are scared of sharks, seaweed and the Kraken so we don’t really swim and we are tortured by the OCD attack inducing combination of sun cream, sand and skin. Throw in a melting ice cream cone and it’s a recipe for mental malfunction and the only remedy is to abandon everything and run screaming back to the safety of the car.
On this point of sand, it’s also worth mentioning that sand has many talents, not limited to triggering OCD PTSD. A common cause of family tension was sand – sand in the car, sand in the bath, sand on the floor and sand on the couch. It seems to me that trying to prevent sand from being walked into a beach house is counterintuitive, like trying to play tennis with a fishing rod. Perhaps some in my family are not as honest about their OCD as I am.
So, now that I have made it sound like my family holiday was a brutal hunger games kind of affair, I need to return to my original point – yin and yang.
The ultimate catch is that there is something that makes all the less desirable stuff tolerable.
Spending time with your family
There are so many redeeming qualities of family time. These are the people that won’t judge you for snorting when you laugh. The people who know your history, they helped write it. Time spent with them is not always easy but its time well spent. Cooking alongside your mom and sister – joking about your inability to touch raw chicken. Seeing your niece and nephews playing with their youngest cousin – the eighteen-year-old letting her win at wrestling. Knowing that when they are all adults they will have each other’s backs.
Playing 30 Seconds and getting the whole card right before the sand runs out because that’s how well you all know each other. Going for silent walks on the beach because talking is sometimes overrated. There are always many hands available to help with the kids. And best of all endless cups of tea made for you by your mom.
And if you struggle to find the good side to family holidays, there is always gin and tonic. I prefer mine with a slice of lime, not lemon.