Roll on summer, Illustrator Ron Monnier

Roll on Summer, Roll On

Clare Wishart experiences a sea change in her attitude to holidays.

Before I had kids, I belonged to that rare breed of adults who didn’t like holidays. Don’t get me wrong; I liked the idea of going away, I really did. It’s just that once I got there, I’d find myself lost, with no reassuring daily routine, no familiar environment, and surrounded by people who didn’t know me. My identity would fizzle out, and I’d become quite introspective. I kept going on holidays, but afterwards, I’d rush home and dive into a frenzy of organisation and social activity. At the end of the big summer break, I was that teacher who was really happy to be back at school.

What is it about having kids that makes you want to do things differently? Maybe it was the temptation of free babysitting, but a few years ago, I suggested to my parents that we go away together for Christmas. It was my idea to return to a favourite beach, the scene of many a happy family holiday when I was growing up.

The last time we were there, I was a self-conscious teenager checking out the local talent, desperate for a boyfriend. Revisiting this idyll with me this time were my parents, my husband, our 21-month-old son and baby number two growing nicely in my belly.

We were all slightly nervous before our holiday. We’d never gone away for Christmas before. My mum made sure the flat we rented had two bathrooms – something to do with getting older, changing body shapes and calls of nature during the night. My dad, still working at 70, was annoyed that we had to take a lot of the pantry with us – the whole self-catering idea seemed ridiculous. My husband, in a rare moment of self-disclosure, revealed that he was “apprehensive”. Added to all this, I wondered if the paradise of my youth had disappeared under development and over-commercialisation.

We needn’t have worried. The place worked its charm on all of us. The water was sparkling and clean, and development had actually improved the waterfront and taken nothing away from the beautiful bay and ancient headlands. Slowly, with each going out and coming in of the tide, our family settled into a nice communal rhythm.

My toddler son was the centre of this loving group. Curious and full of zip, he demanded constant supervision and activity while he was awake – and sometimes when he was asleep. I would warn my father, “Dad, he’s going to wake up in 30 minutes”. Dad would laughingly scurry around trying to get things done before the whirling dervish appeared. My mum was quite happy to whisk her grandson off for a walk on the headland or along the beach, delighting in his every discovery. My husband read an entire book. I luxuriated in the view from our flat, conscious that at this time in my life, I was ready to receive what this holiday offered me.

Life became simpler, and with that, we became open to a new way of living and relating as a family unit. Sure, Mum and Dad’s obsession with keys and losing them was still annoying, and I displayed irritating traits of the Now Generation: preferring not to wait until my birthday, I sported a new handbag that was supposed to be a birthday gift from my parents to the chagrin of my mother. But as the week progressed, there was an acceptance of growing up and growing old and changing family roles.

Something new happened in each of us. Although she’d had major surgery two years earlier, Mum ploughed up and down the water in a new swimming costume. She hadn’t been in the water for years and found her swimming skills still intact. Dad, away from the demands of an emotionally gruelling job, grew into his role of Grandpa and enjoyed living in the moment. My husband shared his gift for cooking, released to be a happy chef in a “neutral kitchen”. I took time out from full-time mothering and enjoyed the confluence of my three roles: daughter, wife and mother.

In fact, this was what struck me: I loved having a role. I’ve heard friends say they take their work with them when they go on holiday with kids. I didn’t mind that at all. I relished it. Suddenly I had structure, the routine of daily naps and feeding sessions that at this stage were immutable. I could enjoy two minutes of freedom in the surf because I knew they’d be all I’d get for the day. I felt connected to other parents. For the first time I felt part of my generation. We’re all going through this crazy thing called parenting together. And suddenly, I was someone who could be approached on the beach, in the street or at a cafe because I had a toddler, and everyone had an opinion or some sympathy (I love those tantrums).

Why do we have holidays? The question sounds as if it could have come from my now four-year-old son. But I used to ask myself that question. As I write this, we are just about to go on holiday again. This time it’s for a week with my husband’s parents.

I will pack my role in my suitcase. This will give me the reassurance to be open to new places and new things and hold precious the opportunity to be away as a family together. Maybe I will find more time to enjoy my role as a wife. My husband would like that.

Illustrations by Ron Monnier