How to Avoid Vacation Stress

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For working parents, in particular, vacations are precious. They use precious time from our PTO balances. They are a commitment of precious resources i.e. money. They are precious trips where we get to spend day after day with our kids and create memories that we’ll always remember. That last one right there is what got me into trouble at the start of our summer vacation. I could sum up my downfall in one word...expectations.

Because I used 5 days of PTO, budgeted carefully for our expenses, and knew that I wouldn’t get another chance to spend 8 consecutive days with my kids until the holidays, I had high expectations. Expectations of how much fun we would have, expectations of how everyone would behave, and expectations of myself in terms of how relaxed and carefree I would be. So when my youngest spiked a fever on the first day of our road trip, and continued to be cranky, clingy and not sleep for the first two days at the vacation house, I responded by being cranky, frustrated and generally negative about the outlook for the rest of our trip. 

My expectations had been squashed. I was angry at my daughter for getting sick, I was angry that my ability to relax and have fun had been ruined, and I was angry that I was so darn tired. The most frustrating part was, I knew I was being a Debbie Downer. And I knew it was in my control, and my control only, to snap out of it. But I just couldn’t.

Doing the Work

Coincidentally, that second afternoon while my daughter was taking a much-needed nap, I pulled out my self-coaching work for the week and the first exercise was one about my past. Not my childhood past or my adolescent past, but my past as in yesterday. I had to write all of the great things about yesterday. And as I put pen to paper, I was surprised by how much I had to write. After all, I was off work, disconnected for the most part, and with my family in a beautiful place with a beautiful view of the water (which in my opinion has the power to heal so much). 

The second part of the exercise was to write down the not-so-great things about yesterday. That was easy. My daughter was sick, I was grumpy, and I had made sure everyone knew how tired I was.

As I tried to see my yesterday as something that couldn’t be changed (only my thoughts about it can change), I tried to reframe it a bit. I realized how lucky I was to be able to be with my daughter while she wasn’t feeling well instead of having to leave her with the nanny and go to work. I realized how fortunate I was to be able to take it easy and even sneak a quick day-time nap because I was on vacation and with family who could help. And lastly, I realized that even a bad day isn’t such a bad day when you’re in a beautiful setting. 

That exercise was exactly what I needed. With 5 more days remaining on our vacation, I decided to drop expectations. To be present. To help my kids have a good time, while also finding minutes here and there for myself (like this one). To let go of what I thought I should be doing and forcing myself to see that week as truly a vacation. Vacation from to-lists, from schedules and routines, from perfection, and from expectations. 

I know some people are great at vacation. They thrive on the change in routine, the spontaneity. They don’t over-plan or over-pack or over-prepare; they just go and trust that they will figure it out. And they truly can detach from reality and know that the world won’t stop because they are gone for a week or two. 

But I wonder if some of you, like me, have to work a bit harder to enjoy vacation. And maybe for you, there is a happy medium somewhere where you can…

1. Lower your expectations.

  • Have a loose plan or guidelines for the week, but then leave plenty of room in the schedule for doing what fits with the day and your mood. 
  • Hope for good behavior, good weather, etc. but know that it’s no guarantee. And know that how much fun you have or how “great” your vacation is, doesn’t depend on either of those things.

2. Make vacation be about your kids AND about you

  • Plan some special surprises or outings that you know will excite your kids, but also know that you don’t have to go overboard. Being in a new place and a new environment is plenty exciting.
  • Make sure that there are some special things for you to look forward to also. After all, this vacation is just as much for you as it is for them.

3. Lose the routines, within reason

  • Give yourself permission to slack a bit on your routines with working out, journaling, eating healthy, or whatever other self-improvement plans you have going on. Or keep them up if they fit into your schedule while away. Whichever way you go, it’s exactly as it should be. Don’t dwell on either scenario and know that you’ll get back to it once you’re back home. Isn’t that partly what vacation is about? To help you come back to reality refreshed and re-energized to commit to the work that you are doing?

4. Stop feeling behind

  • Speaking of returning to reality, know that there is no such thing as feeling behind. Only you can make yourself feel behind.
  • Try taking one thing at a time, one day at a time and do what needs to be done and only that. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you fall back into your routines and how soon you feel “back to normal”.

5. Everything is in your control

  • Well, everything except the weather and the logistical pieces of vacation. I should say, the important things are within your control. How you feel is within your control. If you need to jot things down to put it into perspective, take the time to do that.
  • Whether you’re planning, packing or stressing about getting everything “ready” or you’re actually on your vacation having your expectations severely challenged, like me, you have the power to reset your thoughts. To remind yourself of how many great things you have going for you. To see things as an adventure, as an opportunity. To smile, shrug, be curious and be relaxed. 

Maybe you are that person who is good at vacationing. You just haven’t stopped long enough to think of yourself that way.

Remember, no one else has any expectations of how your vacation should be. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Make it yours. Make it what you want.