“Is six nights too long?” asked my wife as I clicked confirm on the Airbnb, the hesitation in her voice painfully palpable. “I think it’s fine. It’ll be fun!” I assured her, at the same time, assuring myself.
It had been more than six years since my extended family – I’m talking aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins – had holidayed as one. I’d always believed family holidays were fraught with danger: too much talking, too many personalities, not enough time to actually unwind.
Each Christmas we would have the same half-hearted “let’s all go away next year” conversation, but nothing much would materialise. December comes and goes, and the promises fade away with the new year.
But this time around, my sister was determined not to let that happen again. She doggedly went about setting up the necessary WhatsApp groups and checking (then double-checking, then triple checking) everyone’s availability. Eventually, it was decided, our entire family would shack up in a beach house on the NSW South Coast for six (6!) days.
I write to you now having survived the trip, a mixture of melancholy, relief and sunburn. When people ask how my holiday was, I autoreply with the answers they’re expecting to hear.
“So nice to get away, so relaxing, so good to switch off!”
And while much of that is true, there’s no denying that a family getaway requires mental fortitude and a little planning. In the interest of public service, I’ve put together the five stages of holidaying with your family.
Stage one: Overexcitement
First night fever is the quicksand of any group holiday but especially potent when you’re spending time with family. Arrivals at the holiday house are staggered, and with each doorbell ring, you feel flush with excitement. By the time everyone has assembled, it feels like a Hallmark movie, only with way more wine. Cue the giant cook up and perhaps even a sing-a-long. Vibes are high, and in the back of your mind you’re thinking: why don’t we do this more often?
Stage two: Clashing routines
Routines are important because habitualness creates comfort and control, which affects your mood. But when you’re staying in a house with twelve adults, you’re dealing with twelve different routines. Uncle Chris likes to make Nescafe loudly at 6 am while listening to the radio, and your youngest cousin Kristen needs to shower for an hour each morning and night.
By day three, you’re still having a great (good?) time, but the eroding of everyone’s day to day creature comforts has led to a simmering tension.
Stage three: Revert to childhood dynamic
Even though my siblings and I are all on the wrong side of thirty and consider ourselves sensible adults, something miraculous happened during our time away. As our family holiday’s awkwardness dissipated, we relaxed into each other’s company and reverted to the roles we’d occupied growing up.
I became the annoying youngest child once more, asking too many questions and demanding the spotlight. My oldest sister became authoritarian, laying down the rules and scolding anyone who dared break them. It’s like a knee jerk reaction to spending time with the people you once shared every waking moment with: the dynamics have been lying dormant, and all it takes to revive the roles are a few nights under the same roof.
Stage four: Gritted teeth enthusiasm
Day five and only the strong are still standing. You’re desperate for a little alone time, but taking yourself off seems like too much of a statement, and so instead you trudge along to each group activity, quietly hoping you may have been adopted.
All the board games have been played, you’ve visited every beach on the coast, and all that remains is to sit around the communal outdoor table and weather questions about topics you hate.
“Have you thought about buying a property int he next twelve months, interest rates are quite low,” says your least favourite uncle who bought a five-bedroom house for $50,000 in the 1980s.
Stage five: See you next year!
Time to go! You’re free! But as with all things in life, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
While packing the car, you feel a twinge in your heart for all those moments that will become memories. On the ride home, you skim through your iPhones photo album and find yourself laughing at the ludicrous digital scrapbook you’ve collected over the past six days. Blurry pictures of your loved ones laughing, really laughing. Sun-kissed beaches. A recycling bin overflowing with bottles. Food, so much good. You dump a bunch of photos into the family WhatsApp group accompanied by a smiley emoji.
“Such a good time! Let’s do it again next year!” exclaims your Aunty.
Sure, you think, why not?