The response was universal, without exception. Every single person, from stranger to close friend, had the same exact question upon learning of our upcoming European trip: "Are you taking the kids?"
"Yes, we're all going," I'd reply. The response was also consistent: "Oh, well … you'll probably have a good time anyway."
These reactions affirmed that as great as family vacations can be, they are not to be confused with romantic getaways. Most parents long for an occasional escape from their children. Every couple needs the revitalization of time alone, whether it be a walk in a local park, meeting for lunch in town, a night at a nearby bed-and-breakfast, a long weekend in the next state, or a week-long splurge in some exotic locale.
My husband and I have done those kinds of trips before. Four years ago we went to Hawaii sans enfants, a twentieth anniversary excursion subsidized by a friend's frequent flier miles. It was a slice of heaven.
But this time there were no relatives readily available to help. Besides, at ages twelve and nine, our children were just about old enough to benefit from international travel—and we had expiring airline vouchers to use. Still, perhaps recalling Hawaiian paradise, my husband and I dreamed of intimate moments in London and in Paris, whose name you can hardly utter without fantasizing about the one you love.
As it turned out, we four had a marvelous trip, including some special times for my husband and me. Perhaps what we learned about injecting romance into a family vacation could help you do the same.
Expectations and Plans
But first, just what is romance? My thesaurus offers synonyms in this order: love, passion, flirtation, love affair, amour (how Parisian!), fascination. Although we often use "romance" as a code-word for sex, they are not the same. You can have romance without sex—just as you can have sex without romance. While you can probably forget about torrid love-making every day of a family trip, there's plenty of room for flirtation and fascination—and more.
If romance is one goal of a family vacation, you must factor it into your plans. Express to your spouse the kind of experience you seek, and try to understand what your spouse longs for as well. Make room for mutual preferences, as well as a personal wish or two for each of you.
In addition to adult likes and dislikes, the romance quotient of your vacation is subject to the ages and interests of your children. You'll do things differently with the kids along, but that's not all bad. Babies are so portable, going where you go. Young children take naps—and they sleep soundly! Teens can be left alone or go out on their own some.
Choose locations, accommodations, and activities wisely:
- If a romantic venue is a bit pricey for your pocketbook, opt for fewer nights, instead of a full week at a budget establishment.
- If you're desperate for some just-the-two-of-you meals, stay somewhere with a nice dining room onsite and childcare available.
- If you dream of a moonlit walk by the shore, get beachside lodging (whether resort or tent), bring walkie-talkies so your older kids can contact you, and consult the calendar to catch that full moon.
- If only one of you enjoys an activity that would leave the other stuck with the kids, avoid that kind of trip like the plague—unless the activity-bound partner can compromise significantly.
Of course, you can take a family resort vacation offering children's programs from dawn to midnight. Another option is to bring your own "nanny," perhaps one of your parents or an older niece or nephew. But assuming it's just you, your spouse, and your kids—and that childcare is not built into the deal—how are you going to squeeze some romance out of your days away?
Once You're There—Connecting Emotionally
Two everyday barriers to meaningful connection with our spouses are lack of time and the monotony of the ordinary. Both obstacles are removed on a vacation, even with the kids. In an interesting place, without the demands of work and home, romance can be around every corner. Here's where we found it:
- Lingering. Children slow down an adult pace. While ours rushed us through museums, there were special spots that appealed to them where we were able to take our time and delight in each other, like the top of the Eiffel Tower. Also in Paris, with the kids on a playground in the Jardin du Luxembourg, my husband and I had a rare chance to sit and chat.
- Eating and drinking. Food and drink are very sensual. Every menu on our trip offered a tasty chicken dish or two for the kids, while my husband and I savored more daring fare. One evening in London, my husband brought a selection of olives from Harrod's food hall and a favorite beverage from a shop near our hotel, which we relished after the kids were tucked in.
- Playing. Children are a plus in this category, making parents feel more youthful and thus more romantic. Our kids loved feeding the ducks in St. James Park near Buckingham Palace. What fun! We also went to a Parisian circus—we were the only Americans there!—that turned out to be quite "grownup" without being inappropriate.
- Admiring. The "ahhh" one feels in the presence of great natural beauty or fine art, significant buildings and monuments becomes romance when you experience it together. Even with kids tugging, you can seize such moments, making them touchstone memories. On our last morning in Paris, my husband and I left our forewarned children sleeping—after alerting the hotel manager a few yards away, in case of emergency—and we walked together to Notre Dame, to sit and soak in the essence of that great cathedral one more time.
- Learning. This may not sound very romantic, but the more we know, the more interesting we are to each other. And if that knowledge is held in common, the more we can share. On our trip we learned about art and architecture, history, and religion. We now share a broader context for understanding the world.
- Giving. It feels good to be pampered. Buy or encourage the purchase of something special for your spouse. My daughter and I found an inexpensive but cool tie for my husband in Paris. He and our son used up their last few francs to buy me a small box of decadent chocolates. Or give in other ways. I took the children to L'Arc de Triomphe and the Tuilleries for several hours while my husband toured the Louvre museum in peace.
But What About Connecting—Physically?
Vacation is a perfect time to relax and literally reach out to your spouse. Hold hands walking on the beach. Put your arm around your lover on a park bench. Kiss in public. It's all good—and important for your children to see.
Okay, so you want a little more. Squeeze a knee under a tablecloth. Pop a bonbon in your spouse's mouth to say, "Let's hope the children fall asleep early." Opportunities for foreplay are limitless.
But what about—you know—real sex? Well, the answer to that question probably goes back to the ages of your children and the plans you made. While our middle-age children were great on the trip, they were probably at the worst ages for parental privacy—too old to nap, too young to be off on their own. But we still found it possible to indulge in sexual activity.
In London, we had two bedrooms separated by a wall and door-less doorway, offering just enough seclusion. Our single room in Paris required more creativity. Let's just say that we had a very clean bathroom, a heavy locking door, and a large inviting floor. In this country, more and more all-suite hotels are available, so buy yourself a little space apart from the kids, if possible. Other ideas include sharing a bath or shower after the kids have gone to bed or zipping sleeping bags together and seeing what happens. Remember, "necessity is the mother of invention."
Home Again, Home Again
At the end of your travels, you and your spouse will feel like you have accomplished something wonderful—as a team you pulled off a family vacation. That in itself deepens marital ties in a way that can boost the mundane days that follow.
Perhaps you also will have learned that romance is where you seek it, and time away—with or without the kids—is some of the stuff of which it is made.
Karen Johnson Zurheide is co-author with her husband of In Their Own Way: Accepting Your Children for Who They Are (Augsburg).
2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.