Behind Every Precious Vacation Memory Stands An Exhausted Mother

Why do we feel so much pressure to plan and execute unforgettable family vacations at our own expense?

When Courtney Hardie was growing up, vacation meant one thing: a week in her grandfather’s “remote fishing cabin” in Ontario, Canada. The cabin had no electricity or running water, so the family used an outhouse and bathed in the lake.

“While I have lovely memories of this, I always felt like I missed out on new experiences and new cultures,” Hardie told HuffPost.

As a parent now herself, Hardie works diligently to plan trips for her own kids that expose them to unfamiliar parts of the world. The family, who live in Cincinnati, recently spent two weeks traveling throughout Australia.

“I’ve tried to give my children the experiences that I yearned for, which has led to me obsessing over making sure our trips are ‘perfect,’” she said.

Like in many households, the work of planning these trips falls mostly to mom — Hardie, in this case — though she does take some of the blame for this imbalance.

“My husband is not a planner by nature,” she said. “To his credit, he asks what he can do to help, but oftentimes I feel like it would take longer to explain to him what needs to be done than simply doing it myself.”

While Hardie feels that her efforts are well worth it, and she’s able to be “in the moment” once they’re actually on vacation, the intensive preparations do take their toll.

“This hyper-planning has led to me always being very stressed out right before trips,” she admitted.

Courtney Hardie and her family in Uluru Kata Tjuṯa National Park in Australia.
Courtney Hardie
Courtney Hardie and her family in Uluru Kata Tjuṯa National Park in Australia.

It’s this constant calculation of time and effort that leads many parents — primarily moms — to take on the bulk of the work organizing the family’s activities, wherever they take place. Once this inequality is established, delegation can become just one more task to check off the list, a burden in its own right.

We sometimes refer to this kind of labor as the mental load, defined as “the never-ending, behind-the-scenes mental gymnastics required for everything to get done” in a recent HuffPost article. If you’re the parent who schedules the dentist appointments and renews the contract on the rental violin, you’re likely also the one who will remember to pack the swim goggles, call the hotel to request a crib and conduct sufficient research to have an informed opinion on which sunscreen ingredients are kid-safe.

The mental load is generally carried by the “default parent.” As Mercedes Samudio, psychotherapist and author of “Shame-Proof Parenting,” told HuffPost, “this parent usually knows where all the documents are, has the family schedule and is in contact with the family and community to keep everyone moving.”

Default parents “often express feelings of overwhelm, resentment, fatigue and being unfulfilled outside of their parent role,” Samudio said. Whether you’re trying to re-create memories from your childhood or orchestrate the kind of travel experiences you longed for, it’s not unusual for parents to feel an intense pressure to get family vacations “right.” Because they are a departure from the usual routines, we presume that these are the moments our kids will remember. The taste of a fish they caught themselves, roasted over an open fire, will stick with them in a way that last Tuesday’s box of mac-and-cheese cannot, we reason.

In reality, kids’ memories are fickle and remain stubbornly beyond much of our control. Though we don’t have the power to dictate which moments their brains decide to hold on to, something in us keeps yearning to try, as though the right kind of memories will offer proof that we did a good job as parents, that we loved them well.

The power of this urge, coupled with the burden of being the default parent, can fill a vacation with moments that feel make-or-break. Hardie is not alone in getting carried away in the preparations. When we posed a question about the work of vacation planning on the HuffPost Parents Facebook page, other moms chimed in that they, too, feel responsible for making family vacations memorable.

“Not just vacations but solely responsible for all the magic: the Christmas magic, birthday magic, etc. There’s a constant need to plan and execute ... It’s just on me to anticipate needs and transitions from one activity to the next,” said Megan Pohorylo Tucker.

Others, like Hardie, felt they had helped themselves earn the title of chief planner. “I’m a bit of a control freak so I want to be in charge,” said Jeni Davis.

Another reader, Drea Zummo, said, “Every time we go camping it falls to me to plan it, buy all the groceries, plan our meals, pack it all into our trailer, and pack for everyone but [my husband]. I love camping, but I hate all the work. I have decision fatigue and actual fatigue from being in charge of everything all the time!”

A common thread in the responses was the idea of vacation planning being work — and, as such, not feeling like much of a vacation.

“When you have little ones, vacations are not vacations — just parenting in a different location,” said Becky Andrews Wright.

Taylor Wolfe is the author of the memoir “Birdie & Harlow” and the mother of two kids, one of them a newborn. Back in April, she posted a viral reel on Instagram titled “Me on Vacation As a Mom,” in which she flips back and forth between two selves, one of whom is smiling placidly and saying things like, “Traveling with a toddler is hard, but it’s worth it,” while the alter ego holds her head in her hands outside a closed bedroom door, lamenting, “She’s not down yet ... It’s not dark enough!”

Parents related to this depiction of the dream vacation coexisting with the reality (or nightmare). Wolfe drew material from a recent family vacation that she and her husband approached with what they thought was an easygoing attitude.“It turns out we did in fact have high expectations,” Wolfe told HuffPost.

“Sometimes I even think the daydream vacation is better than the real one,” she added. “Everybody’s having a good time and there are no meltdowns. When it’s nap time, we all just take a lovely nap. And then we go to dinner and things are wonderful, and she doesn’t need screen time, she’s playing with the free coloring books. We get to do this pre-child vacation but with a child who’s absolutely wonderful and behaving.”

Even knowing that the daydream is an impossible ideal, its allure persists, and Wolfe is already planning the family’s next venture to the beach in just a couple of months. The fixation on making these trips precious memories comes from external pressure like social media’s warnings that “you only have eighteen summers with your kids” as well as our own internal pressure.

“I know better. I don’t have to listen to those posts. But still, there’s something in me ... you see how fleeting time is with these little babies. And so you’re trying to do something big to mark it. I think about it every day, and I cannot figure it out why we keep coming back and trying to pack in all this stuff. It is exhausting and it is so hard, but there’s so much pressure to get in all those moments.”

For a default parent who’s the vacation planner, “planning these moments becomes one way the default parent can feel appreciated,” explained Samudio. However, if and when all doesn’t go according to plan, this parent may feel resentful and may not enjoy the trip.

“The default parent usually has so much going on that they lose sight of who they are doing this for, which can be hard for the family to acknowledge,” she said.

To avoid falling into this cycle of pressure and hurt feelings, Samudio suggested making vacation planning a family affair. Each family member old enough to participate might pick one activity each day, for example. You could also select a theme for the trip, and each person could pick an activity based on the theme. She recommended allotting time for rest and the inevitable mishaps, and perhaps beginning with shorter, local trips to get the hang traveling as a group.

“The best trips are the ones where the family focuses on what makes them connect,” Samudio said.

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