I had an epiphany at a water park.
(Which is nicer than having an allergic reaction. Or a brush with pink eye. Or a number of other things I've had at a water park.)
My two kids and I took a quick trip to Sheboygan, Wis., over the weekend with three other families. The daughters, including mine, are friends from school, and we're trying to cement an annual tradition of kicking off each school year with a short Midwestern getaway.
We packed up and hit the road Friday evening, and my son immediately started complaining - the same kid who could barely sleep from excitement less than 24 hours prior.
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"I don't want to go. It's a stupid place."
"It's all June's friends. They're going to ignore me."
"It's not even gonna be fun."
I chose not to voice my first response, which was some combination of the money I spent and after I worked all week and even bought your favorite snacks and you were excited this morning, none of which leads anywhere fruitful.
I chalked it up to end-of-the-week exhaustion and offered a tepid, "Let's get there and see, bud."
We got there and saw and, what do you know ... we had a blast. The place wasn't stupid, and the girls didn't ignore him.
And as I climbed the infernal stairs to the top of the green twisty slide for the 47th time and followed him to the bottom, listening to his squeals, watching him hop off the slide and leap and pounce from one artificial, chlorine-infused geyser to the next, it hit me: He had pre-vacation jitters.
I had them too.
What if we get a flat tire on a dark road in the middle of nowhere?
What if I get us lost?
What if I booked the rooms for the wrong weekend?
What if I get pink eye?
I have jitters before every trip. The specifics vary, depending on my destination and my travel companions, but they all boil down to "What if it's not fun?"
And they all begin with, "What if ... "
Which gave me an idea. What if I put a "What if ... " in front of my kids' complaints? What if I trained myself to see their complaining not as evidence of their utter lack of gratitude, but as an opportunity to offer them the reassurance they're seeking?
"What if it's a stupid place?" (I had wondered that myself, honestly.)
"What if June's friends ignore me?" (Totally valid.)
"What if it's not even fun?" (Wondered that one too.)
I decided to test my trick whenever a complaint cropped up during the trip.
My son's flag football season started Sunday, and he was concerned we wouldn't get back in time. At one point (OK, several points), he said, "I'm going to miss my first game."
Put that way, it sounds like evidence that he has ignored the dozen or so times I've told him we're checking out in plenty of time to get to his game.
But throw a "What if ... " in front of it - and, more important, a self-reminder that I checked our email reservation 37 times and still worried I booked the rooms for the wrong weekend ...
Suddenly I have more patience.
That's the beauty of vacation, isn't it? It takes effort to plan, and it's a pain in the neck to get there, and your brain (my brain, anyway) plays all sorts of tricks to make going away seem like a terrible idea. An invitation for utter calamity, even.
But you get there, and it melts away. The jittery part of your brain hops out of your body and takes a dip in the lake or the ocean or the FlowRider Surf Simulator, and the muck of your everyday life - the life that tries to convince you not to leave it, even temporarily, lest you court disaster - slowly washes away.
And you're able to see everything more clearly. Even your kids' needs.
I've decided to carry my "What if ... " trick into our nonvacation life too. My son has entered a phase that I'll generously characterize as not my favorite, and it consists of a lot of statements that portend certain doom.
"I'll never make a touchdown."
"I'll never be tall."
"I'll never lose a tooth." (He's the last of his pals to lose his first baby tooth.)
Even in my most exhausted, least charitable moments, I know those are statements of fear, not obstinateness. But when I throw a "What if ... " in front of them, it reminds me to answer them like questions, rather than correct them like mistakes.
It's a subtle shift, but it's one that moves me away from pointless frustration and toward patience, which is always useful - especially at a water park.
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