Planning for the annual Spring Break holiday for school age children has become one of the more stressful challenges of competitive parenting—not up there quite as paramount as the homemade Halloween costume choice, but stressful and challenging nonetheless. If you are a working parent, you have an automatic out—must work, so will plan on sending the kids to an extremely expensive sports, art, music, or science camp to keep the kids occupied while you pursue your selfish right to have a life outside your children. For other families, this can be a great opportunity for family bonding over costly vacations to Disneyworld or Park City, Utah. While you want to balance the desire to over-indulge your youngster with the escalation of the creative vacation wars, you also don’t want them to return to school with a response to the question “So what did YOU do for Spring Break” with “I mostly hung around and watched some TV.” That would be unimaginative and inexcusable.
Today I made the 70-mile trip with my family from Austin to the San Antonio Zoo in celebration of both Spring Break (for my two older children—we call them “the big ones”) and my younger daughter’s third birthday. It wasn’t exactly a Clark Griswald’esque Vacation scenario but it then it wasn’t a Hallmark made-for-television movie either. Four children, two over-caffeinated parents in a minivan that doubles as a monkey cage and a DVD player showing Thomas the Tank Engine over and over and over again can make for a long ride, even though we were only in the car for a little over two hours. A non-starter potty stop (for my three-year-old) in San Marcus and numerous squabbles from the far back confines of the van left me and my husband exhausted before we got to our final destination.
We do have a few rules of the road for traveling in Mom’s car: seatbelts worn at all times—even if the car is in park as Mommy gets her fix at the Starbucks drive-thru, Danielle (my nine-year-old) may NOT remove her shoes under any circumstances, and no fighting. Pretty simple rules, right? I even let my kids eat in my car—there is a four inch layer of pretzels, squished goldfish crackers, sand, and apple juice congealed on the floor of my car to deem the resale value nonexistent. And it’s a Honda.
Regarding the no fighting rule, growing up, I never understood why my parents would become so unreasonably infuriated with my siblings and I and our backseat shenanigans. Now I know. How can my children—these precious, innocent gifts from God that all rented space at one time in my womb—go after each other with such malicious intent in open warfare to do each other psychological and bodily harm? All in a 70-mile happy family trip to see elephants and zebras?????
We finally made it to the zoo and had a great Kodak moment of riding the miniature train around the park and zoo grounds. My husband even took a photo of me with the kids looking happy and carefree. I am usually never in the photos—as official family photographer, I am outside looking in on years of family photo albums. The good part is, I never seem to age!
After we finally made it inside the zoo, my oldest decided to mope around all day because I refused to buy her more junk from the gift shop. My three-year-old, the birthday girl, took a header out of the back of the wagon, resulting in an enormous goose egg on the back of her skull. My 22-month old terrorized the goats in the petting zoo by alternately pinching their tails or beating them with the hair brushes that the zoo personnel handed out to the children so they could gently groom the animals. And a bird pooped in my freshly shampooed hair as we ate our picnic lunch under the shade of the oak trees.
While much of what happened with my kids describes a pretty typical day in the LeBleu household, there are a few things I will remember about our 2008 Spring Break adventure. Today I noticed the animals. I’ve visited the San Antonio zoo countless times and other famous national animal treasures including the San Diego, Los Angeles, and Seattle zoos, and Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia. Usually buzzing through to stay “on schedule” and make sure that we covered every inch of the grounds before closing time, today we didn’t put ourselves under that kind of pressure. We ambled from one display to another and let the kids decide when they were done and ready to move on. I saw the stubble on the dimpled back of a hippo submerged under water in a mid-day nap, the bright white and razor sharp teeth of a crocodile as it swam past my daughter’s nose pressed against the aquarium glass. I saw a cheetah’s powerful and graceful form saunter down an incline before resting in a bed of deep green spring grass.
Today was the first time I have ever heard the lions roar. On the numerous other occasions that we have visited this zoo, the south Texas heat would render most of the animals, especially the nocturnal felines, almost lifeless, as they slept in whatever cool shade they could find in their habitats. It was cool and overcast as my husband and I held up our two little girls to see the male and female lions as our “big ones” ran ahead to see the hyenas. As we watched, the lions got up, stretched, and opened their jaws in the most amazing roar that I have ever heard. If I hadn’t known better, I would have suspected the zookeepers had orchestrated a little Milli Vinilli lip-synching marketing ploy, so loud and perfect was the sound these majestic creatures were exclaiming. “I am the ruler of the animal kingdom!” You wouldn’t have believed all the guests that came running to get a glimpse of the excitement at the lion’s den.
On the peaceful ride back to Austin (finally—a quiet car, as everyone snoozed except the driver, yours truly), I was able to rest and unpack some of my favorite parts of the day. I have a camera full of digitized memories to remind me when my mind starts to fade but for now, I know, I will remember the lions. I won’t remember the fighting, the biting (Caroline no biting!), the blue cotton candy that my daughter picked off her shirt to eat. I’ll remember the primal sound the lions made that you cannot capture and replay on an episode of Animal Planet or Crocodile Hunter. I’ll be reminded that even in their circumstances of simulated habitat and perpetual captivity, they still had the wherewithal to show everyone who rules the pride. And I’ll remember that it’s ok to miss a few parts of the park if it means you can see, with new eyes, more than you have ever seen before if you slow down to look.
Maybe that is what Spring Break is supposed to be about—taking a rest from too much busyness to notice the budding flowers, the butterflies in the honeysuckle outside my front door, and “clues” that there is a possum shacking up in the mess spilling out of my garage. It’s not about who can take the coolest or most extravagant trip—it’s about enjoying this time with my “big ones” and my “little ones” because, as I’m told so frequently by older, wiser counsel, it will not be long before they are all out on their own to make their own roar in this world.