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What I learned on my summer holidays

Without kids

I sink to the floor and just sit there for a moment, exhausted, undone, finished. I used to be able to manage airports. I used to have a document folder and a neat little wheelie suitcase. What’s happened to me? The airline staff at the gate look away in embarrassment. When I think that I won’t be seeing my son tomorrow, great racking sobs shake my body. It’s absurd – I haven’t cried like this in ages. Good grief, I haven’t cried like this since I gave birth. “This is what comes of trying to have a holiday,” I say to myself. “You see what you’ve done!”

The biggest shock of becoming a mother is not the birth plan that goes out of the window or the broken nights, or the tearing up of the Gina Ford parenting book, it’s the dawning realisation that proper holidays are a thing of the past. I’m talking about the kind of holiday where long lazy days merge, one into the other, and you burn through four or five paperbacks, and the only thing you’re working on is your tan.

“Right,” I said to my husband the first time we tried to go away en famille, “we’re going to divide up the day.” My son, Arthur, was just walking at the time. “Alternate shifts,” I said. “Two hours on, two hours off.” Which turned out to be quite lonely.

Then Arthur started school and I couldn’t help noticing that holidays were harder work than term time. Nor was going away à deux a solution: my husband doesn’t like lounging holidays – he’d always prefer to be walking in Scotland through the drizzle and the midges.

Now it’s seven years on and my Californian friend Victoria has moved to Mexico. She invites me to stay for a week at her lovely villa. The only expense will be the airfare. I leap at the chance. I will go alone and leave my son with his dad – so no problem there. I won’t be lonely, but it will be a real break. The plan seems perfect.

The week before departure is frantic: juggling the complex mum-favour exchange (so that my son will have a play-date every evening), stocking the fridge, doing all the clothes washing, making lists of contact details, football commitments and so forth – not to mention launching myself into an odyssey of hair removal. At last, somewhat harrowed, I’m on the Heathrow Express waving goodbye to my husband and son.

The flight is an 11-hour overnighter and I get off the plane for the three-hour drive to Victoria’s house with a truly astonishing headache. No matter. Mexico shimmers with vibrant colour and sunshine. It’s lovely to see Victoria and her villa is stunning.

I unpack, head for the pool and open my novel. I last about seven minutes. I’m burning. I get suncream. Now, it’s too bright. I need a hat as well as my sunglasses. I borrow one from Vic. A few quiet minutes pass, but now I’m desperately thirsty. I get a drink. Goodness, I think, up and down, up and down. I’m out of practice with this.

Also, I can’t get into my book. I’ve chosen Henry James, a writer I used to love, but today he seems like the biggest time-waster on the planet. I keep checking my watch, not wanting to miss the planned Skype with home – but even that’s a disappointment. My son’s not very interested and my husband is distractedly busy. “I hope you’re having fun,” he says ominously. I let them go with false cheer.

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I wake the next morning conscious of a low-level buzz of anxiety. Why can’t I relax? Why can’t my stomach relax? It’s beautiful here – warm, exotic – but something is missing. I decide that the thing that is missing is … Valium. Please understand: I have never taken Valium in my life – but this is Mexico and I’ve heard that you can buy it over the counter and, somehow, it pops into my head as a quick fix. I go to the pharmacy with Victoria, who is fearless, and she barks the word “Valium!” at the three white-coated assistants. They all shake their heads simultaneously. It turns out we do need a prescription.

A couple of days go by and the buzz of anxiety has lessened. We venture out to see some ancient frescoes. In the church I hear a real buzzing sound; there’s an insect up my blouse. At the exact moment I realise it’s there, it bites me with breathtaking ferocity. I pull up my top to see a bright red pin-prick and a wasp drops on to the nearby pew.

Well, I think, I’ve had wasp bites before. No big deal.

That evening I’m back at the pharmacy begging for the strongest anti-histamine they have. Then I’m up in the small hours getting ice packs out of the fridge. The bite site is now the size of a large baking potato and has rings like Saturn. The throbbing is beyond reason; it consumes me. I read to distract myself. No good. I switch on my phone and look at pictures of Arthur instead.

Finally, it’s my last day. Bite update: it’s bigger and bolder than ever. But London is now only 20 hours away. At home I know what to get at the chemist (Solarcaine). At home everything will be OK.

The three-hour drive to Mexico City passes quickly and I check in for my late evening flight. I’m so keen that I go to the departure gate the moment it opens. I float up to the airline lady with a beatific smile on my face. Goodbye, lovely Mexico. Parting is such sweet sorrow when you know you’re heading into the arms of your eight-year-old.

Where is your immigration card? A harsh voice cuts across my reverie.


“Your immigration card!”

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Apparently when I entered the country I was given a small slip. The slip is now in my checked bag. I didn’t think I would need it. I do need it. In fact, I cannot leave the country for fear I have overstayed.

You have to get another card, says the airline lady. You go to the end and turn left. There is a desk.

With doom in my chest, I pick up my heavy carry-on bag. I have inadvisably bought a large Mexican urn, which I’ve kept with me for fear of breakage.

“Hurry!” she barks.

So I go down to the end and turn left. It’s a long way. There are perfume shops. Nothing else. I ask a few officials. They give me directions. The urn is getting heavier by the minute. The ice pack strapped to my bite is not cold any more and the vile throbbing starts again. No sign of the immigration desk. I’m given more directions. My jog breaks into a run. They call my name through the PA.

hen – hurray – I spot a customer service desk. I’m a customer! I need service! I canter up and explain my predicament. The women shake their perfectly coiffed heads. No, they can’t help me. They seem amused. Am I funny? I guess I am: I’m pretty much a woman on the edge.

I run the 200 yards back to the gate by which point I’m ready to smash the Mexican urn into a million pieces.

“Did you get it?” barks airline lady.

We discuss her directions. It becomes clear that what she meant by “down to the end” was back through security to the main body of the airport. I am dumbfounded. Gobsmacked.

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I don’t have time, I gasp.

No, she agrees.

What about my checked bag? I say.

We will get it off the plane.

My immigration slip is in that bag, I say again.

She waves me aside. This is the moment when I sink to the floor – undone. The plane has gone without me. It’s midnight and I’m alone in Mexico City. I try to tell myself that things are not so bad: I have a credit card, I have a British passport, I have family and friends – somewhere out there – a long way away. Things could be worse.

None of this works. I am beside myself. What is this? I wonder. It feels like grief. The next day, my husband buys me an £800 ticket home. On the phone to him I am overcome again. This is the pain of love, I realise – and for a moment feel privileged to be experiencing it. I go back to the airport and get my suitcase from baggage reclaim. (I’ll skip the part about the three hours it took to do this. Suffice to say: when I finally put my hands on that immigration slip, I was like Humphrey Bogart with the treasure of the Sierra Madre.)

And the moral of the tale? Well, clearly – I’ve changed. Perhaps I don’t like doing nothing any more. Perhaps those holidays were only ever a fantasy. Perhaps my real life is now better than any kind of escape. Perhaps I’m no longer one, but three.

Amy Jenkins

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With friends

You’re five days into your holiday. The kids are exhausted because of heat, swimming and late nights, and a stock refusal to recognise the concept of the siesta. And they are freaking out because you won’t let them stay up for face painting and the mini disco. Stressed, you and your other half have been snapping at each other all day, and the conflict has now gone to Defcon 1 thanks to a disagreement over where to eat. Now you sit and look at anything but each other, mainlining sangria and reflecting that you could have stayed at home with the Game of Thrones box set and decent wi-fi.

In one shape or another, it’s a scenario familiar to many of us. But it won’t be my fate this summer. Because we’re going away with 21 other people.

It’s the fourth time we’ve done it. We go every two years, always to somewhere new, staying in a large property that can accommodate us all. It’s a group that is linked by the mums. If it was the dads who were all friends, we’d get together once every five years for an afternoon of sport in the pub, and leave without a single personal detail of the others’ lives (but with an excellent debate about goal-line technology under our belts).

Benjie Goodhart on one of his biennial holidays.
Benjie Goodhart, bottom right, in France with friends – all wearing family themed T-shirts. Photograph: Susie Brown

The mums were all friends in their student days and no longer get to see each other regularly so the holiday is a treasured way of catching up.

But it is much more than that. When I tell people that I’m about go away with six other families, the reaction is generally one of horror, as if I’d said we were going to Club Med in downtown Mogadishu. But here’s the thing: it’s the most relaxing holiday you can have with kids.

From the moment they get up in the morning to when they collapse into bed, they have 12 playmates. People to splash around with in the pool, explore the garden with, practise dances or play games with. At least, I think that’s what they do. The truth is, we don’t see that much of them. They’ll come and find you if they have a scraped knee or a sense of outrage following an inevitable quarrel, but other than that, they are off doing their own thing. As any parent will know, the only thing better than spending time with one’s kids is not spending time with them.

A holiday like this doesn’t just happen. It takes logistical planning akin to the sack of Rome. Finding a property that can accommodate up to 30 people and satisfy their diverse requirements is a feat in itself, and then someone has to coordinate all the various dates and payments and inquiries. Thanks, Molly.

When you get there, there is the small matter of catering. The daily trip to the supermarket would benefit from a fork lift, and dinner for the grownups is not so much a meal as a competitive sport. Sadly, I am the Eddie the Eagle at this culinary Olympiad, while around me, people prepare three-course meals of such outstanding quality it almost seems an insult that we’re often three sheets to the wind by the time dinner is served. One of our group even made beef wellington once, though he’s not gone near anything so ambitious since his second child arrived.

They do that, kids. Arrive. They’ve been doing so with relentless regularity since our first holiday, which featured 10 children. Four years later, we reached full capacity – 15 kids. This year, there will be only 13 – one family has left the cult and are, it need not be said, dead to us. Except that she’s my wife’s oldest friend. And he’s the main financial brains of the group. And my son, Fred, adores their sons. But aside from that, yeah, they’re dead to us.

There is a joy in looking back over the holidays we’ve had together – each one a yardstick in our lives, given a peculiar clarity and easily dated by the different locations. When I think of the first, beautiful rustic house in south-west France, I think of the “cell” we made poor Fred sleep in; our tendency to get lost in the car; of going for an early morning swim before anyone else was up, only to return to some very grumpy faces around the breakfast table. Nobody had told me there was a pool alarm. I think of how complete our family felt. Only it wasn’t, yet.

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The second holiday, also in southwest France, brings to mind our baby, Elsie, either sleeping or grinning as the bigger girls crowded around her incessantly; a pool so cold you half expected to see Leonardo DiCaprio’s icy corpse float past; sunsets across endless fields of corn; medieval towns in torrential downpours; dads getting competitive over table tennis; coloured, family themed T-shirts (thanks, Ren!); and a jovial owner, Tom, who set up a teddy bear hunt for the kids, the last bear spotted, to their unbridled joy, clinging to the chimney four floors up.

The downpours drove us to Spain last time – the Costa Blanca. Here we were at our peak number – 29. Now, the baby who had splashed excitedly in my arms four years previously was insisting he didn’t need armbands. Elsie had gone from a newborn to jumping into my arms in the pool again and again. And again. It was the holiday of the rapper’s car (a gold Mercedes with tinted windows – we’d asked the rental firm for a Ford Focus), of pretending to be asleep while the kids gave me a makeover (think Grant Mitchell in lipstick); of unadulterated sunshine.

We have stopped reproducing now. Our numbers will increase no more – a fact that is reassuring but tinged with sadness. Two years ago, we discussed how many more of these holidays there would be. The eldest children will be teenagers this year. How much longer will they want to come on family holidays? And, more to the point, how much longer can we get away with putting them to bed at 9pm for adult fun time. (That’s not as dirty as it sounds, by the way.)

In the end, we’ll be guided by the kids. If they want to do it, we’ll do it. If not, we won’t. And so the transfer of decision-making from the parents to their children begins. I have the sense, for the first time, of life starting to rush past. I want to freeze time, for ever. With these magical moments captured in time, in some ways I feel that I have. Thank you, my friends.


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