Snapshots of family holidays that no one shares
‘Getting away from it it all’ can make or break relationships
Olivia Mai and her husband, Bartek Typrowicz, with their children, Anya (6) and Nicholas (3), outside The Stork Exchange, at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
It used to be a handwritten postcard of an impossibly idyllic scene that did the job. Now multiple photos of colourful cocktails, happy, sandy-faced children, exotic cuisine and beautiful sunsets are deployed through social media to tell all back home what a “wonderful” holiday you’re having.
But they rarely tell the full story. Who’s going to post a video of their toddler having a tantrum at airport security, or share photos of the dodgy-looking hotel dinners, or of the cold shoulder of a partner after a holiday row?
When you’ve waited all year, and spent that much money, few like to admit family holidays can be really hard work and far from perfect. There is pressure on everyone to keep up appearances and stay quiet about the parts that range from the less enjoyable, if you’re lucky, to the downright miserable, if you’re not.
The challenges that the annual holiday present in cutting families adrift from the comfort of routine and throwing them together 24/7 to cope with, possibly, different food, culture, climate and language, shouldn’t be underestimated. Trying to keep children happy and safe in unfamiliar surroundings is likely to test the parents’ own relationship with each other.
Meanwhile, other people’s economy with the truth means there can be the added stress of believing other families really do have a “wonderful” holiday from beginning to end, so what’s wrong with us?
It’s no surprise, then, to hear that the post-summer-holidays period is a peak time for counsellors working with Relationships Ireland – second only to the fall-out from that other great, happy family occasion, Christmas.
Holidays are about getting away from everything – “but we can’t really”, says Relationships Ireland psychotherapist Tony Moore. “It’s a lovely change but it’s still pressure.”
On the positive side, he estimates that nearly one-third of clients who come for counselling after their holidays have found the break from routine beneficial and they are looking for help to replicate some of that enjoyment in their relationship the other 50 weeks of the year.
However, for the rest, the holiday that they may have hoped would rekindle romance has simply reinforced dissatisfaction.
When a couple have an “okay” relationship and plan two weeks away in, say, France or Spain, he says, one or both may imagine a romantic setting that will transform their almost non-existent sex life into a grand passion.
“There is a lot of expectation about what is going to happen. And when it doesn’t, there is terrible tension,” says Moore. “It just compounds one thing on another. They have a terrible night and then the kids want to go off to the beach at 9am.”
As a counsellor he is also very familiar with busy executives who can’t wind down on holiday.
“We see a lot of that. The business man who goes on holidays and brings his office – ie computer and phone – with him, and then is working in the south of France. When they come back, he wonders why his wife is complaining that he ignored her.”
But workaholics – sometimes women, but more often men – are doing that for their own psychological reasons. They have to be in control of everything and they fear losing money.
“They have lost the simple joy of life – they really, really have. They are a total streak of misery and they have no sense of humour – they see no joy, they have no compassion.” They’re so obsessed with their business that they might see little sense in going on holidays in the first place. They’ll have nothing to do for two weeks, they won’t be making money and they will have to listen to the kids moaning – for what?
“I have met people who will pay people to take their family on holiday because they can’t be bothered,” he says.
A man like that who does take time off may make an effort to give his wife attention for a day or two at the start of the holiday, says Moore, but “after that he doesn’t know what to do or say; they have lost the art of chit chat”. He’s bored “and just wants to get back and make more money; it’s like an addiction”.
“It is not just package-holiday people who have rows, it is right across the social spectrum,” he continues. “People are thrown together; I don’t speak to you for the other 50 weeks of the year, who the hell are you? That’s a common theme.”
He agrees there is pressure to keep up appearances and that we compare ourselves unfavourably with other people all the time. “The truth is,” he adds, “that everybody is going through what we are going through.”
While most of us like to erase bad holiday memories, a “gross” moment in Spain sparked a business idea for Olivia Mai, a Dublin mother of two. Her elder child was just a baby when she and her Polish husband, Bartek Typrowicz, flew into Malaga and went to pick up their rental car, along with an infant car seat they had booked.
“The flight got in quite late and when we arrived, they handed us the wrong size car seat. And it was manky, and it was old.” They asked for a different one but staff at the car hire desk said that was all they had left, so they had to take it.
Some days later their little girl got sick on it so Mai took off the cover to wash it. “There was a maggot in the frame underneath the cover, living off Liga and raisins and God knows what. It was just the most disgusting thing. And that is what set me off.”
The idea for a baby equipment rental business was born. On investigation, she found that similar businesses were well established in some countries, such as Australia, but were only beginning to pop up in Europe.
Mai and her husband set up The Stork Exchange, aimed primarily at holidaying families, in January 2012. They started it at their home in Fairview, Dublin, but, just over a year ago, opened a base at Dublin Airport. From this month, they have an outlet in Shannon Airport too.
“We’re small – it’s niche, but there is a demand for it,” says Mai, who estimates that about 80 per cent of customers, for items such as prams, double buggies travel cots and highchairs are emigrant Irish families coming back for a holiday. Those going out of the country are renting equipment such as strollers and buggy boards and buying inflatable booster seats.
The Stork Exchange has also started selling pram bags because it is very easy for buggies to get damaged in transit; for example, wheels can get snapped off.
“What a lot of airlines have started to do now, if you read the small print, is that they won’t cover the cost of damage unless the pram is adequately packed,” she points out. “We see people going through all the time and they have got their car seats and prams in bin liners. That is not going to cut it.”
As parents of two young children themselves – their daughter is now six and their son is three – they are well positioned to anticipate the practical needs of fellow parents and also offer advice.
For example, they suggested to the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) that strollers be provided airside for customers, so that families can check in their buggies but have the use of baby transport to the gate. A similar service is available in some other airports, such as Copenhagen, Faro, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Dubai, and a DAA spokeswoman confirms it is exploring the idea.
Car seats are one thing The Stork Exchange won’t rent to outward travellers, although they are popular with inward travellers for putting into a relative’s car at the airport. Mai does not recommend parents bring their own car seats away with them unless they have one that is airline-approved to be used on board, rather than stowed in the hold.
“They get damaged and you are not going to know unless you pull the cover off and check for damage,” she says of what is a vital piece of safety equipment.
While holidaying with small children is always hard work, at least they are easily pleased and their joy is gratifying. That’s not always the case with teenagers.
It’s a relief not having to mind them all the time but letting them go off to do their own thing, particularly at night, brings another set of worries. And since they can refuse point blank to fall in with your plans, compromise is essential if you want to avoid too much conflict.
“I think you have to listen to them. It needs to work for everybody – it may not be quite the holiday you want,” says parenting mentor Sheila O’Malley, who has three daughters, the youngest of whom is 17. When you’re down to your last teenager for a family holiday, or have one child, bringing a friend along often works well, she suggests.
There is no pleasure dragging unwilling teenagers around cultural attractions. “They actually make you miserable. It really isn’t worth it,” she says, recalling exasperated conversations along the lines of “for God’s sake, I want to go to the Louvre and you want to go to Zara”.
Another thing that can drive parents mad on holidays is teenagers who stay in bed until lunchtime.
“You are thinking, Why bother? Why did we bring them here? They are in their beds and on their phones to friends back home. If that bothers you, it really is a problem,” says O’Malley.
She recommends simply accepting that teenagers operate in a different time zone – they stay up way later than you do – and requiring them to get up early, say for a day-trip, only when necessary.
Having done years of self-catering with the family abroad – “it is not really like a holiday in the normal sense of the word, you’re still cooking, you’re still cleaning, you’re still shopping”, she remarks – she and her husband are looking forward to a week away this summer, just the two of them. A perfect family holiday – without the family.