I SLOWLY raised my head from my book, thinking vaguely I hadn’t seen my son for a while, then realised I’d last seen him at lunch.
I followed the sound of children shrieking and found a small, wet gang of boys, half of them almost unrecognisable under a thick layer of mud. My mother stood among them smiling stoically, only slightly muddy. The boys seemed unbearably happy at the sight of several small frogs they’d found in the deep slime at the bottom of the stream. Just as animals follow some strange pack instinct, so did the group of feral boys as they rushed up the hill into the trees. My mother doggedly followed behind.
“Granny knows all about frogs,” my seven-year-old son confided as I scrubbed the mud off him in the bath that night. “She’s doing tadpoles with us tomorrow.” This was exactly the type of bonding I’d been hoping for when I agreed to come on holiday with my extended family — my parents, sisters, assorted children and partners.
We were in a beautiful house on the edge of Exmoor in Devon, complete with a field full of sheep, a stream full of frogs and a wood full of hiding places. It was the ideal place to come as a family, chosen by my elder sister for its convenience to everybody, its size and its peacefulness.
Vague plans to go on to the sea or venture further seemed pointless, as it was hard enough to get the children into the house to eat, let alone organise them for an outing. But we didn’t mind.
The grandparents had wisely chosen to stay in a hotel down the road, as an escape after a morning of frog hunting and to be able to collapse with books on quiet sofas and visit the rest of us for meals. The children, worn out after rushing around all day, would go to sleep early, leaving us adults to actually talk to each other.
In that sense, it was a very successful holiday. My sisters and I had become part of an ever-growing swell of people choosing to go away with their children and their parents. In the US, it’s actually something of a trend, with the US Travel Association estimating at least five million American family holidays a year span three generations.
Grandparents who have become part of the mortgage-free, cash-rich, older generation are putting their hands in their pockets to help out their much poorer kids and grandchildren. Many grandparents actually pay for the entire holiday, according to US stats.
What occurs across the pond isn’t unique — or even new — as families worldwide have been holidaying together for years. In the UK, multigenerational holidays are gaining recognition, as well as momentum, for a number of reasons. And it’s not just the state of the economy that’s prompting families to go away together. Strict working schedules, with parents struggling to coordinate their precious time off with school holidays and the need to see their extended family, is another factor. And as generations move further apart — for work, to study or just to follow different paths in life — it’s now much harder to bring families together. Hence ‘special occasion’ travel for weddings or anniversaries is becoming another growing trend.Looking back on my childhood, some of my fondest memories are of our family holidays spent in our barn in Devon. My grandmother kept little presents for us in the huge pockets of her coat, which we would raid shamelessly, and my grandfather made walking sticks and taught us about bird song. It’s probably taken on a sentimental, childhood glow for me now, but I would love this new generation of grandchildren to have similar memories.
That’s why I want Arthur to spend more time with all his family. He is the only son of a single mother and I’ve always felt a need to ensure closeness with all his relatives. His cousins have recently moved away from where we live in London and his grandparents live many miles away. We normally only get the chance to see them a couple of times a year, so these multigenerational holidays are a chance to reconnect. There’s also the hope of a little free childcare.
“I love travelling with Omnia (the family name for my father) and Granny,” my son tells me. “We play games together and Granny cooks better than you.”
Holidays for Arthur and myself usually consist of moving slowly around southern England in a campervan, where we quickly run out of things to say to each other. Hence why the companionship of his extended family is very important on a social level and to keep us sane.
My mother also finds holidaying with the family rewarding. “I can’t fit everybody into my house any more,” she says. “Going on holiday means I see all of you together and it also means I can relax. At home, I’m worried all the time about cooking. And if you’re all happy, going away is fun for us, too.”
I was lucky as a child, as my grandmother used to take me on amazing trips to Turkey to see archaeological sites or on snorkelling trips to the States. I was doubly fortunate as she was a young grandparent. With today’s ageing population, you could expect travelling with grandparents to be staid and safe, but that’s not necessarily the case.
For example, some grandparents are taking their families on ever more adventurous holidays — wildlife safaris, sailing or cultural trips. This is due to a combination of healthier, more active grandparents and a generation that embraces new technology. In short, travel has become easier.
For the older generation, holidaying with their younger, fitter children means they can be more adventurous and choose the type of holiday they might not attempt on their own. My grandfather used to take advantage of his eager, young grandchildren and take us to France on the equivalent of a ‘booze cruise’, where we would be put to work carrying back crates of wine.
Supporting adventurous relatives is fine, but managing expectations is important for any trip. One of our early extended family trips proved how not to do it. The plan was to visit my aunt, who was staying in Rome and, having seen the main sights, wanted some company as she explored further afield.
On paper this looked great. Arthur was five at the time and quite capable of trotting round historical sites as long as there was ice cream and a few walls to climb on. I loved the idea of museums and meals in the sun, so we happily agreed. The reality was far more stressful, however.
Firstly, we hadn’t worked out in advance what we were going to do. The sights outside Rome were difficult to get to on day trips and weren’t suitable for a five-year-old as we had to spend hours coping with the heat and public transport.My aunt had also forgotten how demanding small children can be and was from a generation where children should be seen but rarely heard. There seemed to be a constant battle between the two of them and I was caught in the middle making conciliatory gestures. My aunt wanted to soldier on through the heat, while my son was too hot and just wanted to play in the park. I felt torn, guilty and cross all in one. Privately I vowed never to do it again.
We did end up doing it again the following year, but far more successfully with my parents, thanks to a lot more planning and more realistic expectations. We were off to the south of France to spend half-term with them. Again it sounded great, with a beach just below the flat and lots of child-friendly attractions.
Obviously I wanted to be careful we didn’t repeat our mistakes, so we agreed to spend much of the day out and about to give ourselves and my parents lots of space.
The flat was in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small fishing village along the coast from Nice with an endlessly sparkling sea. The holiday worked well when we went on expeditions or when my son and I set off on our own to sit on the beach. My parents would join us for lunch and we would venture to places we could never normally afford. I enjoyed the time we were all spending together.
It was really only in the evening that any cracks began to appear, when we were all tired but Arthur was showing no signs of slowing down. “You have to take Arthur in hand,” said my mother, instantly making me regret our long exposure together.
Having children often allows you to become closer to your parents, but is also fraught with its own relationship dangers and going on holiday can highlight these.
“It’s much better to never say anything about my children,” my sister told my mother last year and, although I’m not sure I would go this far, it’s probably true. Unstinting appreciation is what we’re all looking for and a holiday is not the time to bring up issues, stuck as you all are together.
It’s particularly true as a single parent. Whereas my sisters can talk as a separate family unit, I am still, in the family’s eyes, to be given guidance and this can be annoying on holiday.
My sisters have the opposite issue with their partners, who find travelling with their in-laws quite difficult. They tend to form shifty breakaway groups, where they can hide from the endless reminiscing about our childhood.
However, the chief motivation of holidaying together is to give Arthur memories of his grandparents and the family and I can easily ignore mildly pointed comments in order to give him this.
As an adult, I’ve learnt that multigenerational holidays work best in a large family group. Differences get lost in the great mass of people and the dynamics change for the better; people seem less critical and it’s much easier to go with the flow. We help each other out and, as my sister says: “I love getting to know your children and getting help with my own.”
Having lots of people around means childcare is taken care of naturally and we all pitch in to help with the chores. It’s great having someone else to cook and share the costs.
Space and simplicity are also key to a successful family holiday. Space allows the adults to escape from each other and the children to escape from the adults. Simplicity was the deciding factor in Devon. The fantastic gardens meant the children spent all day happily mucking around outside and didn’t need any other form of entertainment. Granny, a couple of frogs, lots of mud and a tree house and they were happy all week.
I hope when I’m a grandparent, this will still be possible. Surveys suggest we may live to be 100. Perhaps I will be a centennial great-grandparent still travelling on, with generations of my family spread out before me. Here’s hoping!
CASE STUDY: CLARA
Clara Onyemere, a 40-year-old actress from London, takes her family to husband Ben’s family holiday home in France every year. Ben’s family have owned the house for over 40 years and he has been visiting it since he was a child. Their daughter Evie loves it just as much as her dad does and they happily revisit all the places that Ben used to go to. Clara’s own extended family take holidays nearby, so the two families get together — both sets of cousins and both sets of grandparents.
CASE STUDY: TAMSIN
Tamsin Ford, a 35-year-old London architect, visits her grandmother in California with her three girls and her mother. She also goes on trips with her husband’s family. She enjoys both and is very pleased her children have met their great grandmother, but finds the holidays with the in-laws much easier. She says: “There’s more of a distance between us and my father-in-law plays long, wonderful games with the girls. We are all honest about the space that we need and get separate villas”.
CASE STUDY: MICHELLE
Michelle Sharon, 40, from London, her partner and their two boys, aged six and 10, have holidayed with their extended family in Cyprus a few times. They suggest the best thing to do is make sure you give each other lots of space. “We hire an apartment and visit the grandparents — or they join us at the beach. It helps enormously to have someone assist with bringing food for dinner if we don’t plan to go out. Plus having babysitters you know and trust is really great on holiday.”
ESSENTIALS: Checklist for Parents
1. Do your research: Consider what all your differing requirements are and make sure you can cater to them. Coordinate diaries and manage expectations. Put the majority of the planning in the hands of one person.
2. Location, location, location: Ensure you have enough space for all of you to sleep, dine and escape. Check you can walk somewhere to get a pint of milk. Or just a pint.
3. Money, money, money: Make sure you’ve a plan in place for a budget, how to pay and sharing the costs. Organise a kitty if required.
4. Compromise & patience: It will take time to organise your trip and will involve a little compromise and patience from all involved to make it a success. You will be going at the speed of the ‘slowest’ person in the group.
5. Be realistic: Don’t expect your parents to do too much and give them ideas of what to do with the children when you leave. Putting aside some time for grandparents to share something they love with the children is the most rewarding.
6. Day-by-day: Consider a daily itinerary for each of you, then organise who will do what and when. You may do different things during the day and meet for lunch or dinner.
7. Take turns: Organise a cooking rota if you have to, but take turns at all the boring stuff, from driving to washing up.
8. Boundaries: Ensure you have rules and boundaries for the children before you go. If 8pm is bedtime, stick to it. Make sure the kids (and adults) know whose rules they are following and be consistent.
9. Downtime: There’ll always be free time, so take things to watch, see and do when you’re not out and about – DVDs, games consoles, a pack of cards, board games.
10. Quality time: Children act differently when their parents are around. Try to give family members time to spend one-on-one with your child without you being around. It will make a difference.