Our family is one of individuals. We do not move well as a group for long periods of time. Near the end of a travel day, we get cranky and snippy with each other until we’ve all retreated to our earbuds and our books and re-emerged in better moods.
The best vacations we take allow each of us to move independently.
One of our kids’ favorites was a Cozumel all-inclusive where they could order their own food whenever they were hungry and had their own key cards to come and go from the room as they pleased. We took a snorkeling trip and a sunset sailboat tour that were both lovely because the togetherness was a novel island in our vacation and not a slog we’d been enduring since the airport.
On any given evening, if we’re not at someone’s soccer game, it often looks like this: Jason and Jack in the game room playing Rocket League and either laughing or cussing at the TV, depending on whether they’re winning or losing, Gage in his room developing Geometry Dash levels, me on the couch reading a book.
This used to unsettle me.
It wasn’t because I didn’t like the time to myself but because I thought we SHOULD be doing things as a family. We should be playing board games and laughing like those families on TV commercials. We should be going on weekend hikes together and going to… I don’t know, sports games, concerts, events???
There was this tension in my brain between what I wanted to do (which was sit on the couch and keep reading) and what I thought a healthily connected family ought to be doing: laughing maniacally over Scattergories or some shit.
This is largely driven by what I see in the media.
And there’s some influence from my childhood. I remember playing Scrabble as family one Christmas Eve and having a blast. I remember playing cards in the tent while camping when we lost the two of hearts and my dad made one so we could keep playing. He carved it out of wood, a heart at each end — an admirable piece of art, though not so subtle for playing, you know, hearts. We laughed a lot that night.
I also remember my Dad yelling and stomping off more than once because my sister, his spades partner, wasn’t playing “right.” Oddly, at the wizened age of eight, she had failed to grasp the nuanced strategy of her 38-year-old math-whiz father. You can’t play spades with three people, so after staring at each other for a beat, we’d shrug and disband. If I had to write an article on reviews of my various childhood game night experiences, as if each game night were a showing of the same play, it would go something like this:
“Game Night at the Coover Household opened to mixed reviews. While some instances were called 'heartwarming’ and reviewers said, ‘It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time,’ other showings fell flat and missed the mark, with one reviewer noting, ‘I left early.’”
Maybe that’s how game night really is for most people — sometimes an awesome bonding moment, sometimes a well-intended event that doesn’t pan out in the fun department.
But Why Don’t We Do Game Night Now?
The truth is, we are four people who do not like to do the same things when we have a few precious moments of leisure time.
No one in my family reads but me. As much as I would like to sit on the couch side-by-side, occasionally chuckling and saying to each other, “Hey, listen to this…” and sharing passages out loud, forcing my family to do that wouldn’t be fun. And I would rather stick a fork in my eye than play Rocket League. Jason and Jack would probably rather I went with the fork as well, as the one time I tried, I couldn’t keep my car off the ceiling. I’m a liability on the vehicular pitch. (Rocket League is a soccer video game, but you play with cars instead of people. That makes sense, right?)
Gage has no interest in Rocket League or reading cozily on the couch. He sometimes shows me the Geometry Dash levels he’s built and marvels at my ineptitude when I try to play them, crashing and burning in the same spot try after try. Jack and Gage both like to go to the park. Separately. Jack turns right out of the house to the park with the good soccer field, and Gage goes left to the park with the good Pokémon Go catches.
Jason woodworks in the garage, and unless he needs help moving a big piece of wood, that’s largely a solo activity. Gage and I find fascination in plants, birds and bugs; Jack and Jason don’t give a shit. Gage hates loud public spaces and crowds; Jack loves nothing better than a hopped-up fanbase at a game. Jason and I like museums, and the kids tolerate them with eye rolls on a good day.
All of this set me to stewing. So okay, my family doesn’t like to do the same things, and forcing family fun (which, when we do occasionally, at least one of us is the martyr for the evening) is hard on everyone. If you’re the parent making your kids do something, even if they are a good sport about it, it makes it less fun for you. But it’s important to me to stay connected to my family, even as the kids edge into teenhood.
Okay, so we’re not the family laughing over the dice at the dining room table.
And we’re not the family at the football game smiling. (We’re the family where at least one member is merely tolerating the event for the others.) But, I realized, our moments come in other places.
We often make dinner together, and it feels easy, like dance steps known for decades. Last night, I made slider patties while Jack lit the grill and cut veggies. Gage made a salad and seasoned the burgers and right about the time we were done with that, Jason came down from showering and whisked the burgers out to the grill. Afterward, everyone pitched in to clean up. (The kids always require some direction in this department, as they tend to devolve into wrestling each other, but even that’s kinda sweet.)
Sometimes, we find a movie everyone actually wants to see. This past weekend, we all went to Houston for Gage’s soccer tournament, and I felt a togetherness in the scheduled rhythm of warmup, game, warm down, socialize with the team, share a hotel room. That smaller space, sharing a bathroom and coordinating showers, brings bonding (for a couple of days. It gets old after three; I’ve tested it.)
Our best moments are not usually events specially planned.
They are the things that happen in the natural rhythm of our current lives. They are the dinners, the cleaning, the working together to make an out-of-town tournament fun. When we do plan an event for leisure, it behooves us to take into account our individual natures, like that trip to Cozumel.
A big piece of this for me is not spending so much time in my head thinking about what we “should” be doing and spending more time in the present moment, soaking up who our kids are right now and the ever-changing dynamics of our family.
One of our family's favorite SNL skits is David Pumpkins.
David Pumpkins is a character who, on paper doesn’t seem like it would work, but in practice, for reasons none of us can articulate, it’s hilarious. The line we always quote:
“And David Pumpkins is…?”
“HIS OWN THANG!”
Maybe it hits right because that’s who were are — each our own thing even as we are a part of the larger thing that is our family. This skit, that’s very much about standing out, doing your own thing and not concerning yourself with other people finding it weird or off-putting, makes the point that it still works. Being a unique individual works in this world and is as valuable as being part of a group.
So I will let go of the idea of game night. (Seriously, what is it with game night? I don’t even like board games.) I will relax and let my family’s energy — the individual and the group — flow downhill in the direction it wants to go, and I will enjoy the ride.
I always enjoy your writing, but this piece hit me at my core, as I've struggled with some of the same notions but been unable to clearly articulate them (even to myself).
"what I thought a healthily connected family ought to be doing: laughing maniacally over Scattergories or some shit" had me rolling.
I always enjoy reading your writing! It makes me feel good. You have a great perspective on life. LY.