One summer I went with my mother on a weeklong cruise to the Caribbean, during which someone jumped overboard. According to boat gossip and accounts from heavily intoxicated eyewitnesses, a man was arguing with his wife when he suddenly yelled, “F—ck it!” and leaped from the balcony. I only noticed something was wrong when I saw searchlights appear on the water. The following day, the captain assured us that the man had been successfully rescued, but the night it happened, everyone was fearing the worst. I went back to our room to find my mom. She was inside, sobbing: “I thought it was you. You’ve been so miserable this entire trip.”
On some level, I began to suspect this is how all family trips go. We invest so much (money, emotions, liver health) to bond over rum punches and zip-lining excursions, determined to make memories at all costs. Disappointment and allegations of ingratitude are practically baked in. Is there any way to emerge from it all unscathed, with something that feels even remotely like a vacation?
While the face of contemporary travel literature is increasingly that of the solo female looking to find herself (Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love and Cheryl Strayed in Wild), the fact is: most people do not travel this way. Rather than pursuing solitary self-transformation by stepping out of our comfort zone, more often than not, we bring our comfort zone with us in the form of grumpy kids and stressed-out spouses. According to AAA’s 2019 travel survey, 100 million Americans will go on a family vacation this year, and a lot of those people will be crammed into a car together (and we all know that I Spy stops being fun really fast). That’s what makes two new books out this fall—How to Be a Family, by Dan Kois ($28; Little, Brown and Company), and Uncharted, by Kim Brown Seely ($25, Sasquatch Books)—refreshingly relatable. They both meditate on the highs and lows of traveling as a family.
How to Be a Family follows Kois, his wife, Alia, and their two preteen daughters as they spend a year away from their fast-paced life in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Virginia. They divide the year into four parts, spending three months each in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and rural Kansas to escape what was starting to feel like a “blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights.” This caper, they hope, will be possible with the help of an intricate configuration of logistics: musical subletters, gracious bosses who agree to let them work remotely, and a book advance.
The four destinations in How to Be a Family provide opportunities to explore different cultural attitudes toward parenting (from New Zealand’s emphasis on outdoor time to the Dutch practice of giving children sprinkles—hagelslag—for breakfast). Kois, who cohosts Slate’s parenting-advice podcast, is open-minded when it comes to all of them (even the sprinkles) but finds parts of it incompatible with the particulars of American society. For instance, The Happiest Kids in the World, a Dutch guidebook on parenting, is rooted in the idea that happiness comes from being content with what you have, but as Kois points out, such a perspective “stands in direct conflict with the American model of viewing our possibilities as limitless.”
Kois’s podcast is called Mom and Dad Are Fighting, but in the book it’s largely him butting heads with his daughters on a topic many parents will relate to: screen time. Throughout the book, Kois frequently returns to a problem that seems to especially burden modern parents, a “vision of what our time together should be like” that can so easily “invade and darken the time we actually have.” This becomes particularly acute, for Kois and for most families, while traveling. Halfway through the journey, he says, “I wanted us to get off screens and into the world; instead we’re all staring at our devices, shouting when the rain knocks the internet out.” His children, 9-year-old Harper and 11-year-old Lyra, don’t really seem to understand where these expectations for togetherness are coming from or where adults get the idea that we need to actively make memories. And maybe they have a point. After all, if it weren’t for the internet, would they have ever mastered the song “Despacito” enough to make up a new version, “No Mosquitos,” a more fitting anthem for their relationship to the Costa Rican air?
In Uncharted, we find a different figuration of family: two empty nesters, but the outdoorsy kind who live in the Pacific Northwest and profess to having a weakness for the word “remote.” With one son in college and another about to start, Kim Brown Seely and her husband, Jeff, contemplate their next chapter. Seeing so many people in the same situation, staving off depression or divorce (or both), they’re determined to find a new way to be “alone together.”
They decide to sail away in search of a mysterious blond bear that can only be found in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia. They embark on the 700-nautical-mile journey, sailing by themselves on a 54-foot boat, which they worry is like “a giant flagpole announcing to the entire world that someone on board was having a midlife crisis.” Seely and her husband are committed to this adventure though, one that is perhaps as defined by the elements (cold water, colder winds, bears) as it is by the prospect of suddenly being alone for the first time in twenty-some-odd years. When Seely wonders aloud “if [their] boat would survive,” it is clear she means more than the floorboards and the sails. But quite literally in the middle of it all, Seely has a revelation. Seeing a pair of breaching whales swim in the same water that keeps her boat afloat, she feels connected, in a tactile sense, to all living things, including her two sons. “Everything is with you,” she realizes, in a way that you can only realize things when you’re at sea.
Uncharted and How to Be a Family are firm reminders that despite the independent allure of solo travel, sometimes we can’t change on our own. And it’s true, because despite my own harrowing solo adventures (hitchhiking in Russia, causing a minor bar fight in Lithuania, crossing the street in India), I think all I really learned about myself is that I like wine, something I probably would have figured out even if I’d never left my hometown. It’s the trips I took with other people that, for better or worse, told me the most about what kind of daughter, friend, and partner I was: one who can be moody, but not to the point where I wouldn’t dance to “No Mosquitos.”