Holiday harmony My husband and I spend most of our vacation driving each other to distraction
08:42 GMT, 16 August 2012
Something occurs — without fail — on the first day of my family holiday every year.
This is an argument between me and my husband that is so explosive even the sunflowers in surrounding fields will duck their heads for fear of flying baguettes.
The reason for this marital disharmony Usually the seemingly innocuous sentence: ‘Shona . . . did you remember to pack my fishing rod’
Bickering blues: Shona Sibery says that for her family, holidays are an expensive reminder of why they try to get away from each other
Keith will utter this question — as he always does on arrival at our holiday destination — and it will be the very last straw.
Every woman in Britain will understand the time-consuming logistics that go into organising a trip away.
The laundry, the ironing, the endless list of essentials ‘just in case’, finding the sick bag for the car, the medicine and sun lotions (of varying strengths), the downloading of Peppa Pig episodes for the laptop, the cables for the camera, the phone, the Nintendo DS.
And all this on top of finding a kennel with space for the dog for two weeks, cleaning the house, switching off wall sockets and the hundreds of other tasks we women undertake in preparation for a family ‘break’.
Keith, meanwhile, will throw his shaving kit and swimming trunks onto the top of my suitcase and waltz out of the front door under the happy assumption that I have taken care of everything else.
Which is why, when a survey last week revealed that one of the top triggers of rows on holiday is men ogling other women in bikinis on the beach, I couldn’t help but let out a loud, derisive snort.
Holiday hell: A staggering 62 per cent of couples admitted that they argued on a daily basis while on vacation
If that was the only thing my husband did to wind me up while we’re away then, frankly, I’d consider it a very successful holiday indeed. In fact, if it gave me ten minutes of peace and quiet to read my book, I might pay some nubile young woman to place her towel right in front of his.
The second highest irritation voiced by the 1,000 Britons interviewed was men wanting to do something ‘active’ while women prefer to lounge in a deckchair beside the pool.
Since when was this cause for conflict If Keith wanted to do something ‘active’ while we were away, I wouldn’t be moaning about it — I’d hand over my to-do list as quickly as possible before he changed his mind.
He could start with picking up all the wet towels around the pool — something I undertake several times a day on holiday — and work his way right through to bathing and putting to bed four sunburnt, fractious children.
Except, of course, this is the stuff of fantasy. And it is this disjunct between fantasy and reality that I believe is responsible for the arguments which mar most couples’ holidays (in the recent survey, 62 per cent confessed to being at loggerheads on a daily basis).
I set off on holidays hoping they will prove to be a time of restorative bonding — yet they unfailingly turn out to be the complete opposite.
They are an expensive reminder of why, back home, my family and I try to get away from each other as much as possible.
'If ogling women in bikinis was the only thing my husband
did to wind me up while we’re away then, frankly, I’d consider it a very
successful holiday indeed.
Being on holiday, however, forces our family of six to co-exist 24/7 in a smaller, less-equipped space than we are used to, with the added joy of lumpy beds, French plumbing and no TV.
Rather than being a halcyon time of relaxation and lazing about in the sun, it is, instead, a fortnight of rising tension, conflict and simmering resentment, as our various foibles and differences boil over in the midday heat.
The bickering starts in the confined space of the car on the hideously long journey to wherever it is in rural France we have chosen to decamp.
The children niggle constantly at each other: ‘Her elbow is touching mine.’ ‘His breathing is really annoying me.’
Keith will refuse to let me drive — despite the fact I spend my life ferrying the children around at home.
For some reason, on holiday he feels it is safer for him to take charge of the steering wheel. Which would be fine, were it not for the fact that I am a hopeless map reader and he hates satnav.
Cue endless, exasperating rows at French service stations with him complaining about my navigation skills while rejecting my pleas to swap seats and work to our respective strengths.
When we do, eventually, arrive at our costly ‘converted’ cowshed, we have the obligatory first-day humdinger of a row as we unpack.
Then we start to bicker about the pool. Under French law all pools have an alarm that activates if a small child falls in. Problem is, the alarm has a 15-second delay before alerting us to the fact that our two-year-old is drowning.
Now this really shouldn’t cause rows, should it Yet every year we argue over whether it is safe to read a novel and ‘watch’ the pool at the same time. Keith believes it is. I don’t.
Our differing approaches to the children are magnified on holiday.
Normally, this is not something we have to compromise about on the basis I do the lion’s share of childcare at home.
On holiday, however, I must accept that my husband will express an opinion on their behaviour, eating habits or manners every five minutes.
Which makes me wonder — every summer — why, if he feels so strongly about such matters, he only volunteers his opinion for one fortnight a year
Once we’ve been caged in the barn for a few days, we’ll decide to venture out for the day to the nearest town.
What inevitably happens here is that I navigate buggy and escaping toddler over cobblestones and around hundreds of holidaymakers, at the same time as fending off relentless requests from my older children for euros to buy tourist tat, while Keith wanders about 50 yards ahead, seemingly oblivious to his family.
So we have another row in the blazing heat, before I stomp off with the buggy, fantasising about the first week of September, when I will next get five minutes alone.
Of course, I am not the only woman who finds family holidays utter torture. Once our little darlings have headed back to school after the long summer break, my friends and I often meet up for a much-needed bottle (or two) of wine and compare our assorted summer marriage meltdowns.
One friend actually filed for divorce on her first day back from Spain last year. She didn’t even bother to unpack first.
Another told me how, every August, before decamping to Provence with her stockbroker husband and hyperactive toddler twins, she makes an appointment with her GP to beg for a prescription of Prozac.
‘I just need something to zone me out for the fortnight we’re away,’ she explains.
While I haven’t yet resorted to prescription drugs to get through family holidays, I have tried countless other tricks. This year, I tried to avoid our usual holiday tensions by going away with another family.
How wrong I was. We got to the accommodation before them, having driven for seven hours. After unlocking the doors and opening the shutters I stuck a bottle of wine in the freezer in anticipation of their imminent arrival. Moments later a loud slamming of car doors signified they were here.
But before I could even reach the terrace to greet them with a cheery ‘hello’ I heard the words: ‘You stupid cow!’, and something much stronger and unprintable in response from his wife. Then they both stormed off, in separate directions, leaving their children standing, bewildered, by the suitcases.
Initially, I thought: ‘Thank god we’re not alone.’ But I soon realised, with a sinking feeling, that we weren’t just going to have to cope with our own marital flare-ups — we were going to have to experience theirs, too.
And that wasn’t all. We had to find some common ground on parenting. For example, was it acceptable for the children to push each other into the pool as long as they were all happy and having a good time I thought it was — the other family didn’t.
Should the children be allowed to stay up late and run riot while we were having dinner Our friends thought so. I couldn’t think of anything worse.
The list went on and on. It only took them five minutes to gather their family together for an outing and they would be waiting for us in their car, engine running, getting increasingly more frustrated — because they’d left all the breakfast washing up undone and their children’s belongings scattered across the house.
Of course, all our frustrations with our friends had to be conducted sotto voce behind closed bedroom doors. United against a common enemy, Keith and I got on marvellously. Perhaps holidays en masse are the way forward . . .
Back at home, harmony is once again restored. Keith is in his study, the children are ignoring each other in front of the TV and I am sitting, alone, at the kitchen table, with a cup of coffee and a good book.
It’s bliss. And the best part is that there’s another 50 weeks until the next holiday. Now that’s what I call a proper break.