Kumbaya and Pass the Pizza: Surviving Family Reunions

I just returned from a ten day trip to see my family. Notice the use of the word “trip” rather than “vacation” to describe this event. I love vacations and trips, and they are two different experiences. Vacation, to me, means an adventure to a destination, with or without kids. A vacation is staying in accommodations–hotel, resort, campground, lodge. A vacation is an escape, an adventure, a chance to rejuvenate and relax in a brand new place or an annual spot that becomes your tradition. A trip is defined as going somewhere for a specific purpose, but may not be solely for rest, relaxation, or adventure.

Can both be memorable? Of course. But I think, dear mamas, that it is important to know the difference, especially if either involves your extended family and definitely if your family includes small children.

Arriving in my hometown and driving up to the house I grew up in is one of the moments I look forward to all year. It’s comforting, welcoming and, well, home. It is also exhausting, loud, estrogen-laden, and intense. My latest trip involved a 90-minute drive, a four-hour flight, and a three-hour drive with my seven year-old daughter to my hometown in rural northeastern Oregon where I would spend ten days with my three sisters, my parents, various relatives, and a few dear friends with whom I was lucky enough to cross paths.

Oh, did I mention that this trip also included kids? Lots of kids. I am one of four daughters and there are thirteen grandchildren. My family excels at procreating. As in, give one of my sister’s eggs the side-eye and you basically have a new baby cousin nine months later.

I’ve learned that in order to make the most of these trips or reunions with the family circus, I need to keep a few things in mind.

As they grow older, I’m sure I’ll have a new set of strategies, but for now, we are in the throes of raising kids. From eight weeks to mid-twenties, we have all developmental stages around the table at any given meal.

Here are some things that have helped me to survive family trips:

family reunions

Visualize the perfect family reunion, and then wipe the smile right off that little image and set realistic expectations.

Because I live so far away from my family, I look forward to seeing them every year. I also can’t help but to hope for things like the sisters escaping for pedicures, long conversations at night with glasses of wine, reconnecting with my parents under their tree in the backyard, getting to know my nieces and nephews better, and showing my daughter some of my childhood spots. I realize, however, that planning a trip with family is like a Project Runway contestant going to Mood for fabric. Edit, edit, edit. It’s great to make plans, but realize that you will never have enough time to see and do everything you want, and make peace with it.

Set aside time for you and your littles to recharge.

My daughter is an only child, so throwing her in the mix with a dozen other kids will at some point leave her shell-shocked. A couple of my sisters have infants and toddlers who need to take a time out to nap or have quiet time. And the big kiddos might need to go to their separate corners before being thrown back into the ring of family fun. Some families may be able to bunk together in one big dog pile every night and still wake up able to function. We tried that one night, and the next day was rough because everyone was tired. If this is the case, consider planning one “slumber party” night, but also have nights where they sleep separately (if accommodations and space allow).

Stray from the pack.

I tried to get in some time with smaller groups of family. Taking just a few kids to the park to let my sister with a newborn catch a much-needed nap. Spending a late evening with my younger sister after putting the kids down early to drink wine and catch up. Accompanying my dad to the grocery store, and making dinner with my mom. Seek out moments to connect individually, and you’ll trick yourself into thinking you’re on vacation.

family reunions

Don’t ride the gravy train.

As in, chip in for groceries, take turns picking up the tab or split the check, and bring host gifts if someone opens their house when the circus comes to town. Not sure what the plan is? Talk about it before you visit. If you have a host that refuses to let you pay for groceries, show your appreciation with a gift card to their favorite spot to enjoy when you’re gone.

Keep your crap corralled.

Suitcases, shoes, wet bathing suits, bottles, devices, special blankies–everything is multiplied when you’re staying together. At one point on this last trip, we had four families under one roof. Find a spot in the cabin, house, or room to corral your things and stick to it. Make a sweep at the end of each day to collect your stuff that has been strewn about and regroup. Your host will thank you and you’ll thank youself when it’s time to pack and you don’t need a GPS to find your kid’s shoes.

Keep your parenting advice to yourself.

I usually fail at this at some point, because I’m a bossy control freak and I can’t help myself. It’s hard to not jump in when your kids are all together, and even if you’re related, you no doubt have different parenting styles. Understand that you’re all out of your daily routine and that throwing a dozen kids together will have its moments. Shut down your own kid’s tattling, bite your tongue, and save your eye-rolling about cousin Becky’s attachment parenting for when you return home and debrief your trip with your girlfriends.

All in all, my trip was everything I wanted and needed from my family: Warm, inviting, hilarious, loud, and way too short. So many babies to hold and toddlers to squeeze and tweeners to embarrass. Did we get on each other’s nerves? I’m sure! Am I already looking forward to my next visit? Absolutely.

family reunions

How do you survive your family get-togethers? Comment below with your stress-free strategies for family get-togethers!



Sherri is a transplant from Oregon who came to be a Hawkeye in 2006 and stayed for the sweet corn...and for the Iowa boy she met along the way! She and her husband (Kyle) have a 9 year-old daughter, Aissa. Sherri earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa and works for Ruffalo Noel Levitz as an Enrollment Marketing Consultant for colleges and universities. When she's not working, you can find her with her family, enjoying Iowa City and cheering on the Hawkeyes.


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