My two kids, ages 3 and 5, and I were sitting in a restaurant in Cancun. We’d just arrived after a travel day that started at 3am, bringing us all the way from rainy Portland to the tropical Caribbean. My younger daughter, Maxine, was staying true to form despite being so far from home: She was refusing to eat any of the delicious choices I’d put on her plate. Apparently one bite of turkey, plus a few bags of plane pretzels was enough, thank you very much.

Then Maxine accidentally elbowed her full glass of milk.

As the glass tumbled to the floor, spilling milk all over, I felt an entire restaurant’s worth of eyes turn toward us. My usual MO would be to imagine what everyone was definitely, no-doubt-about-it thinking: What kind of mom allows her kids to act that way?

But I didn’t.

Maybe it was the humid, salty air floating in through the open windows. Maybe I’ve gained enough family travel wisdom to finally cut myself a break. Or maybe the exhaustion of shepherding two kids nearly 3,000 miles across the continent fried the circuits in my brain.

I thought to myself, What a gift I’m giving to other parents. By acting like a regular family, we’re giving everyone else permission to be imperfect, too.

Regardless of how, something flipped the script in my mind, setting the stage for less stressful family vacations. Travel will never be the same.

Sunrise in Cancun / Catherine Ryan Gregory

The pressure to be perfect

Parents—especially us moms—put so much pressure on ourselves to plan and execute flawless family vacations. Not only do we have to find consecutive days that work with PTO and gymnastics lessons and the kindergarten popcorn party, we book the flight, research the hotel, pin kid-friendly activities in our destination, and find a way to get a vacation group photo in which no one is pulling a face.

And if you’re like me, when you look around—on Instagram or at that restaurant—you see other families crushing it while your kids throw fits and you lose your temper.

Family travel in Mexico: Realizing that imperfection is perfectly fine. Catherine Ryan Gregory

But the honest truth is that we’re all just doing the best we can. We’re trying to keep it all together while creating space for more together time. We’re trying to make memories we’ll cherish forever.

No family is perfect—not even that four-top where the kids are all happily polishing off stir-fried broccoli.

Permission to stress less

Often, it’s hard to avoid feeling like the only failure because other families are clutching so hard at presentability. They’re striving for the same things you are, and they’re hoping no one else sees through the cracks.

Maybe their kids’ tantrums happen inside the rental car where no one else can see, and maybe other moms end up taking an extra-long shower so they can cry into the stream of hot water because making sure everyone else is having a fun time is so stressful. (Been there.)

So when my kids whine in public, throw sass or even spill milk all over a restaurant, my family is exposing the lie that families should be perfect on vacation. Or even that perfection is possible. (This is also why I post pictures of less-than-scenic public meltdowns on my family travel blog’s Instagram.)

In this the glass-is-completely-empty-but-it’s-ok perspective, I figure I’m helping all the overwhelmed parents out there stress a little less on vacation.

Freedom to be imperfect

Family travel in Mexico: Realizing that imperfection is perfectly fine. Catherine Ryan Gregory

Yes, the other diners that night in the Cancun restaurant might have been annoyed at my overtired, hunger-striking children who apparently can survive on nothing but air and complimentary airline snacks. But other parents nearby probably thought to themselves, It’s not just me. It’s not just us.

We humans are more connected than ever but feel so much judgment at not being perfect enough. And much of that judgment is imagined—or self-imposed.

So by not hiding my kids’ totally understandable, totally age-appropriate mishap behind closed hotel room doors, I gave permission to other families to be imperfect on vacation, too.

And guess what: You can, too. So go adventure. Book a trip. Take your kids to a restaurant, or a museum, or a festival, even if they might throw a fit. By traveling with your imperfect, totally normal family, you’ll be giving other parents the freedom to be imperfect, too.

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