Sort-of-Happy Holidays: How to Occasionally Pierce the Perfect Bubble Life

Sort-of-Happy Holidays: How to Occasionally Pierce the Perfect Bubble Life

From the moment our kids were born, my husband and I have gone out of our way to make them happy. During our early parenting years we lived in Florida, where eternal summers and weekend trips to Disney world are deemed a normal part of everyday life. By the time our kids were six and four, their biggest dilemma every afternoon was deciding whether to jump in the pool or trampoline first. When Sofia started kindergarten in a private school Boca Raton, the curriculum centered on having a lot of dance parties and rewarding good behavior with candy.


Resolved to give our kids a more realistic sense of the world, Carlos and I moved to Madrid, where we knew life would be a little less comfortable. We’d lived two years in Geneva (sans enfants), and although you could hardly say we were roughing it, we did learn a few things about living without every little luxury. We picked up some valuable lessons, for example: don’t rent an apartment without air conditioning by the lake and keep the window open on a summer night, lest you’d like to spend the next day vacuuming hundreds of bugs off your ceiling.


During those first years in Madrid, we managed to give our kids a few doses of reality. We moved to three different houses in the span of nine months and had a third baby. In what we lovingly remember as “the rat house,” we lived with a colony of rats, poisoned them, then had to withstand the smell of dying rodents and the buzzing of thousands of eager flies who’d smelled a meal. When my toddler Diego grows up, the smell of dead rodents will always bring him back to this beautiful chapter in our lives.


Finally, there was our naive attempt at integrating the kids into Spanish society by placing them in a British school with a Spanish population. In addition to being teased for their non-Castillian Spanish accents and having to wear scratchy polyester uniforms, they were force-fed cafeteria food. In protest, our then 4-year-old Carlitos stopped eating for three months. At a meeting with the school psychologist, I was blamed for my progressive vegetarianism (an inaccurate assumption based on my American accent, I suppose).


In the year that followed, Carlos and I quickly regrouped, working hard to bring happiness back. We moved the kids to an American International school where dancing and eating candy was once again on the menu. We bought a house where every child has their own air-conditioned room. Since our large pool (or as I like to call it, the ice box) is not heated, occasionally we rent an oversized bounce house so the kids can continue to worry about where to jump first: bounce house or trampoline.


This Christmas, life threw a wrench into our holiday plans when my husband caught Covid six days before our trip to Panama. As anyone whose lived abroad knows, traveling home to visit family is a key part of maintaining a happy expat lifestyle.


My first reaction to this unhappy news was to do what I always do whenever there’s a semblance of crisis in my house: KEEP THINGS POSITIVE! I’d love to think that this optimism comes from a wise, instinctive place, but more realistically, being freakishly bright in the face of adversity is my way of calming down the terrorized mother in me. So, while my quarantined husband Netflix and chilled in his office, I magically turned into a fairy, dusting magic on my children anytime they began to look even remotely sad. “Christmas at home will be so cozy,” I told them, “I’m so happy to spend some nice quality time with you!”


By the time Carlos came out of his cave, the fairy dust had been vacuumed and raw emotions had settled in. I finally hit a wall on the morning of Christmas eve.  


As I’ve mentioned before, in our family moods are highly contagious. By Christmas Eve, I’d sat with my sadness long enough for Sofia to become equally miserable. As the rest of us sang and danced Christmas songs, ate dinner, and talked about how much we missed our extended family, she sulked in a couch. At four o’clock in the morning on Christmas day, I woke to the sound of sobbing and found my seven-year, Carlitos, crying outside my room. “This is the worst Christmas ever!” he cried. For once, the fairy in me didn’t have a counter argument.


Fortunately Santa brought plenty of entertainment. We spent the next three rainy days building puzzles, fighting over contentious Monopoly games, and teaching the kids to play Taboo. On the fourth day, I woke up to find my husband redecorating the living room. That’s when I knew: it was time to go somewhere. Anywhere.


We resolved to visit San Sebastian, a city Carlos and I hadn’t been to in 14 years. The night before the trip, Sofia declared she wasn’t going. This is what happens when my kids spend too many days at home: they develop an aversion to ever interacting with the outside world again. After two hours patiently explaining why going to a luxury hotel in a beautiful city during a record-breaking December heat-wave was not a horrible idea, she caved.  The next day, on the five-hour drive north, our toddler projectile-vomited all over the car twice, making us all wish we’d listened to Sofia and stayed home, quietly repositioning sofas.


Once inside our non-vomit-smelling hotel room, my husband did what he always does on family vacations, which is to threaten the kids to be quiet every time they so much as make a beep. The next day at the beach, we dipped our feet into the freezing Cantabrian Sea and then became angry about not being able to take the stubborn, sticky sand off our feet. In the afternoon, I tricked everyone into going on a small hike, dragging husband and kids up a steep hill until one by one, they sat down on the side of the road, refusing to ever get back up.


On New Years Eve, after about 50 euros worth of carrousel rides, the five of us sat on a bench in front of the concha and watched the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. As my toddler played with cigarette butts under the bench and my son jumped on my head, I couldn’t help but savor the moment. No, these weren’t the happiest of holidays but yes, we’d succeeded in giving the kids another peek at life outside their perfect little bubble.