"Seeya at the airport bar!" I shot to my family's group chat as my plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico, prepared for takeoff. "How many margaritas do you think I can get down before you pack mules are through baggage claim??"
Sitting on the hot pavement eating melted gummy worms with a sticky toddler in my lap was the first of many warm memories I'd find in unexpected places on this trip.
I was heading on my first-ever blended family vacation. Six months earlier, my mom had married her long-term fiancé. Together they fashioned a family of six children from 13 to 30, a handful of spouses, a few toddlers, and my oldest nephew — he's almost 7. Although we'd long since figured out how to connect as a step-family, this was a special trip. New partners, babies, and many miles and adventures had given us very little time to get together as a whole bunch. In fact, other than my mom and stepdad's wedding, we really had never hung out as a whole family, and certainly not for a week in the sun. So, my siblings gathered a wealth of tips for traveling with toddlers (and I told my houseplants I'd miss them), and we were off to engage in some serious quality time.
Childless, solo, and on leave from a brutal Minnesota winter, I was ready to chill. And chill, I would. But first, logistics. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a gentle reminder that group and family travel can be slightly more complex than flying solo. "We're sitting outside the car rental place with hot, hungry kids," my sister texted. "There are no vans. We have too much stuff to go anywhere."
OK, fine. No airport bar. They're overpriced anyway.
I wove my way through the arrival zone to find my sister and her family behind a small mountain of car seats and children's backpacks. Her three kids, visiting a tropical paradise for the first time, were primarily interested in chasing the lazy pigeons milling around the rental shop. It was hot and all we could do was wait. But, sitting on the hot pavement eating melted gummy worms with a sticky toddler in my lap was the first of many warm memories I'd find in unexpected places on this trip.
I think it is easy to romanticize things that are meaningful. In my head, this vacation would be afternoons spent teaching my nephews about trees and language, and evenings getting down to the realness with the step-siblings and in-laws that I never got to see. But as much as it would be these things, it would also be things that were challenging, and equally as meaningful. It was a challenge to balance time and preference. Navigating an unfamiliar place as a 13-person caravan required a level of diplomacy I was entirely unacquainted with. I also learned important, somewhat obvious, things. For instance, babies need car seats, and car seats are heavy. Therefore, it's not fun to walk around with car seats. Logistics like those, which I'd never had to consider, gave me a new level of respect for parents who travel.
Navigating an unfamiliar place as a 13-person caravan required a level of diplomacy I was entirely unacquainted with.
On this trip, I saw the value of both giving your time and claiming it. Blended families can get big, and big groups can be draining. It's important to take time to split off and chase your fancy. Spend a day on the beach with your partner. Go get ice cream with your kid. Everyone will be there when you get back. Taking downtime when you need it helps you truly be there, too.
With a blended family, you are creating something new out of something that is already there. Every person in this version of the family has a different history with every other person in it. Moms become stepmoms and stepsisters. Brothers are step-uncles and dads to someone else. Vacation is a chance to grow each of these bonds undisturbed by the day to day. Whether it's a breakfast sandwich assembly line or building sprawling sand kingdoms while the parents sneak in a nap, the time allotted to simply be together is priceless.
It's not always Instagrammable. Sometimes it's pretty exhausting. But every moment is entirely, uniquely yours — together. It is a gift.
With a blended family, you are creating something new out of something that is already there.
On this trip, I learned that you should always overestimate your required SPF. More importantly, I learned that quality time doesn't come with a bow. In a blended family, it doesn't come with a set of instructions declaring "this is how you'll bond." It comes in side trips to the secondhand store and in playing make-believe with toddlers, even if they forget your name. It comes buried in a pile of plantain nachos and in staying out late to sing Journey karaoke by the sea (even in paradise, Grandma and Grandpa will watch the kids).
Leaving a restaurant with my 15-year-old stepsister, the owner asks if she is my hija, my daughter. I laugh and tell him certainly not, she's my little sister. As we wander onward through the twisted blue cobblestone streets I ask her what she thinks when I tell people we're sisters.
She shoots me the sideways look that only teens can give, followed by a shrug and a grin.
"Well, what else would we be?"