Kathy Deveny: You Call This a Vacation?

My stack of novels is ready. I have sunblock ranging in SPF level from 15 to 50. I have located my bathing suit. By the time you read this I will be away on vacation. I can imagine my BlackBerry vibrating back on the kitchen counter, while I sit under an umbrella gazing over my book at the waves. Then I remember that this is a fantasy. Because there's only one thing wrong with family vacations: you have to bring your family. In my case that means my extremely patient boyfriend and one mostly well-behaved 8-year-old girl. I am thrilled to be able to spend two weeks with them. We will catch hermit crabs. I will watch my daughter paint seashells and help her dig deep holes in the sand. What I will not do is read my book in peace. I will not sleep late. I probably won't even be able to avoid reruns of "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody." And at some point—usually about day two—I will catch myself thinking, "You mean I have to cook all the meals? And do the laundry? At least when I'm at work I get to go out to lunch."

Jean and Tom Synder of Cleveland also look forward to their family vacation each year, usually a driving trip with their daughters, ages 18, 17 and 15. Jean's responsibilities: planning the trip, making the reservations, packing for the trip, herding the clan to restaurants and making sure everybody is happy. "It's not exactly a vacation for me," she says. Taking small children on the road can be more daunting. "We were going to go to a resort in Mexico for a week," says the father of 3-year-old twins. "And then I realized: a week at a resort with my kids is going to be no fun at all. It'll be the opposite of relaxing. I'd rather be at work. Honestly. But I feel like a monster admitting this."

It does seem vaguely un-American to criticize the family vacation, even though the practice doesn't have a very long tradition. Because of our Puritan roots, 19th-century Americans were deeply suspicious of leisure and relaxation, according to Steven Mintz, a historian at Columbia University. When middle-class families began to vacation after the Civil War, they sought uplifting experiences like church retreats or a nice stay at a sanitarium.

The family vacation as we know it didn't really get rolling until the 1950s. The generation of young parents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II began to view family togetherness as a symbol of security in an unstable world. Postwar prosperity, fueled by paid vacation time, car ownership and the new interstate highway system, forged the ritual of the family road trip, according to Susan Rugh, author of "Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of Family Vacations."

Those were the vacations of my childhood—often a 1,500-mile drive between Minneapolis and Teaneck, N.J., to visit my mother's family. There was no air conditioning. I hardly ever remember getting out of the car. Unencumbered by seat belts, my brother and I roamed into each other's carefully guarded back-seat territory and bickered until one of our parents lost it. We stopped at motels with pools and ate "picnic" dinners in front of the TV. But they're some of the best memories of my childhood. ("I don't remember it quite so fondly," says my mom.) I have a crystal-clear snapshot in my mind from our 1968 trip to Yellowstone National Park. My father, brother and I are standing in front of a glacier, snowballs in our hands. I am wearing a mod blue-and-white shift. My father has a flattop. The tail of our Chevy Bel Air juts into the corner of the frame. "What kids remember about their childhoods is not setting the table," says Rugh. "If you want your kids to have memories, you have to take them on vacation." And so I will pack our clothes, cook all the meals, sweep sand out of the kitchen and treat the bug bites—but I get to complain about it.