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Mediocre Mom: Play With Pay, the Fight for Vacation Time in America

Will we ever catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to vacation time?

People in the United Kingdom would often ask me how on earth Americans survive with so little vacation time each year. 

“You are supposed to work to live, not live to work,” my friend said to me one day while we hunkered down in her cozy cottage with steaming mugs of tea. I really had no answer and no defense.

But after a decade of enjoying four to six weeks of holiday a year, the yearning to be back on U.S. soil was too strong to bear. So we moved back to Chicago—back to the daily grind. 

Life back home has been a good fit for our family for the most part. But getting used to the decrease in down time each year is a challenge. I’m not sure anyone knows how to have as much fun as the people of the great city of Chicago. We work hard and we play hard. But are we getting burned out?

According to a CNN Money story last month, Americans get less vacation time than workers in other industrialized countries, and they also opt to take fewer days off. France gets 37 vacation days a year and the U.K. gets 28. Most people I know get a meager 14 days off and use far fewer due to an unspoken pressure to keep things running smoothly. 

Anyone who has experienced a European postal or airline strike knows national lengthy leisure time comes with a price tag. But could we find more balance between leisure and work? God knows we need it here.

The biggest change to get used to when we moved home was the frenetic pace of life. Though we craved the bountiful offering of sports available to American kids, that came at a cost. My head spun on its axis for a full two years as I adjusted to kids’ sporting schedules. “I rush, therefore I am” seemed to be the national tagline running through our lives.   

With the technological advances we have made, I am surprised we have not figured out a way to bank more time to put our feet up and relax in peace. It is a constant struggle to remind myself to pull the plug and be by myself or with family. 

Occasionally, red flags serve as reminders.

Driving down York Road on the last day before school finished, I looked at the driver of the minivan next to me. Don’t ask me how she managed this. She was eating her lunch with a fork out of a ceramic bowl, wolfing her pasta down at a stop light, dribbling sauce on the seat belt that cut across her chest. My heart went out to this poor gal. I imagined her trying to juggle work and kids' schedules and gym time. Are we so run down that we are using our china and cutlery in the driver’s seat? 

I took that glance in the minivan as a sign and cleared a square on my calendar.   

On our deck the next evening with nothing but a candle and a back-lit Nook, I hunkered down with my dog for a good story to channel a slower way of life.   

I do miss the longer vacation times we surrendered when we moved back to the country we love so much. I especially miss the extra time spent puttering around at home with no schedule or lists of things to do. But I love drive-through restaurants, and I have a passion for sports and a mail system that works.   

One thing I know for sure is that there is no such thing as the perfect place to live. And, there is no place like home. Until we figure out a way to add more vacation time to our calendar as a nation, I’ll have to take this great country as it is. We’ll make it work.   

In the meantime, I will have to make the most of the hours we steal from the calendar to find treasured down time. 

Whether it is a “staycation” or a vacation, periods of rest do not pay the bills. But they do pay dividends. And those ceramic bowls we worked so hard to pay for will always look better on the kitchen table at home.

Fiona Gierzynski July 06, 2011 at 03:14 PM
When you are in your 50s and get laid off, there is no chance you will be working back up to anywhere. You will be relegated to "bottom-feeder" and kept at low-paying jobs that offer no benefits. Face it, the deportation of jobs overseas has been a spectacular success for the CEOs who are awash in unprecedented profits. For the rest of us, not so much. College graduates are fighting their parents' friends for the few McJobs they can find. Look around in a department store these days...jobs that used to be done by teens earning their first income are now filled by gray-haired folks who are working multiple jobs trying to hold onto their dwindling piece of the American dream. As for paid-vacation? Forget about it! You have to work a year at any place just to earn a paid week off.
DHD July 06, 2011 at 04:16 PM
A lot of bitter folks with class envy on this forum.
Julie Farrell July 06, 2011 at 04:51 PM
Roger, that was well said. Fiona, your words do sound a bit bitter. I understand where you're coming from, I grew up in a single-parent household and head up my own right now....that means singe-income as well. Though I have 2 jobs and am looking into a third, and though we all have days where the negativity can seem overwhelming, sometimes it really is the attitude change that makes all the difference. When I get in those moods, I spend time with friends....even if it's just at someone's house. Get out, relax yourself for an hour or two (no, catching up on sleep between shifts doesn't count). You need to do something for yourself once in a while. The bills aren't going anywhere. While it's no fun to let them pile up and dig yourself deeper, sometimes you just need a reset. FWIW, I don't get any PTO either, not even sick days. Bob, it's not necessarily proud. As Fiona mentioned, some people are working 2-3 minimum wage jobs. Many of those places won't hire people who're "over-qualified". I worked in retail management (read: assisted in hiring) and sometimes we couldn't hire people who just wanted/needed a second job back then. It's worse now. DHD, not necessarily class envy....money doesn't equal class. It's a matter of being frustrated at having to struggle for every little thing out of life and watching so many others seemingly have things handed to them. Why shouldn't they have to work for it, too? Great article again Renee! I look forward to your column every week!
Nick Beam July 06, 2011 at 07:43 PM
"Class envy" says it for me. Too many people with things handed to them on a silver platter. In history when, a group of people has much more money than the rest (like the 1% in the US now), crime goes way up or a revolution occurs. Which will happen here?
Renee Gough August 03, 2011 at 05:13 AM
I would like to apologize to my readers for coming to this forum far too late! Listening to reader comments is one of my favorite things to do. I promise that I will get to each of your comments as they come up more quickly next time! Thank you all for posting. You are a well educated bunch and entitled to your wide range of opinions.

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