Mention the word and it's enough to make even the most energetic mom tired, the most reserved grandmother burst into hysterical giggles.
What word could possibly inspire such a strong response from mothers of all ages and economic strata around the country? "Vacation." A family vacation, that much-ballyhooed trip that requires a harried mother to scour the house at midnight for matching socks and T-shirts without holes before she can even begin to make sure everyone is packed. The next day, though exhausted, she'll shepherd her brood to their destination, making sure everyone has everything they need.
Even when the family gets where they're going and heads to the pool, beach or golf course, Mom can't relax: she's the activities coordinator, trouble-shooter, banker and emergency medical care provider.
"What a mother does at home, she does on vacation. She's in charge," says Wellesley College sociology professor Rosanna Hertz, who studies motherhood and is a mother herself.
"Dad may be more fun in the pool but you rarely see a dad saying 'Put on sunscreen!' Mom is the one giving the baths after the day at the beach."
Research shows that even when married women work outside the home, they still shoulder the bulk of parental and nurturing responsibilities, Ms. Hertz notes.
"We all feel so responsible for everyone's happiness," observes Denver pediatrician Marianne Neifert, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics who is best known as "Dr. Mom" for her practical parenting books. (Signet, $5.95).
Dr. Neifert's advice for moms embarking on family vacations: "Remember it's your vacation, too, and tell everyone in the family what you need to be happy."
Maybe that's getting a break from the children for a few hours every day. Los Angeles actress Teddi Cole, the mother of a toddler, couldn't agree more after many forays with her "incredibly helpful" husband and young daughter. "Strike a deal with Dad before you go," she suggests. "You've got to split the parenting or it's not a vacation at all. But," she adds, "if you don't want any parenting duty, don't take the kids."
Chicagoan Denise Mullica took a different tack when she and her husband recently took their two preschoolers and infant to Hawaii. They brought along their favorite sitters, two teen-aged sisters, to help (flying them on frequent-flier miles).
Ms. Mullica was able to relax by the pool, enjoy romantic dinners and even read a magazine while her hair dried. "I never can do that at home," she said. "It was great."
Detroit grandmother Rosalie Round went one better. "We went with two other families and took two college students to help all of us. Every day one mom and dad were on duty with the sitters so the other couples could go off and feel the kids were well cared for."
Then there's Cathy Fireman's idea. "A real vacation for a mom is away from the kids and maybe from husbands, too," suggests Ms. Fireman, who lives in suburban Los Angeles. "Then you get ((
to do exactly what you want to do."