The moment you have a baby (and even before the baby is born), people fill your head with fortune cookie sentiments.
Enjoy every moment, they grow up so fast.
You’re not going to sleep for the next twenty years.
Life isn’t about you anymore.
But one nugget that I don’t recall anyone telling me: Car trips change after you have kids.
Now, I’ve got friends who travel a lot with their kids (who share a similar age spread with ours). They took long car trips regularly prior to having children, and while I know they’ve had their struggles, they might agree that practice makes perfect. Or less difficult? Practice makes less difficult? For our family, being in the car for more than an hour is pretty rare. Our extended family is either close by, or they travel to us. We didn’t take that many long trips by car before we had kids, so a couple hours of tires-droning-on-pavement is about all I can stand. But for all the challenges (and fun) of long car trips before kids, things really change after kiddos enter the picture. Here’s how:
Before kids, planning is minimal. Grab your purse or wallet, a light snack, a beverage, and your music player of choice before sliding out the door. If it’s sunny, you’ll forget your sunglasses and have to buy some at a convenience store. That’s it. All you need, right there. You’re good for at least eight hours in the car.
If you’re bringing a child, you practically need a spreadsheet. Two (or more) kids? Definitely spreadsheet that business. You’ll need an assortment of snacks (plural) for each child of snack-eating age. Bring a small buffet, just in case goldfish crackers are too crunchy, string cheese is too stringy, raisins are too wrinkly, or if this is the week they decide that applesauce pouches are of the devil. If the tiny passengers are in diapers, bring a spare diaper for every twenty miles you’re planning to travel. I made that number up, but if you just do it, you won’t run out. BRING NO FEWER THAN TWO CHANGES OF CLOTHES FOR EACH TINY PERSON (per leg of the journey)! Not because a car ride brings out a toddler’s inner Katie Perry, but because if you forget to bring extra clothes, they’ll soil themselves in ways you have yet to imagine, and to keep you guessing, they may soil one another. Bring games, toys, a DVD/video player with a small library of age-appropriate films. Don’t forget the sippy cup of water. They’ll need that to fill their bladder for the dozen bathroom stops, at which they will insist (against logic and nature) that they don’t actually need to use the potty. Their diaper will remain dry for so long that you’ll think they’re broken. That’s it. All you need, right there. You’re good for approximately two hours in the car.
A three hour drive will take longer than three hours.
“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.″
—White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland
“When we’re in a hurry, these kids can feel it. And they do everything in their power to derail our plans, even when it’s in opposition to their own best interests.″
– Jason Stephens, By the Seat of Our Pants
Sure, getting ready to leave the house takes a lot longer when you’re motoring with tots, but that’s just the beginning. Car trips without children aboard play out like story problems. If you’re in a car heading west at 70mph, how far will you travel after two hours? The answer is 140 miles.
If you’re in a car heading west at 70mph, with a two year old and a six month old on board, the answer to that same question could be as low as 25 miles, depending on how the next item plays out.
I don’t remember ever getting car sick as a child. I don’t remember family members getting car sick. As an adult, I’ve never gotten car sick, nor have my adult passengers ever gotten car sick. I had a dog poop in the back of a vehicle once, but that’s different. Prior to wee travelers on board, the windows stay up and the air conditioning or heater stays on at a normal human level. You’re not perpetually terrified of the sound of unexpected projectile vomiting behind you, and you don’t have to be ready to pull over to the side of the road at a moment’s notice.
If you’re taking a car ride with a child, even if that child has never gotten car sick, today could be your lucky day! You’ll jump through any hoop you can to prevent your youngster from losing their latest meal. Their window will be down to give them fresh air, but at highway speeds, you won’t be able to hear the crucial nausea status updates. You’ll want to bring an “emergency car sick clean up kit“, or risk going from an unpleasant situation to something that the producers of Hoarders wouldn’t touch with dumpsters for hands. You might have scarfed down a sack of tacos (and washed them down with a bucket of soda) while zipping down the interstate before kids, but when you travel with tots prone to car sickness, you’ll go to great lengths to avoid certain foods and schedule snacks and meals to keep things from becoming volcanic.
Before kids, long car trips were where I had great conversations with my wife. It’s a rare occasion when one of us is legally prohibited from looking at our phone, so the car was a place to reconnect. Sometimes, we’d set up playlists together (or separately), listen to audio books, stand-up comedy, play word games, or just enjoy the scenery in relative quiet. Long car rides weren’t just relaxing, they were therapeutic.
After kids, long car trips are like being on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange—OR in a sensory deprivation chamber. If your toddler is napping (especially if they’re prone to car sickness), you’ll do anything to keep them asleep. That includes driving 150 miles in total silence. When they’re awake, you want to keep their minds occupied (again, in a possibly futile effort to keep them from getting sick). You’ll engage in banter, chatter, sing-a-longs, and animal noise contests to accomplish this. You might really want to listen to the football game, but your son or daughter can feel the tension of a fourth and inches nailbiter. They’ll wait until that moment to mutter, “I’m gonna be sick″, and you’ll want to hear that. Your favorite artist might have just released a new album, but Dr. Dre uses words that you’d rather your child not parrot back to grandma, so you’re not going to get to enjoy it on this trip. Little Boy wants to repeat the first verse to“If You’re Happy and You Know It″ for the next sixty miles, and if you miss clapping your hands, he’ll sing it louder. Remember the fortune cookie? Life isn’t about you anymore.
I like to think that I know a little bit about a lot of things. I know the difference between Guernsey cows and Holstein cows. I have a cursory understanding of commercial river barge use. And most of the time, I know where we are going when we’re cruising down the highway. These are all things which may concern a toddler on a long car ride. To him, I’m an absolute genius, because when points to a construction worker in a backhoe and asks, “What’s that man doing?” I can give him a confident answer (even if I’m making it up).
Chris and I took a few trips in the year or two prior to starting our family. We went to Minneapolis to see Patton Oswalt, spent a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods, and enjoyed a long weekend in Chicago. Aside from the last trip in the list, I have little memory of getting there (we took a bus from Madison to Chicago, something we probably won’t be doing again).
As kids, the memories of family road trips are nearly universal. They’re vivid movies we hold on to the rest of our lives. We remember the first time we crossed the Mississippi River, tallying state license plates, playing slug-a-bug, listening to Dad sing along with the oldies station (badly), car ferries, mountain passes, and “last gas for 100 miles” fill-ups. Water slides and theme parks will come and go, but the memories of getting there are forever.