2,776 miles, 40+ hours and 3 small kids

Leg 1 of our trip  Leg 2 of our trip  Leg 3 of our trip

I absolutely must be crazy.

In two days I will begin a week long trip with my mother, my aunt and my three small kids. We are going to Chicago and Washington DC…and we are driving. My husband will not be joining us as he has to work. (Is anyone who has read my blog before surprised?)

According to Google Maps the entire trip (Tampa to Chicago to DC and back) will take us 2,776 miles and 41 hours. Of course, Google Maps doesn’t take into account stops for gas, meals, feeding the baby, diaper changes, freak outs, melt downs, potty breaks for a fairly recently potty trained 3-year-old and any other unforeseen issue. Those things could add significant time to our little journey. Regardless, I’m trying to stay positive as our departure approaches.

I have done this type of thing before. Last summer we drove from Fort Myers to Chicago in a rental van that held 5 adults and 4 kids, including myself at 7-months-pregnant. We drove our oldest to see my husband’s family in Syracuse, NY when she was 5-months-old and again when she was 15-months-old. Our girls have also flown to Chicago, DC and Syracuse several times. I would definitely call any one of us seasoned travelers. None of the previously mentioned facts translates to this being an easy adventure. Factor in my mild need for control and a small touch of OCD-like tendencies and this adventure could be a recipe for stress and disaster. The amount of stuff, planning and patience needed to make a trip like this seem effortless is anything but effortless. So here is one mama’s seven part guide road trips with small kids.

1. Lists.  Do you find any irony in the fact that my list of travel tips starts with lists??? I do. Anyway, I digress. Lists are key for me. I know that in those last frantic hours before actually leaving, important items are easily forgotten, especially things that couldn’t be packed in advance because they are still needed right before leaving. We recently took our crazy crew for an afternoon at Busch Gardens and I forgot the baby’s formula. That’s right my lovely readers… I forgot my child’s FOOD! Lucky for me it was only a couple of hours and he was satisfied with a jar of baby food and water but I had a real garbage mommy moment over the whole episode.  Things such as a blow dryer, the baby’s open can of formula, or the camera charger are so easy to forget and can be expensive to replace during your trip. I start making my lists days (even a week or so) in advance of packing and/or leaving. Anything I use or need during that time which I know I could easily forget is added to the list. I work with three lists: things to buy, things to remember and things to do. The usefulness of my lists are obvious so I won’t go into crazy detail but I will say this: Your lists are useless if you don’t add to them when the thought pops into your brain, look at the list and actually check things off as they are completed, and double check the lists as you are ready to walk out the door.

2. Prepare, prepare, prepare…in advance. I am a terrible procrastinator in 95% of my life. My husband had pick date for the delivery of our daughter’s big girl furniture to force me to begin painting the room. Her baby book stops at about 3-months-old. She’s 5. Our other two children’s baby book are purchased but empty. They’re 3 and almost 1. It’s a real problem in my life. (Inspiration for a future blog post maybe???) But when it comes to traveling, I begin preparing well in advance of leaving. Important errands like getting medication refills are done days before packing. Laundry is done two days before we leave. Packing is done the day before. Clothes to wear during the journey are laid out the night before we leave and anything that can be set aside is piled up before we go to bed. Cameras, phones, tablets are all charged before they are packed. Advance preparation is key to making sure you have everything necessary. Forgetting something important can really put a dark cloud over a fun trip. Does anyone really want to spend a day of their vacation calling pharmacies and doctors to try to obtain a forgotten medication?

3. I pull and pack everything for everyone…except my husband.  Let’s be honest ladies (and maybe some gentlemen). I know many of you pack your husband’s stuff when going on a trip. Not me. He’s a grown man and he needs to do certain things himself. The reality is, I don’t know what he needs on a daily basis and I don’t want to be the one responsible for remembering everything needed to keep him comfortable and in his own routine. Be a big boy and pull your own stuff. I’ll put it in a bag but he has to get it all out and make a pile. As for the kids, I attempted to let my 5 and 3 year olds pull their own clothes the last time we went to Fort Myers for a four day weekend. My oldest chose an inappropriate number of dresses and nothing she could really wear to play. My other daughter basically just brought a pile of random items. She also had 5 pairs of pajama pants and only 2 pajama shirts. Nobody pulled out socks or panties. What?! How do you plan to cover your butts and feet?! I pull and pack everything for myself and all of the kids. I am the one who manages 95% of their lives. I know what they need, want and use everyday. I’m the right person for this job. In the case of this trip, the hubs isn’t going. He will be working, saving me from dealing with his belongings at all.

4. Entertainment.  Everyone knows that kids, especially small kids, will go completely bananas when stuck in a car for a long stretch. My 5-year-old started the “Are we almost there?” nagging ten minutes into our last long drive and we still had nearly 2 hours to go! The key to controlling the madness: keeping growing brains busy. Usually I’m not a fan of using TV, movies and video games as a primary way to entertain kids but in this case I make an exception. My daughters each have a Kindle Fire, but they don’t know that they do. I got one for myself as a 30th birthday gift and my mom had one for herself. We have both bought tablet computers recently so now the girls have the Kindles but we’ve never told them that. I retain full possession of both devices. They have to ask permission to use “my” Kindles and their time with them is both monitored and limited. We also have a portable DVD player which is put in the car only for long trips. I actually don’t even use it for the 2 hour trip to Fort Myers which we do about once each month. I think I can handle annoyed, bored, whiney kids for 2 hours so they can find entertainment some way other than staring blankly at a screen. I also buy them games, flashcards and other activities from the dollar store days before we leave and sneak them into their backpacks. They are surprised with new and exciting items and are entertained for longer stretches than they would be with items they’ve had for months. Also, nothing will keep kids happy like a conversation. I turn off the radio and talk to them about whatever they want to discuss. These conversations are usually silly and a bit confusing.

5. Comfort.  Long car trips are not a fashion show. My girls will not be dressed in their usual fancy tutu skirts and dresses. They LOVE to wear outlandish, girly and fancy clothes. I like dressing my son in cute onesies with collars and little shorts. But to drive across the country? No! A plain and boring comfy dress for the girls and a boring standard onesie for the little man. I don’t want the girls in any skirt or shorts that will be on the ground of whatever random public restroom we find and I don’t want the baby twisted in his clothes while buckled into his car seat. The girls hair is pulled up and out of their faces and they don’t wear any of their costume jewelry. My mom and I also made travel pillows for them last year then attach to the seatbelt to give them something to sleep on because we don’t stop in a hotel for the night. We are a drive straight through family. Everyone has a blanket of their own and the car is kept fairly cold.

6. Stops.  I would rather avoid stopping if at all possible. When we drive the 130 miles from our house to my mom’s I don’t plan to stop at all. My three-year-old’s bladder usually ruins my plan. When making the trip we’ll make this week, we’ll be stopping many times. My goal is to stop only when necessary and to keep each stop short but productive. Everyone wears flip flops so they are comfortable in the car but can put shoes on quickly and easily. If we stop for anything everyone goes potty. Period. I don’t care if you don’t have to go. Get out and try. This does two things: potentially prevents another stop in the very near future and gets everyone out, stretched, rejuvenated and moving. Just to be safe, Peyton will be wearing a pull-up during this trip but since she hasn’t worn one  in a while (even at night!!!!), I’m not going to be encouraging her to use it for anything except accident prevention. Unless we’ve filled the gas tank pretty recently, I want to top it off whenever we stop as well.

7. Food.  Stopping to eat inside a restaurant takes time and costs more money. I avoid it like the plague. When we leave this week my kids will have already eaten lunch. I’ll pack their dinners. This saves time, money and allows me to have more control over what they eat for one additional meal. I’m not a crazy control freak mom. My kids aren’t vegetarians, they don’t eat all organic, they aren’t gluten free.  They’ve had junk. I just try to minimize the junk. When traveling in the car, I keep all meals simple, light and easy to clean. No one, not even a preschooler, wants to feel full and weighed down while stuck in a car. We have an abundance of wipes, napkins and patience on hand and we make it work. I got the girls little plastic baskets that fit in their laps to hold the food so they have more control and to maybe prevent some messes. These baskets live in a storage compartment hidden in the floor of my trunk so they’re always on hand. After this one meal, we’ll have to find food on the road. I still try to minimize junk but I recognize that fast food is easiest. I accept that they’re on vacation and following the normal standards we have at home isn’t always possible. (This is me letting go of my controlling tendencies. *applause for me*) My son is the exception for my “no stopping to eat” rule. He needs to get out of his car seat to eat, have a bottle and be burped. I will not, for any reason, drive a car with a child out of a car seat. We must stop to feed the baby. I accept that…but he should eat quickly.

So, there it is. My OCD way of making a crazy trip like this doable. I know there is more I could add but I was once told by a lovely college professor that I can be a bit verbose. (uh…ya think?!) I try to keep his critique in mind so, for now, I’ll stop there. Wish me luck as I finish our final preparations for the first leg of the big road trip later this week. Think of me when you realize that you have instant access to things like a fridge and a restroom. I’ll need all the positive thoughts possible as I take my crazy crew on the road without my husband. I want my kids to have amazing memories and experiences. So I continue to take on these challenges even though I live my life as a semi-single parent.

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