Before you become a parent, road trips can be great fun – particularly if they’re taken in the company of good friends, or your Significant Other. You can sing loudly to your favourite music, stop whenever it suits you (or not at all), buy a pie and eat it at a scenic picnic spot, and generally make the journey part of the destination.
This all ends when you have children. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if you haven’t yet attempted a long car trip with one or more young children (and by ‘long’ I mean longer than an hour – although, some days, a ten-minute trip to the supermarket can feel like a long car trip), you have a treat in store – and by ‘treat’, I mean ‘horror show of epic proportions’. And I say that as a parent of children who have never been carsick. Those of you with carsick children? I don’t know what to tell you. I’ll pray for you.
When Hattie and Joe were babies it really wasn’t so bad. We discovered that we could embark on their normal evening routine – dinner, bath, stories, etc – and then bundle them into their pyjamas and sleeping bags (by which I mean the merino sleep sacks they wore for all sleeps until they were three), install them into their capsules (and, later, car seats), and hit the road at 7pm. My parents’ house is around six and a half hours’ drive away if we don’t stop, so we’d arrive there in the early hours of the morning, transfer the babies straight into their cots, and go to bed ourselves. It worked brilliant well, right up until the fateful night when we realised that Joe was too big to sleep comfortably in his car seat for hours on end. Sadly, we realised this halfway through one of our night road trips, so the last three hours of the trip involved Joe waking up every 20 minutes and crying.
Now, we are forced to set aside a full day for the journey. Children, like dogs, can’t travel by car for hours on end without getting jumpy, so you have to factor in a stop every couple of hours. Today I did the journey as the driver, because Tristan, the pilot to my co-pilot, has to work and bankroll our whole enterprise. Here’s a brief tale of our trip.
We left the house in the thick of rush hour, which seemed foolish, but I figured that we’d move quite slowly at first, but then make good progress. It wasn’t too bad, although we hadn’t even crossed the Auckland Harbour Bridge – around 15 minutes’ drive from our house – before Joe asked if we were nearly there. No, I replied, brightly.
We’d planned to drive to Cambridge, which is home of one of Hattie and Joe’s epic places: the cafe with the piano outside. This isn’t a photo taken today, because I can’t be expected to drive for eight hours and also capture every precious moment, but here’s a shot of the kids and the piano from a 2016 previous journey:
I drove through the Auckland rush hour, trying to listen to Fletch, Vaughan, and Megan, and trying also to listen to Joe and respond appropriately to his repeated questions of whether we were nearly there. This was made difficult by the pitch of his voice, which is quite soft and teddy bear-like – the perfect pitch to be drowned out by the sound of traffic. Sadly, Joe doesn’t respond well to the simplest request to speak a little more loudly, as Mummy can’t quite hear him: he speaks at the same volume, but more slowly, and with a distinctly pissed-off tone. But I had vowed that Shouty Mummy wouldn’t travel with us today, so I didn’t react. Mary Poppins, eat your heart out.
As we finally left the southern part of Auckland we hit near-apocolyptic rain, which was exciting in the midst of plentiful roadworks and large trucks spraying dirty water from their wheels. But we prevailed. Joe asked for the eleventy millionth time whether we were nearly in Cambridge. No, I replied brightly. Joe then asked for further clarification that Tui, our much beloved and recently deceased dog, is now in Dog Heaven (he’d only discovered this morning that Tui died – Tristan and I had to travel to Feilding, where she was living in blissful retirement, to put her down in late May, after a short battle with inoperable cancer, but the kids had never really asked about her, so we hadn’t brought it up. But this morning Joe talked about being very excited to see Tui, so I had to break the news. He was quite glum, bless him). I reassured him about the existence of Dog Heaven. Hattie, who’d brightly announced this morning that she wasn’t actually bothered about Tui being dead, chimed in to remind Joe that Tui was, in fact, dead, and that’s why she’s in Dog Heaven. Thanks for that, I told Hattie. If being a super hero doesn’t work out for her, Hattie has a great future as a really jolly ‘pull yourself together’-type of grief counsellor.
From 9am until 10am I surrendered control of the entertainment and agreed to play some fairy tales on CD. This reminded me how bloody stupid most fairy tales actually are, but that’s a blog post for another day.
We also had a CD of Disney tales, which marked the children’s first introduction to The Lion King, 101 Dalmatians, and Dumbo (the CD also featured Bambi, but in light of the whole ‘dead Tui’ thing I thought we should avoid it, in case Joe spiralled into a decline and Hattie spent the rest of the journey reminding us about how dead poor Tui was). These were also my introduction to these stories, which I’d never heard or read before. The kids like The Lion King, but we had to stop 101 Dalmatians when it became too apparent that the baddies intended to harm the puppies. Dumbo was fairly popular, though.
I averted one boredom-induced bout of whinging with the strategic deployment of a couple of lollipops. This is one of my key secrets of a happy (or, at least, not homicidal) road trip with young children: bribe them with biscuits and treats whenever spirits are flagging. You may lose the healthy battle, but you’ll win the ‘at least I didn’t drive into a power pole accidentally-on-purpose’ war.
10am: nearly at Cambridge
Tristan was working in Cambridge today, so when we were half an hour away (“Mummy, are we nearly in Cambridge?!”) I stopped so we could text him and arrange to meet him for coffee. I also took a photo of our merry band of travellers:
Check out the desperation in my eyes in this shot – and this is only two hours into the trip!
We passed some more of the journey by discussing, at length, about Dog Heaven. Did people go to heaven too? Yes, I reassured the kids, while privately mortified at my own lack of theological education of my children (and quietly relieved that we’ve now decided to send them to a state school and not to the local Catholic school, where my status as a seriously lapsed Catholic would be made plain – but that’s definitely a subject for another blog post). We decided that People Heaven is next door to Dog Heaven, so the people and the dogs can play together.
We stopped in Cambridge, played on the piano, and drank hot chocolates and smoothies. And then I deployed the other crucial element of my Road Trip With Kids Survival Manual: my laptop, propped up on a bag in the back, showing a DVD. We don’t have in-car DVD players, although I am now tempted to get them for future car trips, so I don’t have to deal with a sliding laptop while driving. I don’t really understand people who use in-car entertainment systems for short drives – seriously, if your kids can’t cope for five or ten minutes without watching something there might be concerns – but for long journeys I think it’s totally warranted. Joe hates sitting still, and I was requiring him to sit still for hours on end, so it’s only fair that he gets some fun out of it.
My advice is to choose a DVD that a) you won’t mind listening to (so, a kids’ DVD with a fine undercurrent of parent-friendly quips); and b) a DVD that you’ve seen so many times that you can pretty much visualise the images that match what you’re hearing from the back seat. For us, today’s choice was Ice Age 2, and it was quite wonderful. I really like the first three Ice Age films.
I also fed the kids while they watched their film. I used their kindy lunch boxes and packed a lot of food, so they could busy themselves opening and closing little containers of pretzels, munching on sandwiches, etc. When I fly long haul I know that eating is a good way to pass the time, and I figure the same applies for kids in cars.
This was our last pit stop of the journey. Ordinarily we’d go to the playground in town, but today I wanted to get to my parents’ house quickly, so we contented ourselves with a lakeside break, in order to throw pumice into the water. Hattie and Joe never fail to be amazed at the way in which these apparent stones can float. It’s a road trip and a science lesson!
After the Taupo stop I enforced a quiet time in the car. I was hoping that they’d both have a nap, which is usually the case during a long car trip, but today they were frustratingly resistant. It was frustrating both because I’d planned to listen to a podcast or two while they slept, and because they were tired and grumpy, and whiny and whinging, and it took all of my powers not to pick up Shouty Mummy. Actually, I was really tired at this point, and it also took all of my powers not to pick up a random hitchhiker and offer them a lift, in exchange for doing the actual driving so I could have a nap myself.
Eventually I relented and put another CD of bloody stupid fairy tales on, and Joe – after spending an hour telling me how he wasn’t tired, and by the way, could I tell him again about Dog Heaven, and no, how dare I suggest that he might like to speak slightly more loudly so I could actually hear him – fell asleep. But Hattie didn’t, which is highly unusual.
We drove and drove and drove, and when we reached Taihape I pulled over to text my sister and make plans about her arrival (since we were heading straight to her in order to meet the kids’ new baby cousin, Enzo). Pulling the car over woke up Joe, regrettably, so we chucked in another DVD (Octonauts, which is problematic from a gender perspective – also a whole other blog post, waiting to be written, but awesome because I really like the characters’ voices, and the Creature Report songs are hilarious) and kept driving. The last hour or two of the trip were on winding roads, and the laptop kept sliding, and really, I do need to invest in proper in-car entertainment, for the sake of my own mental health.
During the journey Joe did concede that he could stomach the loss of Tui slightly more because of the excitement of meeting his new baby cousin. It’s jolly decent of my sister and her husband, to have this baby and thus help my child to work through his dog-related grief.
We reached my home town and visited my sister, and met my gorgeous nephew, and I was too busy holding him to take any photos. And then we went to my parents’ place, I fed Hattie and Joe, I gave them their baths, Shouty Mummy made a brief but regrettable appearance when Hattie ignored repeated bath time requests to cooperate, Non-Shouty Mummy then had a lot of devastated Hattie mopping-up to do; my mother (A.K.A. ‘Gogga’) read bedtime stories and dried the kids’ hair, and then they had lovely cuddles with her before I put them to bed.
7.15pm: (five minutes after going to bed)
Joe: “Mummy! MUMMY!!!” [they never get out of bed, so if they need me they holler]
Me: “Yes Joe?”
Joe: “I had a bad dream.”
Me: “You’ve been in bed for five minutes. You haven’t been asleep yet.”
Joe: “Mummy, sometimes my dreams come very quickly!”
Hopefully Hattie won’t wake up in the night and regale him with reminders about Tui being dead…