How We Survived Our Thanksgiving Road Trip with Our Toddler
A road trip with a toddler requires a flexible, "road trip" attitude
Remember back in the day when being in the car for long periods of time to travel long distances, either to sight-see or just get away, sounded exciting? Hell yeah! You welcomed opportunities, spontaneous or not, to throw your haphazardly-packed bags into your cool, impractical, kid-unfriendly car, jump eagerly behind the wheel and give your friend/passenger a hard high five while you annoyingly and cliché-ingly shouted out “ROAD TRIP!” Or how about those romantic, long-weekend trips you’d take with your spouse, pre-kids where you spent most of the time in the car, traveling through windy, canyon roads, just to look at the beautiful colors of the changing fall foliage? Fall foliage, sweetheart.
Well, the road trip has taken on a whole new meaning since our baby daughter came into our lives a year ago. Now, it’s not so much about high-fiving as it is about, “LET’S. JUST. GET. THERE.” My 11-year-old son has learned to tolerate long hours on the road, almost learning to like it, and is a patient kid as it is. So, having him as a passenger has not really been a problem. But, traveling for several hours at a time with my now 1-year-old daughter? If you’re a parent. You already know.
Despite knowing the challenges of a road trip with a baby, we decided to drive from Los Angeles to Sacramento to spend Thanksgiving with my sister and her family. We were both working remotely, and driving gave us the option to stay up north longer, if we wanted. And we thought, who knows—maybe it will go more smoothly than we think. Maybe Stella will sleep most of the way. We’ll just make lots of stops. We’ll take lots of snacks. We’ll sing songs and play “I Spy.” So we packed up our family-friendly car, hopped in and headed north on the 405.
All was good for the first hour. Stella was mellow, chillin’ in her seat as we listened to and sang along with Evan’s iPod selections of Macklemore and Drake (edited version!). It was clear and sunny outside, and we were all smiles as we pointed out Magic Mountain, Pyramid Lake and then the first of two large dairy farms.
And then somewhere around the first of the orange farms, reality hit as we came up behind a gridlock of holiday traffic. Our demeanors immediately changed, and we went into “Remember, we are traveling with an impatient 12-month-old survival mode.”
And sure enough due to the stop in movement and tension in the air, Stella started crying. And then wailing. And then, just as I expected, she pooped her diaper. We couldn’t pull off. We were miles from an exit. And traffic was not budging. Our sweet, little Evan took charge and proceeded to read her books, sing her songs and act out scenes from Napoleon Dynamite for the next half hour, but it didn’t help. I started to get anxiety. We were in, what felt to us, like the middle of nowhere with hundreds of miles to go, locked up in a mess of cars with an inconsolably crying toddler who was sitting in her unbelievably rank-smelling, dookie.
We eventually made it to a gas station to change the exploded diaper in a disgusting bathroom without a changing table, threw her pooped-on pants away and put her in a new pair. And then got right back into traffic which was moving at a snail’s pace. Stella managed to wet through her diaper within the hour, and we were back to the crying. Now we were all yelling at each other, and Evan was upset, and we turned up the music really loud to try to drown it all out. The ground we had covered up to that point should have only taken three hours, but we were up to nearly six. We had to get there by that night. I started to really hate high-fives, at this point.
After exiting at the next exit, and changing Stella’s pants again, we all wandered through the seedy gas station, deflated and discouraged. We were all on edge, with headaches. A bag of ranch corn nuts was calling my name, so I picked it up. As my husband and I have been trying to be strict about our family eating healthy, my corn nuts move was a surprise. I looked at my husband with a, “Screw it. Whatever it takes at this point,” look in my eyes, and that was the green light. We stocked up on Red Bull, Skittles, Doritos, Corn Nuts—all the junk we yell at our son for wanting, and then we drove next door to McDonald’s and got two large fries and stinky McNuggets.
Stella did not make a peep for the next half an hour while she gobbled down those greasy fries. Evan was in heaven eating sugar and junk food with our permission, and Peter and I were alert and all smiles, pounding Red Bull and sour Skittles as we drove. We were rolling in our pre-parent, road trip ways. That’s right, you want a road trip? Here’s a freaking road trip! Forget worrying and structure and rules. If we make don’t make it there until tomorrow, OH WELL! And somehow things got better. The traffic started to clear up, and we rocked and sang and ate and got belly aches, and the kids fell asleep with the sugar crash and slept until we got there. We realized, the spirit of the road trip that existed for us pre-baby can still exist today. We just had to have the road trip attitude. Sometimes you just have to break the rules, and go wherever a road trip takes you!
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