I'll Turn This Car Around

The Family Road Trip Is A Special Hell

The back seat may become the wild west and we may need to stop and buy gas station popsicles.

Parents looking at map on summer road trip and figuring out where to go
Darrin Klimek/The Image Bank/Getty Images

There is a once-beloved grey-and-teal Graco car seat in a dumpster at an Exxon station on the side of I-95 North, somewhere in North Carolina. I know this because I heaved it in there myself, while my children sat on the curb licking popsicles and my husband attempted to clean up the mess of sickness in the third row of our Chevy Suburban using baby wipes (which is sort of like cutting steak with a plastic knife). I do not take the throwing-away of car seats lightly, so you’ll have to trust me that this one was beyond redemption. We were only an hour from home, a little sunburned and deliriously fulfilled after a week at the beach. Then came the volcanic eruption from the back seat. It started with a burp, as they do, and at the sound of it, my husband immediately put the blinker on, heading for the exit ramp.

I felt like we deserved the good luck when the gas station had a literal field of daisies next to it, rural America showing off. After our best attempts at a car clean-up, I took the children to play in the field — miraculous how deftly my son could cartwheel now that his stomach was emptied — while my husband left for the nearest Walmart to buy a new car seat for the last leg home. Adaptability, as it turns out, is the name of the game. I have my arsenal of road trip survival tools, but the only one that matters is being ready to stray the course: to stop, regroup, and buy some gas station popsicles when necessary. This isn’t an airplane. You can get out. And you should.

Sometimes road trips with four small children go smoothly. Sometimes everyone naps and we don’t run out of M&Ms. Other times, we end up in a remote field, waving at truck drivers. In those times, I’ve learned, its best to just go ahead and make the signal for the truckers to honk their horns, to throw your hands up and cheer when they do, and to remember that one day all of the little people around you will be big people, a whole table full of adults, who will sit at dinners that go long into the night and roll their eyes when you tell this story.

All of this is not to say that you shouldn’t strive for a smooth journey. Leading up to a road trip, I clean the car and car seats. I put everyone’s comfort item and water bottle in his or her seat. I pack an ungodly amount of snacks that can be opened without my help. I put pull-ups on anyone who wears one at night. I check the route and research parks along the way — there’s almost always a playground within a mile of an exit at some point in the stretch when I know we’ll need to stop. I aim to leave at the optimal time for resting, after a morning of physical activity outside.

I plan all of these things, but I never forget that children, cars, and traffic patterns are unpredictable.

When I’m the only adult in the car, the backseat may become the Wild West. I cannot play referee when my hands are at ten and two, eyes on the highway. Let the elbows fly back there, let them figure out how to agree on a movie, how to divvy up the Nutter Butters, how to coach the toddler through the task of rolling up his window, since no one else can reach the button. These team-building exercises can be loud, but barring bodily function emergencies or serious injury, I’m not pulling over. Oh, you’re bored? Look, there’s a tractor-trailer toting pigs — I’ll coast right along in the adjacent lane and you can watch those porkers for the next fifteen minutes. Get creative back there, form alliances, do what you need to do — for the safety of all in the car, mom’s not turning around.

I have, however, hit my breaking point. Once, on a four-hour road trip, I was solo with the kids, and the baby drifted off to sleep just moments before road work brought us to a halt. I had worn an older pair of sunglasses (they kept slipping down), and I regretted wearing short athletic shorts (the backs of my legs were sticking to the seat), and the incompetence of the driver in front of me (why do you keep braking for no reason in the left lane?!) had whittled my nerves. When the baby woke screaming, I might have cried. From the back seat, my oldest son, who noticed, said, “You’re doing great, mom,” at which point I was actually crying. “Plus,” he said, “we’re almost there!” We weren’t even halfway.

I envisioned the destination. I did my calming inhales like they taught me in one of the birthing classes. There’s no turning back now.

When we passed the blockage that had caused the traffic, I saw it wasn’t road work at all, but a wreck. I edged passed, the toddlers wide-eyed at the fire truck and ambulance, relieved that the wheels were coming off only metaphorically. We were safe and buckled, in a car with a good engine and a tank full of gas. I would get there. Would my floorboards be a rainbow of Cheez-Its and fruit snacks upon arrival? Would everyone be grumpy and achy when we finally pulled in? Would I wonder, no less than 17 times along that highway, if traveling with small children is worth it? Yes, yes, and yes.

On that same trip, during a bathroom break, a kind lady at the gas station checkout counter looked at me and said: “Don’t forget. The gettin’ there is half the fun.” I watched her smiling at my children who fiddled with the keychain stand and ran Sprites back to the refrigerator after I shook my head, and I knew she didn’t just mean this one trip — I knew she meant the whole, big trip, and I knew she was right: the gettin’ there is half the fun.

Hampton Williams Hofer lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and raises babies. Her work has appeared in Flying South, Walter Magazine, Architectural Digest, and Food 52, among others. Family aside, her great loves are a South Carolina beach, a Roger Federer backhand, a Charlottesville lawn, and–most of all–a good story.