Traveling with Kids and Learning to Enjoy the Ride

For us, Thanksgiving weekend meant, among other things, many hours in a packed car with three kids under the age of nine. This was not always as fun as it sounds.

The 18-month-old was getting over a virus and cried approximately 50 percent of the drive, prompting the older two kids to conduct frantic, back-seat searches for her pacifier and sing long, drawn-out versions of lullabies that, truth be told, made me want to jump out the window. Once the baby fell asleep, the older two had wide swaths of unstructured time during which they fought over who could hold the GPS and asked when we’d get there roughly two million times. There was also the usual parental bickering about the quickest way to get where we were going and the proper methodology for soothing crying babies and handling squabbling kids.

Such moments — or in this case, such long, seemingly interminable stretches — will try a parent’s soul. Trapped in a loud, messy car hurtling down the highway past towns you’ve never heard of, you wonder if you’ll ever know peace. You’re not particularly religious, but you even start to pray a little.

And, at some point, peace does come. The baby falls asleep, one kid hands the GPS to the other without a fuss, traffic suddenly thins, and you arrive at your destination. Everyone barrels out of the car, up the steps, and into the arms of loved ones.

Later, you think: Someday I’ll look back on all this and miss the way the baby slumped in my arms the minute she was freed from her car seat. Or the questions the big kids asked, like, “Mama, how can you tell if someone is nice on the inside or mean on the inside?” Or their complex packing itineraries — the nubby blanket not the smooth one, the stuffed puppy not the big dog, the fifth Harry Potter book but only for a certain chapter. I’ll miss the precision with which our son called out the GPS directions or how our daughter laughed with wild abandon when her father pretended to drive off the road.

There will come a time when holiday travel will mean long drives spent in adult conversation or quiet reverie. If I’m lucky enough to live that long, my husband by my side, I know this envisioned future will be wonderful in its own way. But I can’t imagine it will ever embody the sense of urgency, wonder, and downright triumph that four hours in the car with our kids now does. I can’t imagine when they’re grown and gone that I’ll ever look back and say I didn’t enjoy the ride.