This plea for help was screamed from the second row of my mini-van last Wednesday afternoon, a mere 10 seconds after we’d left the parking structure and entered into a labyrinth of one-way roads in downtown Ann Arbor. This particular parking structure was connected to a very large children’s hospital, the kind with multiple restrooms on every floor. Restrooms with clouds and rainbows painted on the walls, sufficient amounts of liquid hand soap and working paper towel dispensers. So many restrooms, in fact, that a family of five would have to walk right past one before leaving the building and entering the parking garage.
I’m sure you can predict the scene. As we passed the restroom my husband call out, “Last chance, does anyone have to use the bathroom before we leave?” His query was answered by convincing head-shakes and a unanimous “No!” from the crowd. Suspect of their answers, but too tired to put up much of a fight, he gave into the faux-confidence expressed by his family in the capabilities of their bladders and the party of five soldiered past and piled into the family van. By now we should know better than to believe our children before we strap them into a moving vehicle.
So with our middle child on the verge of an “incident,” my husband found a little Greek restaurant on the side of the road with a sign in the window that said, “Bathrooms for customers only.” (Oh, the irony.) As he threw it in park, I jumped out to race our daughter inside, banking on our collective dimples for free passage in lieu of an order of gyros and fries. As luck would have it, the restaurant was empty, leaving us with the full attention of the staff at the counter who seemed puzzled by the crazed mom dragging her desperate daughter into the women’s room. I shouted out, “I’ll buy something!” as I closed the door behind us and exhaled a sigh of relief that we’d made it just in time. Five minutes later and mission accomplished, we emerged from the sanctity of the public restroom and commenced our Walk of Shame out of the establishment. The guilt kicked in by the beverage cooler, so I grabbed a bottle of water, fished out a few crumpled dollars from my pocket, and paid the man behind the counter. It was the least I could do—he’d just saved my leather interior and a bit of my sanity.
So that’s how our three-hour drive home with three kids in the car started out.
Ten minutes past the emergency bathroom break, the Starving Children’s Choir began tuning up their vocal chords. Their medley began soft and slow, a murmur of lines about the inadequacies of the pizza we’d had for lunch punctuated with the rustle of empty wrappers found stuffed under the seat, their contents thoroughly searched in attempts to fish out any remaining crumbs of sustenance. Their hymn grew louder with each highway sign passed, dashing their hopes of visiting the golden arches at the next exit. They finally reached the crescendo at the exact moment we cruised on by their favorite stop and shop location: The Cracker Barrel. Oh, the humanity! Didn’t we know they were starving for pancakes? How could we deprive them of the sugar cured ham and hashbrown casserole they so desperately desired? And, what kind of parents drive right by the old country store with their gleaming displays of flavored candy sticks and orange cream soda? The terrible kind…at least that was the consensus from the back row.
All hope lost, they settled in and awaited their fate—utter starvation. And in their state of gloom they got a little sleepy, and by mile marker 137 they were far away in dreamland and my husband and I could finally have a conversation without interruption from the peanut gallery. It was a lovely 45 minutes.
About an hour from home, we heard the unmistakable sounds of the natives in the back waking from their slumber. Not wanting to cause further malnourishment, we exited the highway and pulled into Red Robin for some burgers and fries. It was a hit with all of the kids and, riding on that high, my husband decided to capitalize on this parenting success by making one more impromptu stop—the donut store. It might be a cheap way to get your children’s love, but I don’t think he cares. He lives for the squeals of delight and adoration he receives every time he morphs into “Donut Dad.” It’s called bonding.
Thoroughly sugared up, we embarked upon the last stretch of our trip home. The next hour was filled with musical requests and car seat dance solos. Our kids have recently discovered the movie Grease and are perfectly happy listening to “Grease Lightning” twenty-six times in a row. We, however, are not okay with that playlist. After humoring them with a few tunes from the movie soundtrack, my husband and I tried to introduce our kiddos to the musical masterpieces of the 90s. Despite my attempts to describe the complexities of Counting Crows lyrics and the genius of the Dave Mathews Band instrumentals, my kids weren’t having it. At one point all three of them began chanting, Justin Bieber, Justin Bieber!! (I’m not going to lie, I have a touch of Beiber Fever myself). So, I relented and switched decades for the rest of the trip. My husband, on the other hand, plugged his headphones in and escaped to the sports world courtesy of the Jim Rome Show.
With twenty miles to go, the baby decided enough was enough and attempted to escape from her five-point harness. With the dexterity of a cat (or a sloth), I climbed into the back to calm her down and divert her attention using the only method that she responds to lately—hip hop dance. With “All I Do Is Win” cranking from the stereo, the big kids and I coached her through the appropriate hand movements and soon she was bopping her head and putting her hands in the air. The other drivers on the road probably thought we were falling victim to a bee invasion. Turns out we were really experiencing a British Invasion: the One Direction kind.
I remember my parents describing a road trip we once took up north when my sister and I were younger. With my uncle driving the truck, my mom and dad decided to hang out in the attached camper with us for the ride up the highway. Apparently when my uncle pulled over at a rest stop, my parents came crashing out of the camper door like they were being chased by a black bear. I never understood why they elected to ride with my uncle in the truck for the rest of the trip, until I had kids myself. I think my husband summed it up best when he remarked, “There is no way other people’s kids are this loud.”
These days you can’t pull out the middle row of seats in the van and let the kids run wild like we did in the good old days and you can’t pile them in the back of the truck and cruise on down the road either. Car trips now require permanent restraints and, as a result, constant assistance from adults to remedy situations like a dropped sippy cup, a missing crayon, or a dead iPad battery. But regardless of the changing styles of travel, a few things remain constant in the arena of family road trips: the kids will always be loud, the complaints will always be plentiful, the parents will always bring aspirin, and the memories will always be worth it. I’m just not sure that we are there...yet.