By necessity I have become a master of taking toddlers on road trips. As a midwife student Natalie is stuck in Toronto on call 28 days of the month, so when I have to drive to the Windsor/Detroit area, either to conduct research for this novel I'm researching, or just to give the kids some grandparents time, I frequently conduct the road trip as the solo adult accompanying my one-year-old and my three-year-old. At first this rated total and complete fucking breakdown on the stress scale but now that I've done it about a billion times I have basically become Dr. Road Trip. We spent the usual four hours on the 401 yesterday and the experience was 90% pleasant, which is about the best one can hope for. So in advance of the Canadian holiday weekend, a few tips:
1. Remember that a car seat is bondage. Sure they're ergonomic and cost several hundred dollars, but regardless of how comfortable the damn thing is at first, car seats over time can grow into a strange form of water torture. They are strapped into the things, mostly motionless, and they can't get out. Diapers bunch up, legs go to sleep, Granola bars create sticky arms and that can be uncomfortable. Being locked into anything where you don't have the ability to escape grows inherently unpleasant. They're in a terrible fix. So try to distract them.
2. But don't distract them TOO much. This tip also can be winnowed down to: Ration the distractions. It's a bit like developing a character in a novel -- you don't want to present everything all at once. The all-out nuclear bomb of distraction is the DVD. Turn on Dora the Explorer Season 1, or the latest Pixar masterpiece, and the kids go instant zone-out. But your road trips will be a hell of a lot more fun if you use the DVD player only as a last resort. On yesterday's road trip I got to hour three before I had to deploy it. What did we do the rest of the time? Well, first off, we talked. The best conversations I ever have with my kids happen when we're on the road. They have no other option but to talk with me, and so we catch up on what's going on at Montessori, playground politics, you name it. When the conversation grows stale (maybe 30 minutes in), then change up the interior environment. Open the windows. Crank the music and dance and sing. (Another 15 minutes.) And then start parceling out the distractions. Crayons and notepads will earn you another 15 minutes, for example, particularly if they're brand new. A new form of snack also can earn you a quarter of an hour. And when that gets stale, don't deploy the DVD yet. It will be tempting, but don't do it. Wait. Because...
3. Timing is everything. Maybe I should have put this first because it's the most important. The best time to leave on a road trip is an hour before nap time. The idea is to kill an hour with such conventional time-wasting armament as conversation, games and crayons, and then there will be five minutes of cranky boredom, when you will be most tempted to use the nuclear option (the DVD), and then if you can withstand that, at one point you will notice the back seat's gone quiet, you'll look back and notice: THEY'RE ASLEEP! If you can get them to sleep before you've used the DVD, then your road trip is basically done. They sleep for an hour or two, then once they're awake you pull off the road for a quick sprint (for my three-year-old) and a diaper change (for my one-year-old). And then it's back in the car for an hour with the DVD. At which point, the road trip is over.
To sum up: Timing is everything, parcel out the distractions and remember a car seat is a horrible thing to be in for three-plus hours. Remember that, and your holiday weekend road trip will be a breeze. Your friend, Dr. Road Trip.