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I must be insane.
That statement was repeated in my head during a 3,000-mile road trip when my family moved from Maryland to California 2 years ago. This “I-must-be-a-crazy-person” thought resurfaced whenever my 1-year-old refused to be buckled in her car seat, my 4-year-old demanded a bathroom on a deserted highway, I misplaced my car keys (only to find my toddler sitting on them) or when I discovered a milk puddle in the backseat at midnight.
But mingled among these few negative thoughts are the happy shrieks when we drove past horses on the open range, cheesy photos snapped at national park entrances and orders to “keep driving to California,” from our preschooler holding the road atlas upside down.
I know I’m not the first military spouse to endure a coast-to-coast PCS and I definitely will not be the last. Like hundreds of other military families, I lived to tell the tale of the great American road trip and learned a few things along the journey.
5 Ways Military Families Can Find Joy in the Journey
1. Get Your Family Mission Ready
Give your road trip a military mission name. For example, the Battle of Okinawa was codenamed Operation Iceberg. When we moved from Okinawa to Maryland, we codenamed the whole PCS process MOAB MOO (Michelle, Olivia, And Benny Move Off Okinawa).
For our last PCS road trip we made a colorful sign and taped it to the back window of our car.
We gave the girls maps and markers so they could trace our route. We stopped to take photos at random places and recorded silly things that we said in a family quote book.
These creative activities acknowledge that military life is an adventure. And adventures are fun, right? Say it with me. Adventures are fun.
2. Technology Is Your Road Trip Battle Buddy
When you travel with small children, you count your blessings. I silently thanked Panasonic for developing the portable DVD player.
I want to be a granola mother who doesn’t depend on electronics to entertain her children in the car. But the truth is that I strategically planned for multiple movie viewings.
I packed 14 new movies, one for each state that we drove through during our cross-country PCS.
Each time, we crossed a state line, my daughters had the option of opening a new movie. In the end, I didn’t need all 14 movies, but I can recite every single line and sound effect in Monsters, Inc.
3. Brake for Play
When choosing your road trip route, map out every fast-food restaurant with an indoor play area. We mistakenly stopped at a Chick-fil-A without a playground in West Virginia and I’m not sure who cried more, my daughter or me. Wait, I do know the answer. It was me. Definitely me.
We found that if we got out of the car, hit the bathroom, ate a little and let the girls play for 30 minutes, everyone was happier than if I tried to rush us back into the car and push on for another 150 miles.
I recommend packing a small ball and have your preschooler kick, throw and/or chase it at rest stops. If you forget the ball, no worries. Just run sprints to one tree and back. My daughter once did this at a rest stop in Nebraska. Within minutes, she had a crowd of cheering observers that included a high school track team.
Try to incorporate physical activity into your road trip as much as possible. As little as 20 minutes of exercise can help reduce stress and release endorphins. As your family’s road trip captain, you need those endorphins to combat the “are we there yet?” backseat whining that you are guaranteed to hear at some point on the trip.
4. The Great Snack Compromise
Normally, I insist on healthy snacks for my kids. On a road trip, those rules flew out the window. I packed a minimum amount of snacks and when we stopped at a gas station, my daughters were allowed to pick one treat. It wasn’t required to be healthy. But it did leave my children happy.
For example, on a particular long day of driving on Interstate 80, my 4-year-old selected Skittles for her after-dinner snack. She happily chewed the rainbow candy in the backseat during the last leg of that day’s drive. On a road trip remember that a happy child means a happy parent.
5. Go with Your Gut
When we committed to this road trip, I was terrified. I immediately questioned every military spouse I came in contact with and I listened to every piece of advice, even the ones that conflicted with each other.
Reflecting on our trip, I wish I would have trusted myself more. I know my limitations. I know what works for my children and I need to listen to my instincts. For example, many people advised us to hit the open highway by 6 a.m., drive for a few hours when the children are still sleepy and then stop for breakfast. We never did this. We barely hit the road before 10 a.m. And that’s OK.
We also drove a complicated and indirect route that made no sense to AAA or my Garmin GPS. We planned our route based on the locations of my friends.
Each night we stopped to eat, sleep and visit at their houses. This was the best part of the road trip. Introducing our daughters to our college friends and meeting our friends’ children and watching all the kids play together. Those catching-up-with-old-friends moment are my happy memories.
It’s also when I found the joy in our road trip journey.