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The 12 Stages of a Road Trip With Kids

These tender moments are accompanied by another ritual: alternately entertaining and containing small children in what feels like a circus on wheels. While every road trip offers the promise of adventure (and the trauma of gas-station bathrooms), there are 12 stages we always must pass through before we truly earn the right to unwind.
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Summer means one thing around here: road trips! Once again it's time to pack up our bathing suits, flip-flops, and books we'll never read, and hit the road. Escaping to the ocean is a summertime ritual for us. Some of our best memories have been made there, from first sensations of waves against bare feet to first tastes of peanut-butter fudge. We look forward to this time together all year.

Of course, these tender moments are accompanied by another ritual: alternately entertaining and containing small children in what feels like a circus on wheels. While every road trip offers the promise of adventure (and the trauma of gas-station bathrooms), there are 12 stages we always must pass through before we truly earn the right to unwind.

1. Hit the road, Jack... Buckle up, roadtrippers! We've got whole wheat bagels. We've got "Uptown Funk." We've got busy bags filled with markers and every single sticker book sold at the local pharmacy. Everyone's gone to the bathroom, put on their seat belts, and is ready for the journey. Don't believe me, just watch...

Five minutes later...

2. Stop your engines. Moments later some version of this conversation occurs:

Child: "I gotta go potty!"

Mommy: "I thought you went before we left."

Child: "Yes, but I had two sips of water. And a passing thought about apple juice. I gotta GO!"

Pulling into the nearest fast-food restaurant, I divide my time between convincing my daughter the electric hand dryer is not out to get her and explaining why she can't have a McFlurry at 8:00 a.m. Did Jack Kerouac have these problems?

3. Life is a highway... For a brief time, harmony rules the car. My daughter colors soothing beach scenes. My toddler intently rips up a piece of paper. (This could be the lease for our rental home, but hey, he's quiet.) Mommy and Daddy listen to Coolio on the radio, kicking back and enjoying the fantastic voyage.

Five minutes later...

4. Highway to hell, that is. Suddenly mayhem breaks loose as Big Sister grabs a marker Toddler used once five days ago. Tears, shouts, and wails of "Mooommeeee!!!" ensue. Mommy closes her eyes and tries to remember her Zen breathing.

5. Stop your engines (again). Momentary silence is interrupted by cries of, "I gotta go potty!" We take a deep breath and enter that tenth circle of hell known as the gas-station restroom... only to find out it's a false alarm.

6. Miles to go before we sleep. But not for the kids, who are both passed out like they're sleeping off a bender. Ah, silence. I'm torn between checking Facebook and trying to determine how my toddler can sleep with his head at a 90-degree angle to his neck.

7. Lost in translation. Pleasant Australian GPS Lady is telling us to get off at the next exit and take the interstate. Except the interstate isn't for another three exits. Colorful language ensues as I scramble to find directions on my iPhone and Husband attempts to recall the Stone Ages, when we used TripTiks and common sense. Good thing the kids are asleep...

8. I got 99 bottles and beer ain't one. The kids are up and tired of their busy bags. And each other. I desperately lead them in a rendition of "99 Bottles of Milk on the Wall" (trying to ignore the irrationality of storing such large quantities of milk outside a refrigerator). When that fails I resort to a stirring game of "Count the silver Accords."

9. Ridin' dirty. Something stinks. Sadly, it's my toddler, who needs a new pull-up. I mentally engage in a philosophical debate about which is the greater evil: changing a dirty diaper on the side of the road, or navigating a gas-station bathroom while not touching anything, lest someone catch gonorrhea or the plague. Toss up.

10. Hunger games. Despite the now-empty bags of junk food all over the back seat, everyone is suddenly ravenous. We stop at a service area and debate between greasy pizza and greasy burgers. After spending a month's income on four slices of pizza and some chocolate milk, the kids take two bites and declare they're full.

11. Stop your engines (again). Precisely 10 minutes from our destination, some version of this conversation occurs:

Child: I gotta go potty.

Mommy: But we're 10 minutes away. Can't you hold it?

Child: No. And can I have a McFlurry?

Ten minutes later...

12. Road warriors! All the trials and travails of life on the road -- and the stench of public restrooms -- fade away as we approach our destination. It wasn't easy, but with persistence, patience, and large amounts of caffeine, we prevailed. Now we can move on to bigger and better things... like battles over sunblock and bedtimes. Victory!

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This post originally appeared on the blog Mommy A to Z. Follow Mommy A to Z on Facebook and Twitter.