I have idyllic, probably rose-tinted, memories of long car journeys to Cornwall as a child. Being carried from my bed, half asleep, wrapped in a sleeping bag. Snuggled under a blanket in the back seat with my younger sister, eating car sweets, playing eye spy, singing along to my dad’s Beatles tapes and dozing off again, before waking up six hours later parked up at a Cornish beach. My husband has similar memories of holiday trips to Wales and recreating these journeys was something we looked forward to with our own children, starting our own little piece of family history.
The only problem is, this time we have to be the parents.
Firstly, it’s the packing up of the car and, however much you share domestic arrangements with your other half, for some reason it is always the mum’s job to pack for a holiday. Packing for yourself is one thing (I pride myself on having the capsule wardrobe thing down to a colour-coded art), but packing for your children when holidaying in the UK means trying to cover every possible eventuality. Clothes for sunshine, rain, mud, heat, cold, snow, beach, playground, walking, going out to a nice restaurant (pause for ridiculing laughter) or possible alien invasion must be included. Then you have to decide which books and toys they are going to take. Do you risk their current favourites knowing this will make them happy but jeopardising your future happiness should they be lost? Do you allow them to take everything that they want to or try and restrict them to just a couple of items? After all, as ‘the mum’ it will be your job to try to sneak Thomas the Tank Engine and his 17 friends into an already packed car whilst your husband swears and mutters something about ‘it’s a one week holiday, we’re not bloody moving house’. Holidaying in the UK seems to turn men into their fathers, too.
Next item for debate, do you take food? Whilst we know that they do have supermarkets all over the UK, there is always the temptation to take ‘something for breakfast tomorrow’ or ‘a few essentials to start us off’ – five bags of shopping later and I have nowhere to put my feet when I get into the car. Snacks for the journey are a must. I spend at least 60% of the journey throwing sweets and crisps over my head in the hope that some of them hit the laps of the children behind.
One of the biggest differences for our children are the advent of car seats: an absolute necessity for car safety, but not half as much fun as making a duvet tent on the back seat and eating Smarties by torchlight. On the upside , we don’t have to deal with two children kicking seven bells out of each other under a blanket whilst we shout, “Don’t make me come back there!”
There have been many scientific advances in the last thirty years which make a long car journey easier on parents. Wet wipes, for example, are a huge advance on my mum’s damp flannel in a polythene bag which was as rough as sandpaper and smelt of sick. I also have no idea how parents coped on long journeys before the invention of the in-car DVD player or iPad. I’ve tried to play eye-spy with my children in a nostalgic nod to my car journeys of the ‘70s, but quite frankly it doesn’t cut it when compared with Angry Birds on the iPad or Peppa Pig on DVD. These devices are no longer a luxury item for a long car journey with kids. Put it this way, I don’t know any parents who have made the mistake of forgetting the in-car charger twice.
The fact that there is more traffic on the road now than there was then can also add to the stress of the journey. Encountering a traffic jam is never a pleasant experience but when you have two over-tired, sugar-fuelled children in the back seat, hitting traffic opens up a whole new world of pain. Also, this is usually the cue for the phrase that strikes panic into the heart of any travelling parent: “Mummy, I need the toilet.”
After cajoling, distracting and begging the full-bladdered child in question for as long as it takes to get to a service station, it can be quite annoying when you do get there and suddenly the urgency seems to have subsided as the supposedly ‘desperate’ child takes their time, wandering past the games machines, having a look in the shop window, maybe even climbing onto the massage chair. Other users of the coffee lounge look at me askance as I scream, “Do you need to poo or not?”
The part that really makes me realise that I am now the mum is the very last leg of the journey. Whilst husband and I generally share the driving on a long car journey, as we approach our destination there is an unwritten rule, for the sake of our marriage, that husband drives and I navigate. This is because I need more warning to turn right than, “This right! This right! This right! . . . . Oh, you’ve missed it.” Once, after a particularly horrendous Sat Nav re-routing, we found ourselves at 2am down a boggy track in Yorkshire, in torrential rain, having to reverse the car for about two miles. Even husband said it was the moment he wished his dad was there to do it instead.
When, with relief, you realise you have actually found your holiday destination, it dawns on you that the end is not yet in sight. Looking back at your sleeping children, you realise that, as the parents, it is up to you to locate the hidden key, work out how to open the door, make up the beds and carry your, hopefully still sleeping, children into bed. Then you have to go back outside and unpack the car, work out how to use the heating controls and check that you haven’t forgotten the toilet paper, before you can finally make yourself a cup of tea and collapse onto the sofa.
Because that’s what it means to be the parents on a holiday journey; you are the ones with whom the buck stops. It is as this sinks in, that I find myself awash with nostalgia for 1978, a sleeping bag on the back seat of a Ford Cortina and a wet flannel in a polythene bag.
Thanks Mum and Dad x