Thursday, October 9, 2014

Road Trip on a Budget...with Kids


Hey everyone!  So sorry I've been quiet lately--my life is seriously jam packed right now with every spare minute "to myself" going towards work or other commitments.  I'm dying to find my pockets of time to write again but this season is just not the one for that.  In the meantime, I wanted to share this post I wrote for my friend's website Karyn Burns ABC's Posters.   When our family was on our big summer road trip (which feels like forever ago now) Karyn wrote to ask if I could collaborate on a post about traveling with kiddos on a budget.  I promptly forgot I committed to her and then randomly got it all down on paper a couple weeks ago.  Karyn is just as, if not more, busy than I am right now though so we had to put the collaboration on hold.  We will work something out soon but for now here is the post I'm finally getting out to those of you who asked for specific tips on this topic.  Check out Karyn's website (and purchase a poster or 2 while there!) and stay tuned for our earth shattering collaboration sometime soon.

Have you ever considered packing a month’s worth of necessities into your car and driving across the United States?  Sounds pretty romantic doesn’t it?  I think we’ve all had that daydream at some point.  Now, have you entertained the dream knowing you have extremely limited funds and 2 small children?  No?  Neither had I before my family took to the road this summer.

A few months before the trip, my husband and I were in our living room after putting the kids to bed, reviewing the day’s events.  Out of the blue, he said “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but what if we drove to the East Coast this summer?”  Depending upon where you live this may or may not sound like an insane idea but since we live in Colorado and have 2 young children (ages 6 and 3), I was befuddled by his ludicrous suggestion.  I listened anyway because he’d told me not to interrupt him until he managed to get his line of reasoning out. 

Truth be told, a part of me was thrilled from the first with the absurdity of it all.  My side of the family was going to be convening on Cape Cod for an annual vacation we’d had to miss out on 2 years running.  Our current financial reality does not include 4 plane tickets to the East Coast so missing it again was a given.  After my “Say WHAT?!” moment, I promptly embraced the role of co-conspirator.

We talked out a pros and cons list and found there were countless pros vs. 2 cons.  The pros were too many to fit in one blog post so I’ll reveal the cons alone:  1) We are totally and completely broke and 2) there are 2 small children living in our house who might make 5 days in a car the most hellish 5 days we’d ever lived through.   As you must do when a pros and cons list paints an indisputable picture, we took a deep breath and committed.

We were able to figure out the saving money piece pretty easily that very night.  Venturing the kids would be blinded by excitement at the thought of seeing their cousins and therefore ignorant of the reality of being in the car for days in a row, we left that piece in the “to-do” pile...and broke the news the next morning.

My breathless reveal of the surprise we had in store for them was met by an incredulous 6 year old and her tearful objections.  She could not believe we were going to make them sit in the car for just shy of a whole week.   I knew I had to spring into action so started hatching a plan for fun and games in the car.  I promised her a good time and believe me we had to deliver.

Long story short, here is a list of tricks we discovered to make our “Road Trip on a Budget…with Kids” a success with a few examples of how to incorporate the ideas.  I’m not going to lie, it takes some prep but the amount of time spent getting ready was more than worth the hours it paid off.  I am proud to say we came home with more money in our bank account than we would have if we’d stayed home.  Granted, we had some help with gas (thanks Mom!), temporary use of a hybrid car instead of our beater (thanks Mom-in Law!) and relatives who wouldn’t let us pay for anything once we got to The Cape (thanks family!) but still I think that’s notable, to say the least.

1)      No Eating Out

-Pack light clothing-wise so as to leave more space in the car for food.

-Bring healthy salty, sweet and protein rich snacks as well as a few tried and true creature comforts for each traveler.  This will help to avoid impulse buys when you are all tired/wired.

-Stock a small bag for the car full of enough snacks for the travel day.  Keep extra snacks in a suitcase in the trunk.  Replenish the bag from the suitcase stash when at your rest stop for the night.

-Before the trip, buy fixings and pack lunch each day before heading off again (or before you go to sleep).

-Stock a cooler in the trunk with dinner possibilities: frozen burritos, single serve mac and cheese…anything you can pop in a microwave or add hot water to.  If you think of it, bring along some utensils but most truck stops on major interstates have everything you need to prepare an on-the-go dinner.  Hey, they even have showers if you’re up for that!

2)      Couch Surf

-Pre-plan your stops and stay with people you know whenever possible.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  Most people will be happy to contribute to the success of such a grand adventure! 

-If you can’t stay with someone you know, search online for hotels beforehand or on your phone when approaching the destination.  Prices are often higher if you walk up and reserve the room in person.

3)      Scavenger Hunt

I was inspired by the all the amazing downloadable scavenger hunt choices out there but decided to create ours myself.  If you would like help creating one, let me know--I'd love to give you a hand!
-Create, or snag online (there are TONS of free ones available for download), a car trip scavenger hunt for the kids.  Have a sheet for every state you pass through so they have something new every once in a while.  I kept ours in envelopes saying “Do not open until…” and presented the sheets at every state line.   Every point earned was worth a minute they could stay up past their bedtime while on vacation.
 
-Include a “Mystery Item” for each state by mapping your route and spending some time (pre-trip) on Roadside America.com.  There you can find kooky, oddball destinations pretty much anywhere in this country.  For instance, we stopped at the World's Largest Ball of Paint in Alexandria, IN and painted layer number 24,085!

4)      License Plate Game

-Don’t forget this classic.  It’s an easy way to get everyone involved and can pop up just when you need it in the form of a distraction (“How many license plates have we found so far?...Which ones to we have left?”).  Not to mention spotting a hard to find plate is exciting even for the adults.  Download a free printable like this one so the kids can keep track of what’s been found.

5)      Map It

-Print out road maps for each state you will go through and give the kids highlighters.  Encourage them to find and map your route.  This helps quell the “Are we there yet?”s because they can see for themselves.  At the start of the trip I presented each of them with a brand new clipboard and fancy pen attached so they had a convenient way to write on their maps, license plate game and scavenger hunt sheets.

6)      Geocache

-If you’ve never heard of geocaching, read about it here.  It is our all-time favorite family activity.  We use this $10 app but if you don’t have a smartphone you can buy a GPS unit such as this.  After that purchase, geocaching is FREE any and every time you feel inspired to go on an adventure.  We challenged ourselves to find a cache in every state we went through.   Finding one was also an item for the scavenger hunt.

Geocaching at sunset on Lake Erie
7)      Technology

-When all else fails, take advantage of any technology you have.  To be honest, our 3 year old was more apt to want to watch a movie than play the games we had prepared.  We accepted this and moved on with our lives.  Don’t beat yourself up if the kids just want to zone out to a dvd, a game on your tablet/iPad/phone or music for hours on end (although whatever you do, don’t forget their headphones!).   It’s okay, their fried brains will return to normal before you know it and you’ll get some amazing quiet time for a bit.

8)      Keep It Simple

-If you are worried you will all get stir crazy despite your preparation, don’t worry—you’re right!  Try not to anticipate every snag by overloading the car with more possible distractions.  Talk to the kids beforehand about the trip being a mix of fun and boredom and that you will all get through it together.  It’s better to have a fairly easy to keep in order car and a few hours of complaining than it is to have a jumbled mess of a car with the same (if not more) amount of complaining.  If you can’t resist getting more stuff, keep it to things they can stash in the pockets on the back of your front seats:  workbooks, books, stickers etc.


There you go—hope you have as much fun and argue maybe a little less than we did.   Have a great trip!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Fresh Start

After a roller coaster of a school year, I finally feel like myself again. The last few months in particular have been trying but this past month I've s.l.o.w.l.y worked myself back into the grateful, hopeful person I usually am. The other day I found myself feeling excited at the prospect of being given the opportunity to enjoy Boulder for one more year. It's still possible something could pop up for Nathan somewhere else, but it's more likely than not at this point we will be here another school year. That reality is hard for a couple of reasons but wonderful for a lot more. I spent most of this year counting all the "lasts" and dreading having to leave. Now, I'll be able to soak it up in a more positive light because instead of being the last year here, it's a bonus year here. Plus, now the job slate is cleared for Nathan and we can go back to crossing our fingers for a great job on the East Coast. We are going to have to be creative financially but we are no strangers to that, so bring it on Boulder. You're going to have to entertain these Stith's a bit longer.

Days like today do nothing but boost the positivity level because it was a perfect summer day and I was lucky enough to spend pretty much the whole day outside hiking.  Since moving here we have hiked a few times but haven't made it a priority because our kids haven't been terribly great at it. In fact they usually kind of hate it. We make the most of it when we do go and find the positives for sure but we just don't run out and do it every chance we get. Today though, was another world. They hardly whined, walked the whole way themselves and had a great time from start to finish. Nathan and I feel like another layer of this beautiful city is now accessible for our family and the timing couldn't be better.

This morning I spent a few hours getting lost in the Chautauqua trail system with my great friend Jessica. She and her family are moving away soon and we will miss them like crazy so I was so happy to have this long morning to hike and chat with her.

Soaking up the pre-hike atmosphere. We came up here to Flagstaff Mountain to geocache but there weren't any caches nearby. Nathan and I were about to hop back in the car to find another spot but Zoe asked if we could explore. So glad she did!

Cool little pavillion you can rent out for bbq's

So many beautiful views and wildflowers!




So proud of these kiddos today!

I mean..come ON! How lucky are we??

They loved this "baby tree"



Sunrise Amphitheater. Nathan and I vowed to grab some coffee and doughnuts and come up here someday soon to watch the sunrise because....

...wouldn't you?

Watching big sister put on a show. Didn't take him long to join in.


On our way down in the car we came upon this mother fox and her 4 kits. Nathan had just been telling the kids he is always hoping to see an animal when he is out hiking. Pretty special!


Afterwards we went to a park near our house (Park East) to cool off in the water. We walked quite a ways in the stream like this and it took me way back to 88 Monument Avenue, the house I grew up in. A friend and I used to pretend we were explorers and would slowly make our way up the brook behind our house. I had kind of forgotten about it until today.
A nice pre-dinner soapy bath, dinner outside on the patio and post-dinner popsicles were in order of course. Not a bad way to kick off summer vacation.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

To unplug or not to unplug?

I don't know if you've noticed but parents are under a lot of pressure. Not only are we spending our days keeping our children alive, but we have to make sure their childhoods are happy ones. I know that might sound horrible or overly simplified..or dramatic depending on your personal life journey and current situation but it's true. This job we've committed ourselves to is relentless. My kids see me at my absolute worst. I am constantly trying to improve the way in which I deal with the emotions that come barreling out when I'm pushed to my limit. There are times when I feel I'm improving and times when I feel I've lost my grip on every skill I've crafted since giving birth for the first time 6 years ago. In other words, I am nowhere near perfect and my kids could be the first ones to tell you that.

This truth is hard to grapple with sometimes because I hate the feeling I get when logic is kicked to the backseat and raw emotion and knee jerk reaction take the wheel. At the same time I know these moments, as long as I take responsibility for them and apologize when I need to do so, are important to the emotional development of my kids. I know without showing them my imperfections and modeling owning them, they would probably grow into people who bury their emotions and have difficulty dealing with adversity.

If I were more well read and professional, I would start this paragraph with, "Research shows..." but I'm going to choose to be perfectly honest and admit I'm too tired and short on time to find any articles supporting my argument. Instead I'm going to fess up that my "research" is what my therapist tells me she has seen in her professional experience. I not only believe her because she's awesome and really smart but because this "perfectly imperfect" angle on parenting is the one I've believed in even before my therapist validated it for me.

Anyway, that wasn't the point I was going for when I sat down to write this. What I really wanted to talk about was on top of all this built in pressure the job comes with, why do we all (fellow parents, friends, family, society, our own damn selves) insist on finding ways to add more pressure to the mix? Breastfeeding (or not) and all the scrutiny that goes along with that...vaccinating (or not) and all the scrutiny that goes along with that..."screen time" or "media" (or not) and all the scrutiny that goes along with that...co-sleeping (or not) and all the scrutiny that goes along with that...the list goes on and on and on and on and....

The most recent thing to get my goat in this respect is all the judgment surrounding how much parents use their phones. I know, I know...and I kind of agree but I wish we could all lighten up about it just a little. Don't get me wrong, I know plenty of folks who could benefit from a smartphone intervention. As soon as I'm done with my current "20 hour a week" resident manager job (aka "you must be available to your residents 24/7"), I plan to put it far out of arms reach or even turn it off once in a while in an effort to break my habit of checking it every 3 minutes.

Like my love affair with chocolate though, I will never strive for a life without my phone. Yes, once in a while I'll need to work a little harder to scale back on the amount and frequency but in the grand scheme of things, these "vices" are part of enjoying life and I think that's okay.

I feel sure there has been more than one time when a stranger has walked by me and my kids at the playground and silently chided me for staring at my phone but you know what? That stranger probably kept walking and missed the part when I put my phone in my pocket and resumed the endless "Ice Cream Store" game I was fully engaged in 2 minutes before they walked by. I can also admit to more than once waving my kids off as they pleaded with me to watch them on the monkey bars so I could text my sister. You know what? I watch my kids on the monkey bars every other day for as long as we are able to stay at the playground. I lift them up when they can't reach and coach them through their fear almost every time they ask. I talk to my sisters at most every other month so yes, when I find a moment to exchange a few quick texts with one of them, I jump on the opportunity. Once in a while as I'm sitting quietly watching my kids play together, I might take a minute to read an article on my phone that caught my eye. I didn't have time to sit down and do so quietly over a cup of coffee because someone was tapping my shoulder at 5am expecting me to spend the morning making breakfast smoothies and wiping butts.

So if you wouldn't mind I'd like us all to agree on a few things: 1) let's put our phones somewhere we can't see or hear them when we are driving 2) maybe we could stand to put the phones away during family dinners and 3) leave us overworked and overtired parents alone about how much we use our phones. We'll work on it if we think it's becoming a problem for our families but in the meantime we're just doing our best to keep our kids alive and happy.

My friends, my family

I spend a lot of my time striving to create for my kids the solid foundation my parents gave me. It’s a lot of pressure because I had a great childhood. One of seven kids, there was never a dull moment. Endless memories were made in the house we grew up in and sometimes I wish I could go back and hang out with that motley crew again, just for a day. Or that my kids could.

**You can read the rest of this post over at Mile High Mamas**

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Back to Work

Growing up, all I wanted was to be a mom. It was the answer I gave whenever someone asked what I wanted to do with my life. Even through college, honestly. I had a terrible time picking a major because no career path drew me in the way motherhood did. Of course I knew the pay was nonexistent so dutifully went to college and chose a theatre major because it was the only thing I could stand doing with my time. If I had to work, I guessed I wouldn’t be miserable working in theatre, biding my time until I got my big break in the parenting world...

**You can read the rest of this post over at Mile High Mamas!**

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Let Me Explain..

Hi guys.

Hey, I'm sorry if we haven't talked in a while and I'm sorry if you've been avoiding calling or writing because you don't know what to say. I can't lie, this is a hard time for us. Nathan and I are being put through a really big mental/emotional strength test right now and while we both feel confident we will come out on top, the bumpy road there is making us kind of car sick.

Here's the deal. We are finding out the people warning us over the past five years that the job market for PhD's (theatre in particular) is brutal were not lying or exaggerating. We've been frequently warned the chances of landing a good, steady job right out of grad school are slim at best but have been soldiering through, choosing to label those people "Negative Nellies" (well I have anyway) or that with a little positive thinking and honest hard work, we would beat the odds. We used all of our savings to move out here and have lived off loans (aka accrued a ton of debt) with a lot of help from government assistance (aka lived as frugally as humanly possible). Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how thoroughly my kids understand what I mean when I say "No, we can't get that because we don't have any money." Nathan has worked so much and so hard that most days we only see him for an hour each morning before he heads off to the library. We've made the most of all of this because we had a finish line we were headed for. For four and a half years, we've been saying our hard work will be rewarded when he graduates. His tireless efforts would for sure translate into a great job and we could move on to the next chapter.

Don't get me wrong, we've had a blast out here and feel lucky to be able to show our kids you don't have to have a lot of money to have fun and feel good about life. I didn't just tell you all of that so you could feel bad for the life we've lived out here because it's been a gift in countless ways. I wanted to explain it all so you could understand why traditional attempts at cheering someone up may not work on me right now. One of my sisters found that out this morning as I countered all of her bright sides with "yeah, but"s (sorry Rach!). It's reminding me of the days leading up to Owen's birth. One of my midwives asked how I was feeling and I told her I was feeling nervous about going into labor. She said "Why are you feeling nervous? You can do it, you've done it before and in the end you'll have a beautiful baby!" I knew she meant well, and I agreed with her but I just laughed and said "Because being in labor is AWFUL! Yes, the reward is great, but it SUCKS getting to that part!"

We are plugging away and finding little happy moments in our daily life, thanks mostly to the kids. We are getting our ducks in a row for our "Plan B". We aren't getting drunk in the corner while gorging on fast food and chocolate...not every day anyway. In other words, don't worry about us. We are going to make it work and enjoy life along the way, it's just that it's taking a lot of extra effort to do so right now. Sometimes, seemingly harmless everyday things can get me all teary when they remind me of our situation and that is exhausting. Yes, at times it's sad and disappointing and scary but Nathan and I are no strangers to overcoming such challenges so we know we can do it.

Thinking back on the person I've been for the last few years reminds me of how I think of the college me. The one who thought she knew everything about life. There's no way that girl could have accepted how humbling life can be until she lived through it herself. Similarly, I've realized that while I'm a little embarrassed about how naive I've been during this chapter in my life, I know I couldn't have believed those people who warned us of this challenge until we were actually in the middle of it ourselves. How can you blame us, I suppose? Thinking negatively about everything wouldn't have changed the mechanics of our journey, it just would have made it a whole lot more unpleasant.  Still, it's hard to face which is why I've probably not jumped at the chance to pick up the phone to call anyone and talk about it.

Imagine you're running your first marathon. You are shuffling along and have reached mile 25. You're going to make it. You can't believe it. After the months of training and the grueling miles behind you, the finish line is just up ahead. Then, a stranger ambles up next to you from the sidelines and whispers in your ear, "Sorry but there was a mistake in the mile markers. The finish line isn't for another ten miles" and then slips off into the crowd again. Or, for my fellow Amazing Race fans...imagine you reach the mat and Phil says "You are team number 1!...(dramatic pause)...however, this leg is not over. You are STILL RACING!" I think it's fair to say you would need a minute to adjust to that. That's where we are right now.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Picture Window

Sitting behind the colossal observation window outside the gymnastics room, I quietly read to Owen while sneaking peaks at Zoe during page turns. We've been coming here three years and I'm still one of the hovering parents, watching as if not doing so will mean missing her childhood altogether. I'm so stereotypical it's pathetic, but I don't care. I love it. I love watching her work hard at something she loves as much as she loves gymnastics.

This day is like the rest. She listens well and has fun with the kids in her class. She is confident but doesn't show off. She does well with some things and fumbles through others. The transition she just made from the "little kid" program to the "big kid" one doesn't seem to be phasing her in the least. If anything it's made her more confident, as her teachers have started telling her (and me) she is a talented beginner gymnast. They want her to keep coming and growing with their program and she knows it but hasn't let it get to her head (too much).

After stretching, her group heads to their first station of the day, the balance beam. They have some high beams and some low and I see her eagerly raise her hand to start on the high ones. They all pop up on their beams and start walking except Zoe, who is uncharacteristically scooching along on her bum. She makes eye contact with me and smiles an embarrassed sort of smile before looking at her teacher, who has just said something to her. She comes up to her hands and knees and freezes, face hidden from view behind her falling hair. Her teacher goes to her to take stock and I see Zoe is crying. Hard. Her teacher gently coaxes her to her feet and holds her hand until she reaches the end of the beam and gives her a high five. I see that Zoe is trying to compose herself but she can't shake it and is still crying.

It takes everything I have not to run in and hug her. She is right in front of me, but on the other side of this big pane of sound proof glass and it's breaking my heart. Even as I feel this urge to run to her I know doing so would be the absolute worst thing for her in this moment. So, I keep my eyes glued to her, waiting for our eyes to meet again so I can flash a warm, encouraging smile. I get my chance and, to my dismay, it doesn't help. In fact every time she looks at me, she gets teary again. I can relate. I get like that when I'm upset. I can't handle people being nice to me because it makes me cry.

I can't leave my baby in this moment though so I change tactics, reminding her to take deep breaths. It seems to help a little and she does really well, accepting her teacher's helping hand in some moments, waving it off in others. My heart soars with pride as I see her standing tall, chin up, legs kicking out and forming beautiful straight lines while holding back tears. At the same time I know her pain and feel a sadness at knowing she is in the middle of a difficult lesson. That sometimes the best stuff has to follow some really hard stuff. That the coming out of the hard stuff part is exactly what makes the best stuff so great.

She eventually shakes it off and the rest of the class goes predictably well. When she comes out afterwards she collapses into my open arms and buries her face in my jacket. I ask if she wants to talk about it and she shakes her head. I tell her she can talk to me about anything so whenever she is ready, I'm open. This makes her cry a bit more. She wants to leave. To move on. I completely understand.

We get in the car. There are a couple of things I want to be sure to tell her before we move on though. That I'm proud of her for continuing on after feeling scared. That everyone in that room, including the coaches, can relate to how she was feeling. As soon as I start talking, she hides her head under her jacket. I go on anyway. One of the things I tell her is it can be helpful to write down difficult thoughts. Stuff you're not sure you want to share with anyone. I tell her all about diaries and how no one but the person writing in it is allowed to read what's inside. Even Mommy and Daddy. This gets her attention so we make a plan to head to Target to pick one out.

As the tension subsides and the tears surrender, Zoe perks up and excitedly chooses a diary. She writes a version of what happened right before bedtime and decides to show me. I thank her for sharing it with me but remind her she only has to do that when she really wants to. She happily drifts off to sleep but I sense a new element of maturity mixed in with the innocence that's always been there. I realize this is how it happens. Little by little, until twenty years from now when she and I are marveling together at the swift passage of time over a glass of red wine.

I realize, on this day, it was a colossal sound proof window but in the years to come it will also be my seat in the bleachers or a dark auditorium. It will be a boyfriend or girlfriend. It will be a verbal request to mind my own business or impenetrable teenage silence. It will be a driver's license and a party. It will be physical miles between us and a life of her own. As she grows up, the window will become tinted and scratched but I will never step away. I will forever wait  by that window for my chance to make eye contact.