Balancing act: Family time comes with humorous, poignant lessons on long road trip

Published: Monday, June 6 2011 2:00 p.m. MDT

I spent several hours sleeping with a box of doughnuts on my lap Friday night.

That sounds weird, I know, but it's not some bizarre diet ritual. It also has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a huge fan of doughnuts — something of a connoisseur, really.

I was actually in a minivan with my wife and four children on our annual road trip to visit family in Houston. As usual, we left after the kids got out of school for the summer and drove straight through.

In this case, that meant a 25-hour journey across parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Lots and lots of Texas. As much of Texas as you'd ever want to drive across.

To do it all in one shot, we take turns driving. I was in the saddle to start. My wife took over at about midnight, as she always does, driving through those brutal late-night hours. And so it was that, during her driving time, I was in the front passenger's seat trying to sleep. Because the van was packed, there was no other place to put the box of doughnuts my wife had purchased earlier in the day except on my lap. So there you go.

As I drifted in and out of sleep, I pondered the fact that I always dread these long road trips while we're preparing for them. But I've also learned that, if you really want to break out of your work rut and get in touch with your family, there's nothing like spending 25 hours together in a vehicle hurtling across fairly barren countryside to help you reconnect. Here are some things I've discovered on our trips:

Our children genuinely enjoy spending time with each other. They travel well, and they have a great time making up games, watching movies and singing along to music on the radio. They also fight every now and then, and they sometimes get a bit whiny. In that way, it's still a bit like being at work.

Our children also enjoy spending time with their parents. During the hours at night as they drift off to sleep and in the morning as they start to wake, we're able to have quiet conversations with them. We are a captive audience, which is rare in our busy lives. I especially cherish these moments when I don't have to worry about getting to an appointment or dropping them off at school so I can go to work. It's a long trip, and we're all in it together, so we take the time to talk.

I love talking with my wife. When all of the children are asleep, and we're trying to keep each other awake, we chat about all kinds of things. Over many years of road trips, we've made some major decisions during discussions by the dashboard lights. I wouldn't trade those conversations for anything.

It's cool to watch your children sleep. I think all parents do this when their kids are babies, but it's amazing to watch them when they're older, too. As I glanced in the back of the minivan Friday night, I could see my self-assured 13-year-old daughter, rambunctious 5-year-old son and giggly 8- and 10-year-old daughters all peacefully resting next to each other, breathing softly, as the light of the moon streamed in through the windows of the van and gently touched their faces. It was a beautiful sight, the kind that makes you feel all is right with the world.

Of course, you also learn practical things on long trips, such as: gas is really, really expensive; Twizzlers are good snacks for keeping you awake; satellite radio is a godsend when you're in eastern New Mexico and west Texas; it's OK to let your wife splash water on your face if you look drowsy while driving; it's always rush hour in Dallas; at least one child will always decide he or she needs to go to the bathroom five minutes after your last stop; and nothing will put you in motion faster than hearing your 8-year-old say "I think I'm going to throw up" as car-sickness sets in at the end of a long day on the road.

Most of all, you learn that it's OK to be in a remote location with your family — and without cell service — every now and then. Work will still be there when you get home. It always is. But the children will get older and leave someday, and you'll regret it if you missed such moments.

The fact is, work/life balance doesn't just happen. You've got to search for it. And if you look hard enough, sometimes you'll find it while sitting in a minivan, a box of doughnuts on your lap, your family snoozing all around you.

Email your comments to gkratz@desnews.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzdesnews and on Facebook on my journalist page.

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