Car Travel With Kids: Q&A

Over the years I’ve been asked a lot of questions surrounding the whole “travel-with-kids” thing and I thought it might be fun to round up some of the more frequent inquiries and spill the beans on our secret sauce. Spoiler alert: there is no secret sauce.

How do you convince your kids to GO ON THESE long CAR RIDES? Mine complain whenever we suggest something like this.

  • It is rarely a matter of choice. Some weekends we do ask if they want to go somewhere or just relax at home, and we even give them autonomy with decision making occasionally. But, for the most part, they go along because we, the parents, decide we’re going!
  • The kids are game for pretty much anything. They’ve grown up doing long-ish car trips (4 hours to one set of grandparents; 15 hours to the other), so it’s been part of their norm since babyhood.
  • We frame almost every trip as a family adventure. We have (or have created?) adventure junkies. Last year – after a summer of being gone almost every weekend to some pretty incredible places, followed by a whirlwind fall trip around the Cabot Trail and then days later a trek to the NB grandparents – Levi looked at me one Saturday morning across the breakfast table and moaned, in a fashion dramatic enough to have originated from a teenager (instead of a 5-year-old): “We never go on adventures anymore.” Um, what now??
  • Buy-in from the kids is critical. There are definitely some trips where one kid, or both, is in a sour mood, but most of the time they’re anxious to hit the road.
  • Equally critical: adult buy-in. I’m the reluctant adult in the house (a work-in-progress) but the positive energy generated by my husband really buoys the family. You have to want to pursue this lifestyle or you’re condemning yourself to being locked in a moving box for hours on end with small children. Sheer torture unless you really want to do this sort of thing…

How do you entertain the kids in the car? Are they watching screens the whole time?

  • Nope, though I’m sure they’d enjoy that very much. When the kids were young they would nap on longer trips, so we always made sure to have a special stuffed animal, blanket, or soother along in those earliest days.
  • One year, before an especially long trek, I invested $50 at the DollarStore and bought little trinkets to distribute along the trip. I also had a sticker chart where each hour of the trip was accounted for and we made a great show of adding each new sticker to visualize the countdown to reaching our destination. That was a season, but we’re past that point now and I don’t do much, if any, planning for entertainment.
  • For any trips out of province we allow intermittent screen use. We download episodes of favourite shows from Disney+ or Netflix. We used to do this on an old tablet we could mount to the back of a headrest; now they use an old Android phone and balance it between them. For anything inside Nova Scotia (except the Cabot Trail which was a lot of driving), we don’t do screens.

So, what do we do?

  • We play games – geography guessing games, trivia, twenty questions. We’ll talk about the destination: what we’re looking forward to, suggestions of what we should do first. Last year we listened to A LOT of podcasts. Typically we opted for adult ones (Stuff You Should Know was a favourite), so pre-screening is important; (John and I really enjoy Under the Influence – and Abby LOVED it – but we found too many episodes would have some nod to something inappropriate for little ears – argh). We listened to audiobooks (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a big hit). We listened to music – often soundtracks. Sometimes we let the kids just look out the window and be bored and we’ll talk in the front seat. Occasionally, as a passenger, I cheat and put in noise cancelling headphones.
  • The kids usually bring along something. A stuffy, an action figure, some paper and pens. The latter is an obvious option and one I wish we could exploit more, but both kids get sick looking down so reading and most art projects are largely avoided by us.
Oh car naps, how I miss you. A rare, but adorable, treat these days.


  • Depending on our itinerary we sometimes eat in the car. Yes, it can be messy. I take plastic bowls to corral the food and dispense it from the front seat. Lots of the time we picnic at our destination. Sometimes we buy food on the road, but this is pretty rare unless we’ve planned it in advance (say, wanting to try New Glasgow’s famous brown-sauce pizza – overrated in my opinion) or are traveling for an extended period. The go-to this year: PB&J. Cubes of cheese, raw veggies, apples or grapes, non-crumbly crackers, and these banana oatmeal muffins are on regular rotation.

Pro tip: always take more water than you think you’re going to need. We all have insulated water bottles and that is the only beverage we take along. Period.

  • We don’t snack often. That’s standard practice at home, so we maintain it on the road (I’ve always wanted the kids to be hungry enough at mealtime to eat well; plus, preparing snacks is time consuming, labour intensive and, I feel, is a relatively modern construct we would all be better off without. End soapbox rant). That said, if we’re going on a long trip, snacking really helps break up the monotony and keep spirits high. In these times, I like to dispense small snacks on a schedule. Say we leave at 7 AM, we’ll eat breakfast in the car, and I’ll tell the kids we’ll have a snack at 10 AM – some trailmix or a muffin. Giving a set time early helps alleviate constant questions about when they can have a snack. We might start lunch at 12:00, dole out some gum or a peppermint at 1:30 (enthusiasm for the car ride is starting to plummet around this point), offer some dry cereal and fruit for a snack at 3 PM, and start the supper train at 5:30 or 6 PM.
  • While we don’t consume a lot of snacks, I have learned we can almost never pack too much food. Adventuring makes the kids hungry, so I make sure to include extras of things that won’t get wasted if we don’t use it (granola bars, individual packages of nori).

Do the kids fight the whole time?

  • No. They fight plenty (usually when the littlest gets bored and starts putting his hands on the bigger one’s side of the car). Occasionally we get to the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth stage, but it’s rare. Some car rides there are no fights at all. That’s always nice.
  • A huge help for us is changing the activity so no one gets too bored. Sometimes this means taking unplanned stops along the way – one year we visited a darling little folk art place just bursting with charm – but usually it’s just switching from an audiobook to lunch or from a podcast to a quiz game.
  • The kids fight so much at home, and can actually do better in the car. I think they understand being cooped up in a car can be uncomfortable enough without adding to the discomfort with bickering.

How often do you have to stop for the bathroom?

  • Chalk this up as something that I don’t appreciate enough about my kids – their bladders of steel. We often make the 4-hour ride to my parents without a single stop. How?
  • We don’t drink a ton en route. While the kids have access to water at all times, they tend not to drink without eating, and since we don’t do many snacks, I think this lowers their fluid consumption.
  • When someone DOES need to use the washroom, we all go. This is non-negotiable. Yes the kids protest they “don’t need to” and yes we make them try anyway (since it’s usually been hours since the last stop).
  • We always have some toilet paper or Kleenex in the car for emergency by-the-road stops but it’s not really a big issue. We do ask the kids to give us fair warning, which they’re generally pretty good about doing (no accidents so far!).
  • This likely goes without saying but using the washroom before heading off on a roadtrip is a no-brainer for our family!

Roadtripping with kids can be exhausting and messy (you should see the backseat after an in-car picnic). Yes, there is fighting and some ill-timed pee breaks.

It can also be a lot of fun. There is no pressure to make daytrip/car adventures your family thing. It happens to be a big component of our family infrastructure, but there is no “right” way to do things. If your kids fight and whine and complain in the car it is not a reflection on your parenting style. Find your family thing and squeeze every ounce of enjoyment you can out of that.

If you do want to do more long car trips, as with anything, practice is key. Practice, practice, practice. Want your kids to enjoy the car more and get excited about roadtrips? Take them in the car more often and get out on those roadtrips.

Stay safe and enjoy the adventures that come your way.

Don’t Quote Me: A Sense of Loss in the Midst of Joy

I think a lot about family in the summer. Time at the lake brings full immersion in the waves of nostalgia. I spend evenings flipping through old photo-albums, decades of memories at my fingertips. Looking at the faces of loved ones that have passed reminds me of how things used to be; I laugh at the irrefutable evidence of hairlines that have receded and marvel that, for years, I spent most of my summers without electricity and running water. But lately, summer has been a prompt for future-think.

One evening, several years ago, my father took me out boating. My daughter, maybe six at the time, was with us. The sun was setting over a mirror-calm lake, our bellies were full of delicious home cooking – everything about the moment was perfect. And I had the overwhelming urge to cry.

The joy of the moment felt like too much to bear and the weight of the future felt crushing – the realization that these moments will end. As my parents age, I find myself wondering how many more of these memories we have ahead. How many more of those sunset boat rides? I’ve come to the lake every summer for over 30 years, and not much has changed. But how much longer will my father be able to start the motor? How many more sunny days will my mother be able to cannonball off the raft? Maybe many more, but definitely fewer than last year, and the year before that.

I try to embrace some moments more tightly because I’m starting to recognize the brevity of this season of life. It’s not just my parents. My role in motherhood is changing – fast. I struggle to lift Levi up; he doesn’t fit on my hip anymore. While I love the independence – celebrate it – it can still feel like a loss.

A few months ago I was reading E. L. Konigsburg’s A View From Saturday. In it, one of the main characters has experienced a very traumatic accident that leaves her wheelchair-bound. It, of course, impacts her life in significant ways. She goes on to lead her team of academic quiz competitors to victory, and when I read the passage about her reaction to this major triumph, the words ran true.

Mrs. Olinski felt a strange sense of loss. She did not feel like a loser, but she did feel a sense of loss. She drove for miles worrying about it. Finally, almost involuntarily, she said out loud, ‘Win some. Lose some.’ She glanced at Mr. Singh and laughed. ‘Why did I say that?’ 

Mr. Singh replied, ‘Because it is how you feel at this moment, Mrs. Olinski.”

“I am happy that we won, Mr. Singh. But I don’t understand why I feel a sense of loss. This is not like my accident when my loss was overwhelming. Why, after this wonderful victory, do I feel that something is missing?”

“Because something is.” Miles hummed past before his voice floated back to her. “For many months now, you have been in a state of perpetual preparation and excitement. Each victory was a preparation for the next. You are missing future victories. Have you enjoyed the journey out, Mrs. Olinski?”

“Very much. Every cupful…”

E. L. Konigsburg

I’m already missing future boat rides on the lake. I’m already missing phone calls to my Mom. Already missing baby teeth and boys that can fit on my hip. I’m already missing the gaggle of American nieces and nephews that descend on the lake every second summer – for years it was the pure chaos of pack-and-plays, diapers, and watching toddlers navigate the rocky shoreline. Now many of them are poised to start summer jobs, leave for college and spread their wings. Will we ever all be together again?

I don’t want to distract from the moment by living with one foot behind and another ahead, but sometimes accounting for the past and the future can help bring into sharper focus just how blessed I’ve been and also how special these moments, here and now, really are.

I don’t know what a day, a week, or a month will bring. Today is here and I try, not always successfully, to embrace it. I stress and rush and cry. But I also binge and savour; prioritize adventure over possessions.

In A View from Saturday, Mr. Singh concludes the exchange with this sage advice:

“Now, you must put down anchor, look around, enjoy this port of call. Your stay will be brief. You must do it, Mrs. Olinski.”

Today I’m putting my anchor down, looking around and enjoying the port of call. The stay may be brief but oh how I’ve enjoyed the journey out. Every cupful.

Travel Hack: My Peanut Butter and Jam Summer

I’ve never been the spontaneous type. Though I’ve learned to (sometimes) open wide and take a giant bite out of life, I am a planner at heart. And that’s okay.

My personality is key to us always having a reasonable stockpile of toilet paper in the house (pre-COVID); the kids get regular dental checkups; work and personal deadlines get met (and set); Christmas cards get sent out the first of December. But balance is critical.

Too much spontaneity, I wilt; too much rigidity, I snap. I like to think I’ve made some important strides in navigating a healthy balance – there is something about being married to an adventure-loving (spontaneous) man to help slowly edge the dial toward impulsivity. But old habits die hard. Despite past positive experiences, my default response is usually an emphatic “NO.” There are a number of reasons I drag my feet over last-minute plans (and I am often too happy to list them all for anyone willing to listen, sorry John), but one of the biggest is food.

Growing up we ate out exactly once a year. On the annual trip to our cottage we would stop at a McDonald’s en route. We were only allowed to order items from the Value Menu, but I loved that basic hamburger and fries more than words can tell. Aside from that, if we weren’t eating at home, we were picnicking. In fact, my mom would often spend a whole evening preparing food – usually Egg McMuffins – before we headed off on a road trip. There was no money in the budget for convenience foods.

Now a mother myself, somehow I internalized the belief that all food should be prepared and transported from home. Despite the benefits, spending money on fast (or slow) food seems both an expensive luxury and a nuisance. The foods on offer don’t necessarily align with our dietary preferences and, with kids involved, the experience of dining out is often less than relaxing. Plus it takes time, which can divert attention from the activities at hand.

But physiology is physiology – the duration of our family adventures means we have to regularly coordinate food while out and about. If not we’re liable to have a full-scale revolt on our hands. (I’m often asked how we get our kids to spend so much time in the car. Bringing enough food and water is an important component of our success.)

One day, years ago, when I was still pregnant with Baby #2, we threw a sharp knife, some apples, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter into a bag and headed out the door. We made the decision and were in the car in less than ten minutes. We made spontaneous plans with friends and spent a delightful afternoon on the coast. It was great and I felt completely energized by the thrill of it all.

But then I reverted back to old ways. If we were planning to go somewhere, I’d want to know days in advance. Like my mother before me, I’d prepare an extensive lunch the night before: cutting up fruit, prepping fresh veggies. I’d make a homemade trail mix, and pack (homemade) muffins for dessert. I’d make ham sandwiches and hardboiled eggs, I’d gather the items for a cracker-cheese-and-salami charcuterie, or make tuna filling for lettuce-leaf wraps. It was worth it – we adventured and stayed nourished – but it was also exhausting. And really, the store does sell pre-made trail mix and muffins, Elisabeth.

Then last fall we decided, relatively last minute, to drive around the Cabot Trail. I knew we’d be dining out for supper each day, but that left lots of meals in between. Then I remembered that spontaneous trip from years ago and the solution was obvious. A jar of peanut butter, a bottle of jam, and some soft brioche buns – the best vehicle ever.

Here’s the thing – my kids love peanut butter and jam. While I don’t intend to make it a staple of their everyday diet, since they can’t eat it at school it ends up being quite a treat. It’s non-perishable for short trips, delicious, and easy to prepare. Very easy.

So we went. We drove. We hiked. We conquered. And we ate.

PB&J. Every day. (Well, I didn’t, I was off gluten AND peanut butter at the time, hello irony). And guess what –literally nothing bad happened. In fact, it was wonderful.

This year, I’m embracing the PB&J. It will pave the way for more spontaneity (even spontaneity can benefit from planning). It will make it that much easier to binge and savour on all the best summer has to offer. It will streamline meal planning and, since my kids love PB&J, making picnic meals that much more pleasant. And for me, a maximizer, it’s always great to decide once.

I’m sure we’ll have eggs or tuna salad; some days I’ll provide a more elevated lunch menu (shhh, don’t tell: I often pack something a little less carb-dense for myself). But my go-to is going to be peanut butter and jelly, if for no other reason that it makes my life easier and will help me embrace the bigger life. And I’m not anticipating too many complaints from my pint-sized adventurers.

Gretchen Rubin had her Summer of Proust. Me? I’m having my summer of Peanut Butter and Jam.

Casual Friday + Love of the Week

  • As much as we love Nova Scotia, it felt great to drive across the border to see my parents. The month-long heat wave we had all been enjoying, along with near constant sunshine, came to its eventual end and we encountered some rain and cooler temperatures. But after six months of separation, the weather didn’t much matter to me. The kids helped Grampie split wood and collect water from the spring; they feasted on all the foods that “Grammie makes best” – Mac N’ Cheese, meatballs, a turkey dinner with all the fixings, chocolate chip cookies. I drank cup after cup of coffee. The kids attended a day camp (literally next door!). And John and I took work calls with views like this as our backdrop. It never gets old.
  • I made an effort to unplug. Aside from pictures – because, hello, lake – I mostly stayed off my phone. I set that OOO of message and tried to stick with it, only checking emails once a day or so. I tramped through the woods with the kids, roasted marshmallows, caught up with old friends; I cut down trees with my Dad, and chopped vegetables in the kitchen with my Mom. I slept 8 hours a night and never felt any pressure to clean up. We boated and we fished and we bonfired. It felt good.
  • John and I got away on a day trip – we drove through Fundy National Park, visited Cape Enrgage (finding fossils on the beach was a highlight of the day), and ended up in Alma at lunchtime. We enjoyed delicious fish & chips and a lobster roll at a picnic table by the ocean, literally sitting in the shadow of a fishing boat. While I’ve only visited this little seaside town a handful of times, it holds a special place in my heart. John proposed on a beach in Alma and, as we were driving away, I realized it marked 13 years to the day since we got engaged in that very town. A very happy coincidence.
Fossil-hunting at Cape Enrage

Love of the Week: Daycamp

The kiddos were able to attend a local day camp for the week and it was balm to my weary Mama-soul. It has been almost 18 months since I’ve been away from the kiddos overnight and 2020/2021 has been…intense. I can feel the built-up pressure, recognize the signs of burnout. I know this is a busy season of life: juggling careers, active kids, the early stages of homeownership. Though it’s normal and expected and manageable, parenting is hard and finding white space feels great.

The day program ran from 10 AM – 6:30 PM and having them return home fed was a gamechanger. That period from mid-afternoon to bedtime can feel brutally exhausting. I’m not deluding myself that one week will cure what ails me, but it was so nice to miss the kids. The school day never feels long enough; my list is never checked off to the point I feel like I have enough buffer to both enjoy the kids and take care of their practical needs (lunchboxes, showers, bedtime routines, homework, supper). Not to mention easing into a second shift after bedtime where I might tackle emails or even schedule work calls.

At the end of the day it was pure joy to see them come bounding toward me, evidence of tuck shop plastered all over their sweaty faces. They had so much fun! There was no pressure for me to provide entertainment. Just a week of that ol’-fashioned camp magic – for both kids and Mama.

And coming home to round out each evening with a bonfire was just icing on the cake. Or marshmallows on the chocolate…

Destination Nova Scotia: Peggy’s Cove

If Nova Scotia was a team sport, Peggy’s Cove would be the kid that always gets picked first. You know, the athletic one that so effortlessly pulls off a swagger.

If Nova Scotia were a postcard, Peggy’s Cove would be the picture. Actually, it kinda already is. Pick up any promotional magazine, browse a local tourism website – or go buy a provincial postcard – and chances are good you’ll come face-to-face with Peggy’s Cove. It’s our Taj Mahal, Sydney Opera House, Eiffel Tower, and Empire State Building. Nova Scotia’s darling, Peggy’s Cove has popular charm in spades.

As a family, we’re big on adventure. In particular, we like finding hidden gems; places off the beaten path – spots that require us to follow grassy trails through the woods to reach a derelict lighthouse or chartering a boat to reach an off-shore island. While touristy destinations are all well and good, we like to champion the unsung heroes of our province. But Peggy’s Cove is one giant exception.

Of all the locations we’ve adventured as a family, Peggy’s Cove is hands-down the kids favourite destination. Local friends admitted that several of their (fully grown) children had never even been to Peggy’s Cove. We went three times in 2020, including Christmas Day. To say we’re obsessed might be underselling things a bit.

Christmas Day, munching on our favourite cookies, baked by our lovely neighbour.

Our devotion to those giant rock formations and that iconic lighthouse is unwavering. We visit with friends, we visit with family, and sometimes we just hop in the car on a random Friday evening to chase a sunset. We’ve been there in shorts and a T-shirt, and we’ve explored in winter coats. Sun, rain, and fog, we’ve seen it all.

Built in 1915, the current lighthouse is one of the most photographed locations in all of Canada. For good reason. She’s a beauty. But the winner for our family: those long, sloping rocks – nature’s jungle gym and the climbing wall of every child’s dreams.

Each trip I have to temporarily suspend anxiety. There are rules: no going on (or near) the black rocks. Notoriously slippery, and indicative that pounding surf reaches that area, people are washed out to sea here every year, sadly. I watch and follow the kids like they’re on invisible leashes, but I can tell they feel free. From the time they were toddlers our motto has always been “Pick a path.” Here, more than anywhere, the kids have learned to be intentional about their choices. Taking risks, assessing safety, pushing their bodies, and factoring all that information into making the way forward.

Senses go into overdrive: crashing surf, the smell of sea air, a happy assault of colours, the rush of wind.

Cheers, Peggy’s Cove; until we meet again. I have a feeling it won’t be long.

If I Make Parenting Look Hard…It’s Because It Is.

A few years ago, with tears literally dripping onto my keyboard, I made a list titled: “Good Things I’ve Done.” A pretty lame title, I’ll admit, but it was the best I could muster. My desperate attempts at a self-esteem boost were precipitated by a less-than-stellar parenting performance. Let’s rewind…

I was flying solo, again, while my businessman-husband hopscotched the globe (clearly pre-COVID). This particular day we had made it to a park, gone on a family walk, and even arrived at Sunday School on time (and in reasonably clean attire). But at supper, when my son’s toy lightsaber caught my daughter’s arm and her bowl of chili made a perfect arc to the floor, I ended up on the couch in the fetal position. Kidney beans and tomato sauce sent me to my knees and kept me there – literally and figuratively.

I want parenting – motherhood – to look and feel effortless. I want my children to see a mother in control – poised, unflappable. Not in a staged, artificially perfect way, but a quiet confidence that says: I’ve got this. But oh how often I feel like I don’t “have this.”

One year on Mother’s Day I read an article by a prominent speaker who spoke of how he could never remember seeing his mother flustered. She was cheerful, kept a spotless house, always seemed happy. Oh, and did I mention her husband traveled all the time too? Oy-yoy-yoy. I can only hope he writes with selective memory. Note to self: this is not the type of article I should be reading on Mother’s Day (see pictures below for further reference).

Maybe this only happens to me but have you ever been reading a parenting book, thought about your many (many, many, many) weaknesses as a parent, and then come across a line that says something to the effect: if you’re reading this book, chances are you’re already a good parent? It reminds me of an extra help class my Organic Chemistry professor offered when I was in university.

Organic Chemistry is a notoriously difficult subject. It’s hard for me to believe now but, back in the day, I knew all the stages of glycolysis. I could sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair in a crowded gymnasium with 500 other students, read the final exam command to demonstrate the stages of the citric acid cycle and start drawing the mechanism: acetyl CoA (two carbon molecule) joins with oxaloacetate (4 carbon molecule) to form citrate (6 carbon molecule). Next citrate is converted to isocitrate which is oxidized to alpha-ketoglutarate, releasing carbon dioxide. You get the drift; and, yes, I Googled it this time.

But before Google was a verb and when I had to learn it myself, I made sure to arrive early to get a prime seat (front row, naturally) at the help session. I needn’t have worried – there was only one other person in attendance. I was struggling tremendously with the material despite being a strong student. Alarm bells started clanging and within seconds I’d convinced myself everyone else understood the material. My mental spiral began; before the professor had even arrived I was already packing my bags for home – failure was, surely, imminent. That evening my professor told me something I’ve never forgotten. She said, “The reason you two are the only ones here is because you’re the only two who understand the material enough to ask questions.” I’m not sure that was completely accurate – perhaps a class full of 19-year-olds could think of more exciting places to be at 8 PM on a Friday night – but I think there was an interesting element of truth to her words. I felt lost, but I could identify what I did and didn’t understand, allowing me to ask quasi-articulate questions. I put my head down and worked; I asked questions the rest of the term and I clicked and popped my molecular set 1000 times until I could do mechanisms in my sleep. And then I aced the exam.

I have to hope parenting will be a case of history repeating itself. Deep down I know it won’t; there are no gold stars and A+’s doled out for mothering. But I diligently show up to class – I read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Siblings Without Rivalry. When they were babies I read: The No-Cry-Sleep Solution, Happiest Baby on the Block, The Baby Whisperer, and even the hotly debated Babywise. I go to help sessions – coffee mornings with moms where we ask “What would you do?” “How should I handle this?” and start text chains with my Mom or my sisters, wise women who have gone before me.

There are days I’m convinced I’m one bad test away from flunking out; I look around and assume that everyone else has this parenting thing all figured out (they don’t). My kids are sassy. There are fights over vegetables and bedtimes that escalate to disproportionate levels. There are personality conflicts and frustrating behavioural patterns. There is spilled milk and spilled chili. Kidney beans and tomato sauce may very well send me to my knees again.

But I’m learning to better communicate with my kids. I’ll name my emotion(s): fear, frustration, sadness. I’m learning to put things in perspective – mole hills can look like mountains, but they aren’t really. And every day I try to tell them “You are a joy and a blessing,” because they are and parenting them is, but it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done (and I took Organic Chemistry, so that’s saying something).

Some days are going to look like this:

And other days are going to look like this (which happen to be 3 out of 4 Mother’s Days; the missing Mother’s Day my husband was away for work, or we likely would have photographic evidence of tears. It’s too ironic for me to be making this up. Note the same general outfit on two separate Mother’s Days because that’s the way I roll.

I’m learning to accept that a day can be tough for no apparent reason. It’s okay to struggle. Parenting is hard. I will raise my voice. I will cry. I will make mistakes; say no when I should say yes, spend more time looking at a screen than in my children’s faces. But isn’t it nice to remember that tomorrow is a new day, with no mistakes in it yet? Well said, Anne Shirley, well said.

So I’ll bake cookies, and read books, and roast s’mores and crawl into bed next to them to scratch their backs and hear about their day. Every week there is some new hurdle; a behaviour that needs work, an anxiety that needs calming, a physical ailment that needs tending. I’ll be doling out Bandaids – mental and physical – for the rest of my life. And that’s okay. It’s my job; I’m a student of my children and I’m in school for the long haul.

So if I make parenting look hard – it’s because it is. Worth it? Absolutely. But hard. If I make it look easy, you’d better see an eye doctor…

Here’s A Thought: What’s Your Thing?

I don’t do crafts with my kids. I have no skills in makeup or hair design. I can’t paint a room, I rarely make bread from scratch, and I will stall a 5-speed car every time I get behind the wheel. Even worse – in a house full of fanatics – I can’t even solve a Rubix Cube.

When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were reserved for cartoons. This was before binge-watching was a verb and forget about Netflix – we didn’t even have cable. If you didn’t get your butt out of bed by 7 AM to watch Bugs Bunny, you were out of luck. Aside from happy hours spent with Inspector Gadget and Looney Tunes, I vividly remember the Saturday morning service announcements put out by Concerned Children’s Advertisers. They came up with witty numbers like: “Don’t you put it in your mouth. Don’t you stuff it in your face. Though it might look good to eat, and it might look good to taste.” Does anyone else remember those furry little blue creatures?!

But the commercial I remember best depicts a series of kids demonstrating their “thing.” There’s Aiden, waving his magic handkerchiefs (against a backdrop of the same wood paneling we had in our dated 1970’s basement), while his sister shouts “Mom, Mom. Aiden cut me in half again.” Classic.

From bug collections to tap-dancing, skateboarding, martial arts, and dinosaur sound effects, the takehome message: “Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something. What’s your thing?”

Opportunities for comparison are everywhere. Power up your computer or swipe your finger and you have access to a world of women we perceive to be better: better workers, better wives, better mothers, better daughters, better friends. Few people are immune to this comparison game.

We know. These are curated snapshots, they don’t actually represent reality. These women have insecurities too. I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. Yet that photo of the smiling family in matching outfits on the beach, or that impressive law school degree, or that sunset shot from a yacht off the coast of Greece make it pretty tough to ignore the messages we tell ourselves. 

You’re not enough. You’ll never be enough.

We live in a world telling us to embrace our strengths while it subversively asks us to recognize our weaknesses. We are, directly or indirectly, made to feel less than if we haven’t mastered all the categories. Women – and I’d argue mother’s all the more – are expected to: have a fulfilling career, be a good cook (healthy, organic food for bonus points), be physically active, and volunteer in numerous capacities; extroversion is a must, and don’t forget to prioritize self-care in the form of yoga practice, meditation, and routine massages.

Amidst the drone of outside chatter, what if we could all say, with confidence, “This is my thing.”

Hi. I’m Elisabeth, and my thing is books. I read on the couch and in the car (but only when it’s stopped or, hello barf bag) and on airplanes; I read in waiting rooms, poolside on vacation, and before bed. Aside from feelings of wistfulness that there are always too many books and too little time, this is the one area of life where I feel 100% guilt-free. And nowhere do I need this more than in the guilt-ridden landscape of motherhood.

Fresh stack of books from the library, she found the closest bench and settled in…

We’ve read classical literature (Swiss Family Robinson, Anne of Green Gables, and Laura Ingalls Wilder) and newer hits too (Harry Potter, Roald Dahl). We read Bible stories at breakfast, and Nancy Drew at night. We’ve read picture books about talking narwhals, a gluttonous caterpillar, and the sounds on a construction site (at night and at Christmas). We’ve tackled tough topics: cancer and grief, slavery and war, disability and persecution. We’ve read about children living on the streets of Paris; we’ve cheered as Matilda stands up to that bully Miss Trunchbull; we’ve wondered how a guy named Mike and his steam shovel could possibly win the bet.

We’ve looked for Waldo and lifted flaps to find the baby’s belly. We’ve watched an old woman bring her farmyard menagerie inside, and learned valuable life lessons along the way.

He learned about the Titanic at school and an obsession was born; the picture he’s looking at, which the book suggested could be the actual iceberg that caused the sinking of the Titanic, was his fav.

When you strip away my bursts of frustration over dirty clothes on the floor, my woefully intermittent enforcement of flossing, and my unwillingness/inability to engage in imaginative play of any sort – books, this I do well. This is my thing.

I haven’t read a book on how to paint a room, drive a stick-shift, or make sourdough. And that’s okay. Life is short and I’ll let painting and driving and kneading be someone else’s thing.

Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something. What’s your thing?

She came in to ask if we could read together; it was late – past bedtime – but how could I refuse? The Mysterious Benedict Society for her; Station Eleven (just the sort of book one should read in the midst of a pandemic) for me.

How Our Return to School Reminds Me of a Jewish Folk Tale

2020 and 2021 have been historic years. From lockdown restrictions to career changes and the intense personal trauma and grief so many people have faced, I’m more than happy to put this period behind us.

But there have been lots of lessons learned amidst the challenges and I was recently struck by a parallel I noticed with the story arc from one of our favourite children’s books.

All winter we shuffled along; schools and churches and businesses were open, but everything felt harder and less spontaneous. I complained more than I’d care to admit. I missed my family. I was tired of sending my kids to after-school lessons and clubs in masks. I wanted this “new normal” to be abnormal again. And then came May. Variant cases skyrocketed in our province; with positive tests rising each day, we entered a month-long lockdown. Schools were closed, non-essential businesses shuttered and travel was heavily restricted.

I wasn’t prepared for how hard this second lockdown felt. Masks are familiar and not being able to visit family when we want to feels sadly routine. But something felt different this time; having friends and family living in regions with re-opening strategies (my sister sent pictures from Disney when we were slogging through another round of Math via Google Meet), all felt extra discouraging and isolating.

And then the glorious news that a combination of high vaccination rates, along with the success of our lockdown measures at curbing the spread of COVID, was paving the way for the re-opening of schools. All winter I grumbled about school lunches – the hassle and mess and time. I have never been so happy to pack a school lunchbox as I was June 2nd. Walking the kids to school for their first day back, I couldn’t shake the jubilant feeling that I was living out the major plot points of A Squash and a Squeeze

In A Squash and a Squeeze, the first book by duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, we follow the trials and tribulations of a grey-haired lady who bemoans the size of her house, which she calls “a squash and a squeeze.” She consults a wise rabbi-like man (this picture book is based on a traditional Jewish folk tale), who tells her to bring her farm animals into the home. She does just that, eventually welcoming a hen, goat, pig and other creatures that squawk and moo. You can imagine the scene – chaotic, loud, messy. Her already-small home shrinks before her eyes, but she continues undaunted, though acutely aware of the dwindling real estate: “It was teeny for four and it’s weeny for five.”

When the wise old man finally tells her to bring all the animals out again, that home she disliked – the one that felt like a “squash and a squeeze”- feels palatial.

A month of screen shares, Math worksheets, Playdoh creations, and constant snack requests was exhausting. But I’d been complaining of the pressures of juggling work and life pre-lockdown. How free my schedule feels now; how happy I am to pack lunches and look at homework folders and set a morning alarm. Life feels spacious and light when I compare it to our own “squash and a squeeze.”

It helps to remember that perspective can often change our reality. And inspiration for that perspective can come from the most unlikely of sources, including the children’s section of your local library.