My husband and I were on number three of five freeways between Disneyland and our Los Angeles apartment when we heard an unmistakable retch from the backseat. “Oh shit!” I yelled. “Pull over!” (In theory, I don’t curse, but vomit in the car is an exception).
As cars zipped past, we stripped our three-year-old and attempted to wipe the puke from his car seat. I emptied my diaper bag in hopes of finding something—anything—but I already knew I didn’t have clothes for him. I’d stopped carrying a backup outfit once the days of spit-up and blow-outs had ended. “What should we do?” my husband asked. “Should we just go home?”
“Maybe there’s a Target around here,” I answered. The GPS revealed one less than two miles away, so we strapped our naked son into the passably clean car seat and breathed through our mouths until we pulled in. I grabbed a shirt, sweatpants, and air freshener for less than twenty bucks. We wrapped the gross clothes in the Target bag, threw them in the trunk, and set off for Disneyland once again.
“We’re totally legit parents now,” my husband said, high-fiving me. “We handled that.”
We headed to Space Mountain (a questionable parenting choice in retrospect, considering he’d just lost his breakfast due to motion sickness) and the rest of the day was vomit free.
The drive to Disneyland wasn’t the first time Cal had thrown up in the car. He’d scared us half to death at eight months, choking in the backseat on the way to a baseball game. He’d wandered through a fancy Beverly Hills mall in nothing but a too-tight onesie after barfing up mandarin orange chunks in rush hour traffic. It happened often enough that we’d turned his car seat around early at 22 months, hoping to decrease his motion sickness. (Please don’t call Child Protective Services.) But the Disneyland incident was the first time we’d both come through a car-barf crisis with (near) total calm and flexibility.
I’ve heard that before you truly commit to a romantic partner, you need to take a road trip together. I imagine it’s a combination of the boring hours and the possibility of minor catastrophes that hint at whether you can put up with each other in the expanded canvas of the rest of your life.
Before kids, my husband and I had experienced a few mishaps on the road. In addition to ripping the side mirror off my car a week before our wedding, I was in two car accidents within our first six months of marriage. (One was my fault and one wasn’t.) When we drove home for our first Thanksgiving, we were caught in a blizzard so intense that my husband’s phone was blown out of the car when we pulled over to clear the windshield. There was our interminable drive through Nevada when I was seven months pregnant, swollen feet on the dashboard, as we drove mile after desert mile with no restroom in sight. At times uncomfortable, all stressful, but ultimately issues we could overcome with a little optimism. We passed the couple’s road trip test.
Nobody ever suggests going on a road trip with kids before committing to have your own, which is probably wise for the survival of the human race. Our ability to handle roadside disasters is negatively correlated with the number of car seats in the back, each kid a wild card. Tension hangs over us far too often on a difficult drive, mingling with the miasma of vomit ground into car seat straps. It’s easier in the moment to gripe about our frustration rather than making the effort to lift each other up with positive thinking.
On Mother’s Day, my grandmother invited us to a brunch at a seaside hotel in San Diego. Cal had no interest in the eggs, salmon, or fruit platters, but he convinced my grandma to take him to the dessert table over and over again. Forty-five minutes into our two and a half hour drive home, Cal started coughing. I turned around to see his multicolored desserts spatter our car like a Jackson Pollack painting. I cursed myself; once again, there was no backup outfit (you’d think I’d have learned). Also, the baby had required quite a few wipes to change his diaper back at the hotel, and I was running very, very low.
I stamped my feet and shouted, “This is the worst Mother’s Day ever!” to no one in particular while my husband enacted the too-familiar routine of stripping our son on the shoulder of the freeway and attempting to wipe the fountains of pre-digested dessert from the crevices of the car seat. With three baby wipes.
“There’s no way we are getting home like this,” he said. After a moment of scrolling on his phone, he looked at me with a grin. “There’s a Walmart on the other side of this fence. I’m going to jump it.”
Despite my fear that he would get arrested, twenty minutes later he was back with a cheap booster seat, a shark t-shirt, and a pack of extra-large rubber gloves. He displayed his purchases, unable to keep a self-satisfied grin off his face. “You are such a bad-A,” I said. (It was Sunday, and my kids were listening.)
It could have been the worst Mother’s Day ever. But in the long run, I wouldn’t have remembered as vividly the breakfast in bed or the day of relaxation I had on my wishlist. What I do remember is my husband pulling aquamarine rubber gloves over his hands and going to work on that car seat, looking dead sexy despite the traces of vomit lingering on the cuff of his shirt. When we made it home, he pulled the gloves out again and went over every inch of that car seat with Mrs. Meyers Lemon Verbena all-purpose cleaner.
On a trip when I wasn’t ready to rise to the occasion, he lifted all of us. And isn’t that the point of a partner—someone to support you when you can’t hobble any further, who can rely on you to do the same?
Minor catastrophes still happen constantly. During our move from California to Washington, our car broke down over and over again. Once we were stuck behind an accident in the mountains with no exit for miles, and I had to pee in a sippy cup. Once Cal walked shivering off an airplane stripped to his underwear because he threw up on the backup outfit I’d finally remembered to pack. Sometimes we’ve handled those moments with grace, and sometimes those moments have handled us.
It seems as though we are never hit by just one problem in life, in marriage, with children—when it rains, it pours. We have our destination in mind—romantic bliss, growing old together, eternal love. But the trip is full of potholes and surprises. When one of us is willing to reach deep for strength, humor, and resourcefulness, we’re both able to cope.
It’s the road bumps—the throw-up, the bent fenders, the detours—that make up a life and a marriage. And while I can’t say I’d ask for them, I know I can rise above the hazards and mishaps with a ride-or-die partner by my side. Especially one who will clean up vomit.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama to two blue-eyed boys and a brand-new baby girl, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. She lives in North Carolina and blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured before on Coffee + Crumbs, and in other publications including Mothers Always Write, Holl & Lane, Upwrite Magazine, Tribe Magazine, and Parent.co. You can find her on Twitter.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.