I’m a single mom going on a 10-day road trip with two preschoolers and it will be awesome

I am writing this from a plane with my kids on the way from our NYC home to Chicago, where we will spend two weeks visiting friends and family, and the places where I grew up in a small town in Northern Illinois.

This pilgrimage

Tomorrow morning I leave on a 10-day road trip with my kids, ages 3 and 5.

I thought of cooking up a clever intro to this post, but the bare-bone facts seem to be plenty compelling to anyone to whom I mention this adventure.

The trip — New York to Chicago, Milwaukee, rural Illinois and back — will be long, yes. And — mark my words — it will be fun. Even for me.

We could have flown. I have flown many times with my kids, and I have to say that they are awesome flyers. Airports are exciting, and they get into the protocol of check-in, boarding, ordering whatever you want to drink from the attendant. Dollar-for-dollar, flying and driving come out about equal — gas, hotel, restaurant meals considered.

But I believe driving will be better. Here is why:

1. Driving is more freeing. My family's life is so structured. We have a routine, each and every day. As a divorced family, we have even more than others: the weekdays are built around work and school, evenings and weekends split between my house and my ex's. Rushing to catch planes is just one more time-sensitive task that I am compelled to avoid. So I am.

2. I want to reconnect with my kids. If we flew, we would be going from our crazy New York life to the home of friends and relatives. Sure, I would spend plenty of time with each of my children over a week and a half. But when it is just the three of us on four wheels for days on end, we will get into the groove of it being just the three of us. Otherwise, I can get into the groove of either being without my kids, or looking to the hours when I am without my kids. I want it to be different.

3. Kids need to learn how to just be, and not be entertained. My neighbor Jen, now in her early 50s, has very fond memories of annual month-long roadtrips starting when she was aged 3 and her brother 5. Her parents took the backseat out of their VW Bug and the kids would play, nap and snack as they cruised leisurely across time zones. For weeks on end, people. True: I am bringing my iPad loaded with two movies: Charlotte's Web and Night at the Museum (I figured out how to mount the device between the front seats with a bungee cord). I downloaded the audio recording of Stuart Little. Then we will pass the time by counting silos and sing 99 Bottles of Beer, just like I did as a kid. Except it will be fun.family lampoon roadtrip

4. I want to feed my ego and thumb my nose at all the people who tell me I am crazy and that I will do a U-ie on Rt. 80 when my kids are pooping in their booster seats and throw half-gnawed organic yogurt-covered pretzels at the back of my head like confetti. Because a) my angels never act like that, and b) if they do, I will just crank up the Feist and continue on with cruise control until the next rest stop. Where I will bind them to their seats with the bungee cord.

5. I want to learn how to indulge my kids. This is something that is hard for me to do, and I want to get better at it. Do special things, spoil them a little. I don't believe in buying lots of stuff — for adults or kids. My children have never tasted fast food. But we will be stopping at McDonald's PlayPlaces and it better blow their goddamned minds.

5. This scene is rich for material. I am opting not to video record / seek endorsements / take copious notes on this trip, despite what my colleagues urge, en lieu of taking a proper vacation. You know, a vacation? Like, days and weeks when you do not work? That. In fact, I just turned down a big radio interview, even though I could have figured out how to make sure I was in decent cell service off the freeway in Pennsylvania at 3 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, but that would be stressful. And a radio interview, as fun as it is, is classified under work — not vacation. Instead, I think something even better will come of focusing on my kids. Like living stories to write about. Stories that will make me rich and famous. 99 subaruAnd so check back here over the next couple of weeks. I don't have many plans, so I can't tell you what you will find. But you may just get reportage from the field. Field of happy vacationing. In a 1999 red Subaru Forester named Rosie. With two kids. And a mom. Whose blood pressure is actually lower than when she departed.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Autumn on October 14, 2015 at 2:04 am

    I am taking my first road trip with my 7 yo daughter to see family for christmas. I will drive 10 hours to one city spend the night visit family then 5 hours to the grandparents house. Everyone tells me i’m crazy and that we will probably be killed by a serial killer or some guy out of deliverance. I’m a single mother and can only afford to see my parents once a year. they are on disability so they can’t help. it is so much cheaper for us to drive now than to fly, not to mention I have anxiety and airports drive me batty. Driving around all day running errands? Calms me actually. I am not stupid, i am a smart woman i know where not to stop, i have insurance with road side assistance (what if the tow truck driver is a mass murderer one friend said). I’m so tired of people telling me i’m not capable. What if you have a heart attack and die and your child is alone in the car for days? OMG the stuff people ask single mothers!!!

    • Autumn on October 14, 2015 at 2:05 am

      Forgot to add that if i start driving we will be able to see my parents 3 – 4 times a year instead of 1. to me that is so worth it.

  2. EQ on March 6, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Me, and my 7 year old son and 9 year old daughter drove from Atlanta to Toronto round trip last July. We stopped in Nashville, Indianapolis, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Niagara Falls, Ithaca, NYC, and Charlottesville, VA. It took us about 3 weeks. We had a blast.

    Just do it! No excuses. You will be so happy that you did.

    • Emma on March 9, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      Great story! thanks for sharing!

  3. Anna on April 17, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Hi, I just came across your blog in searching for “single mom road trip.” I am divorced with 3 sons, now 10, 12, and 14, and have always wanted to travel across country with them (I’ve never done it). I have also been wanting to get us a family dog since the separation almost 5 years ago but had to wait for the right time. Well, the time has come and our new dog happens to be in Michigan (long story) and we live in CA. I have two weeks paid vacation in August (when our puppy will be 5-months old) and got to thinking…Road trip! A friend had offered to join me, then canceled, so I decided I’m going to do it anyway. We have to be creative because we’re on a budget, but surely it will be an adventure and we will be bringing our pup back with us. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think I just have to go for it. I have four months to plan and prepare so wish us luck! I’m sure we’ll be listening to lots of Feist on the road. :-)

    • Emma on April 22, 2014 at 5:16 pm

      Anna – Good for you! You’ll have a great time. I’m also planning another trip for this summer, probably longer than last. Great memories, my kids are so excited. Please share after you go!

  4. Eve in Silver Spring on July 8, 2013 at 11:59 am

    I like your attitude! I drove my 3 kids (then ages 10, 8, and 4) from DC to Atlanta and back for spring break. We had a great time! We stayed in hotels, saw different sites, and listened to a lot of music. It was great! And I impressed myself by taking them camping (along with friends) for 2 consecutive weekends. I agree that it’s great to get away from the structured life of a single/divorced mom. I have one more week at the end of the summer, so I’m thinking Boston, if I can swing it. It’s great for memories!

  5. sandra on July 3, 2013 at 12:34 am

    I started road trips with my two kids when they were 5 and 8 (the first year I was divorced) -before that they HATED road trips. Now my daughter has aspirations of traveling the country in a renovated VW van :) They are now 12 and 15 and our trips together are still their (and my) favorite vacations ever. We are spontaneous, and relaxed the entire time. We even took a trip to Costa Rica last year and rented a car for 10 days and drove around a new country (for them) and they navigated while learning Spanish!!! We have driven the entire length of the west coast, much of southern Alaska, and as they get older, the trips have gotten to be more of a group planning effort. Some of our best stories are from when we got lost in LA when the GPS quit (then woke us up in the middle of the night telling us to turn right!). Or when we ended up taking a wrong turn in Costa Rica and driving through a river (yes, the road lead us right through)! The kids get to have some control over where we go – and they love it! I love it! They also get to learn to be good travelers. Just last weekend my son and I went on a short road trip without my daughter (she is away) and he (12) asked for the Sea Tunes CD we used to sing to when they were little. We sang our hearts out. We also sang to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds..7 times…while he learned the words. You are in for years of fun :)

    • Emma on July 7, 2013 at 3:19 pm

      Love the Beatles tradition! Thanks for sharing …

  6. Nicole on July 1, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    I’ve taken summer road trip to Osoyoos, Canada every August with my 2 boys (now 6&8) and it’s our favourite vacation. Hours alone in the car, daydreaming out the window, stopping at the same fruit stands, getting ice cream cones, relaxing music, wind in our hair. It’s so rejuvenating for all of us, and the memories are rich. Oh, and Fruit Loops. They get the mini boxes of cereals ONLY on this trip. They rip them open like crack addicts and nom-nom-nom as the scenery passes by. It doesn’t hurt that we drive through wine country enroute… so by the time we arrive my sojourn is rewarded with a few bottles of Pinot Gris bliss.

    • Emma on July 1, 2013 at 7:44 pm

      Oh this is great – I love the Fruit Loops as crack tradition! Road trips are all about indulgences!

  7. Peter Bowerman on June 29, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    You ARE brave, but you’re also pretty darn capable, so my prediction is it’ll go so well, you’ll start planning next-year’s trip as soon as you get home. Very cool. Hope it’s a blast so far.

    I’m doing a booktour/ramble of my own this summer, but I cannot claim the bravery of doing with anyone but myself, much less a couple of small humans. Flying to Denver on 7/26, doing four events on the west coast between 8/6 and 8/16, and and making my way back to Denver to fly home on 8/28. So, plenty of time to explore arguably the most interesting part of the U.S. along the way.

    And I’m with you 100% on the whole, unstructured thing. We get so little of that (and you get less than a little), so any chance for a liberating moment, we should grab it…


    • Emma on July 1, 2013 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks always for your support, Peter. Have a GREAT trip, and here is to many book sales :)

  8. Valerie on June 29, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Best of luck, Emma–it will be amazing! I took a road trip with my 5 year old from Chicago to Kansas City this spring–we really connected-and I showed myself that my single mom self can rock it on my own! Maybe we’ll see you at Blackberry Farm again! Enjoy your adventure.

    • Emma on July 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm

      VALERIE!!! I was thinking of you this weekend when we were in Chicago!! Maybe we can hook up next time we pass through (or give a shout if you happen to come through NYC). THANKS FOR READING!

  9. Steph on June 27, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    McDonald’s PlayPlace will blow their little minds. Just be sure to have an exit plan. The only time we indulge our son in this guilty little pleasure is when we are on the road. Oh and those stupid little Happy Meal toys can buy a lot of quite time in the car. At least, they have for us. Have a great and safe road trip.

  10. Seanna on June 27, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I am about to take my 20 month old on his first road trip to Wisconsin, I live in Nebraska. Should be fun. My mom is also going since we are going to a family reunion. It is the first trip I am taking him on. Exciting but kind of nervous about it.

    • Emma on June 28, 2013 at 6:02 am

      2:1 adult: baby ratio sounds about right. Good luck!

  11. Jaymi Naciri on June 26, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    I’m excited for you! I’ve been going on road trips with my kids since birth, albeit never more than 4 1/2 hours away at a time. Some of our best memories are of sing-alongs in the car. Six months or so ago it was Macklemore’s Thrift Shop, which we heard for the first time while looking for Bill Clinton’s birthplace in Arkansas. One suggestion: potty breaks aren’t always easy or convenient. We always have some sort of large cup situation we can pee in if necessary, and wipes for cleanup. Have so much fun!

    • Emma on June 28, 2013 at 6:02 am

      Jaymi – Your cup tip has been on mind, and I purposely did not toss an empty water bottle. So far, so goo!

  12. Michael Melville on June 26, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Oh i really REALLY love the picture from national lampoons family vacation…you got a huge smile from me right off the bat

    • Emma on June 26, 2013 at 7:29 pm

      Thanks Michael – glad to hear you have fond memories. My kids had better, too!

  13. Michael Melville on June 26, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    I hope you your kids have loads of fun!. Road trips are the best and kids learn a lot on them. Growing up some of my best family vacations were road trips. My mother was also divorced and took my sister and I on road-trips as often as she could, it made me better as a person and eventually an adult. Good luck and drive safe..

  14. Jennifer L.W. Fink (@jlwf) on June 26, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    I took my 4 boys on a roadtrip from WI to Great Smokey Mtns Nat. Park and the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, TN via Mammoth Cave and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore last year. We had a great time. Were these some less-than-great moments? Yes. Did I enjoy getting a flat on the interstate in KY? No. Was it absolutely, 100%, completely worth it? Yes. (Did I mention that we tent-camped all the way, save for one night at a hotel on the way back?)

    Am I going on another roadtrip-with-kids this year? No. We all agreed that a “big” trip like that is too much to do every year. So this year. we’ll be camping for a week at a state park instead.

    • Emma on June 26, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      See, Jennifer, a week camping sounds like more work than a car trip to me, mainly that the drive from one locale to another is full of distraction / entertainment. Have a GREAT trip!

      • Jennifer Fink on June 27, 2013 at 10:26 am

        Did you miss the part where I said we TENT-CAMPED along the way? The nice thing about a week in one place is that we will put up and take down the tent (and pack and re-pack the van) exactly once.

      • Emma on June 28, 2013 at 6:01 am

        No, I missed that part!! Wow, you need to write about that, if you haven’t already!

  15. andrea on June 26, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    right with you. I am leaving August 1st for a drive to Deere Isle Maine from Annapolis, MD-2 weeks. First driving trip with my kids since their father and I separated 2 years ago. I am so looking forward to the freedom and being with them outside of our scheduled, reigned-in existence.

    • Emma on June 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      Let’ s compare notes upon our respective returns, Andrea.

  16. Honoree Corder on June 26, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    I think it IS going to be awesome! You’re going to have a blast, learn a lot about yourself and your kids and {indeed} have a ton of stuff to write about — bonus! How great! Enjoy and I can’t wait to read about what happens next.

    Happy driving!

    • Emma on June 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      Thanks Honoree! If this is a hit, maybe next year we’ll take a SW tour by car.

      • Honoree Corder on July 1, 2013 at 8:28 pm

        You’re welcome here anytime! The more the merrier!

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