Written by Jm Randolph 

My husband was out of town for nearly half of 2012. I refer to that time as my Metamorphosis, only instead of waking up as a cockroach, I woke up the sole adult in a house with five stepkids. At Thanksgiving we took our first family holiday road trip: 700 miles to my mother’s house in Indianapolis, where my husband would meet us from Chicago.

I’ve driven across the country alone more than once. For five years as a touring stagehand, I lived in hotel rooms and out of suitcases; I know how to pack and move…myself, that is. Family road trips are a different beast, and my husband was gone.

My husband makes things happen; he's like Atz Kilcher, MacGyver and Chuck Norris all rolled into one. I’m Lucille Ball, Oscar Madison and Peg Bundy, without the comedy.

As a stepparent, I constantly second-guess my abilities. My first week on the job, I let a 6-year-old go on an apple-picking trip on a 39-degree day without even realizing she wasn’t wearing a long-sleeve shirt, let alone a coat, until she came home with a note from her teacher.

So I prepped for this trip like a mother.

I laid out the minivan by feel: first-aid kit, water, tissues, hand sanitizer, trash bags, chocolate, flashlight, multi-tool and the next six CDs to go in the changer were all within arm’s reach. Each kid’s station was similarly stocked. We had enough food to last us a week in case we got stranded in a blizzard.

Bringing along Jack and Casey, our puggles, was not part of the plan.

Jack spontaneously developed kennel cough the night before his vaccination appointment. He couldn’t be vaccinated while sick, which completely changed the timing for boarding. All of a sudden I had to find a place to board the dogs in Indiana. They were road-tripping with us.

I let this news slip to one kid. Word spread, and this conversation happened five times:

Kid: The dogs are coming over 700 miles in the car with us?

Me: Yes.

Kid: Our dogs? The badly behaved ones that bark and eat everything in sight and throw up?

Me: Yes.

Kid: Are you crazy?

I definitely didn’t tell my mother. She found out from someone’s Facebook status and called me right away for reassurance that they had a place to stay. My mother’s hospitality is legendary and she easily accommodates all of us on a moment’s notice, but the puggles were not invited. They could be counted on to terrorize her cats and elderly toy poodle; if left in the garage unattended they would create a Slip ’N Slide with her Turtle Wax and eat the tread off her tires.

By 5:15 a.m. the day of departure, all eight of us were packed into the minivan. By 5:16, the dogs began crying and did not stop for the next four hours. They jockeyed for position, attempting to both be on the same lap at the same time. When that didn’t work out, they were content to displace the owner of said lap, Kid No. 4. Before this trip, she was the puggles’ biggest fan. Now she was ready to leave them at the next rest stop. I looked back and saw Nos. 4 and 5 mushed up together while Jack and Casey stretched out comfortably across two-thirds of the seat eating the last of someone’s sandwich. I’m pretty sure Casey was asking for more mayo.

We made decent time, considering, but it wasn’t enough. I was panicking when I called my sister.

Me: The boarding place closes in 15 minutes and I’m still an hour outside of town and Mom’s going to—

Beth: Come to my house. Don’t tell Mom!

Some things never change.

Even though two kids had to stay with Beth to watch our dogs (who never settled down all night and also tried to kill my sister's dog), it worked out. We got Jack and Casey boarded the next day, and Beth and I demonstrated gratitude in action for my kids: the lesson that siblings are always there for each other and they’ll go to any lengths to keep secrets from parents.

JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.