Over the Christmas break my boyfriend and I took our four combined children camping together – three of mine and one of his. Having three kids didn't seem like that many back when I was married, but I never anticipated getting divorced and dating again. And I certainly never thought about the notion that dating would bring even more children into my life.
It's both overwhelming and a delight.
But we thought we'd take things to the next level by gathering everyone and heading off for a four-day adventure with my 14-year-old daughter, my eight-year-old son, my six-year-old daughter, and my boyfriend's eight-year-old son.
Over that time, almost everybody cried at some point, but there were also a lot of laughs. Here's what we learned:
1. Taking four children and two adults camping requires two vehicles.
Unless you have a seven-seater or a mini bus – which neither of us has because we never expected to have this many children.
That means twice the travel expenses of petrol, barges and permits. But it also means a whole lot of boot space so you can pack just about everything you own.
2. Just because children are the same age doesn't mean they're going to be instant besties.
My boyfriend's son and my son were born two days apart and we thought they'd make great tent buddies.
We were wrong, but we knew better than to force anything so we played tent tetris until everyone was happy. By the end of the trip the boys were great but they needed that extra time to figure each other out.
3. You need to have somewhere to go during the day.
Even in the shade, our tents got too hot to be inside. That meant nobody had anywhere to go except sitting in a camp chair under a tree.
That's when children got hostile and started taking their revenge on us by making us play Monopoly: The Cheat's Edition. I'm pretty sure that's against the Geneva Convention but we had no defence and we were too hot to argue.
4. Four children of disparate ages generally don't want to do the same thing at the same time.
The first couple of days we tried to do everything together but after that we got smart and divided ourselves up a bit. While my boyfriend and his son stayed at the camp one day, I took my kids off to the beach and for a bushwalk.
It meant we got to spend some special time with just our own families, and everyone could relax and not worry about being too polite for a bit. It was a huge relief for everyone.
5. Children are much more capable than we give them credit for.
My children have all camped before, but I wouldn't say they're skilled campers. But they wanted to help and so we taught them how to pitch tents, prepare meals and cook on the fire, and help out around camp. All of them had jobs to do and they all did well.
My six-year-old daughter loved washing the dishes so much she now has insisted it's now her job at home too. Win!
6. It's important to choose your battles.
Brushing teeth matters, but showering does not. When you're camping, it's much more pleasant for everyone involved if you go with the flow and let the children run free-range as much as you can safely get away with.
But it's also important to set your boundaries and ensure they understand what's expected of them. And having permanently filthy feet is a camping rite of passage.
Our friends thought we were mad when we told them our camping plans with all those children. We did burn through a fair bit of wine, so in hindsight, that may well be true, but the good most certainly outweighed the bad. And we can't wait to head out together again.