Dealing with fears while roadtripping with a baby

3300 miles, 11 days, 7 states, and one epic Google Maps failure
Last week Dre and I got home from our first family road trip, an epic 3300+ mile drive over 11 days and seven states. (Betcha didn't even notice I was gone — Stephanie's that good!) In retrospect, we tried to cover way too much territory, going in a loop from Seattle to Moab/Grand Canyon/Sedona and then back up through Vegas to the Redwoods and then home up the coast.

But taking a road trip with a baby (or rather, OUR baby — some kids just hate the car) was a great experience. In part because it felt like it set a good precedent for our family traveling and having adventures together, and in part because at times I was terrified — and pushing through the terror helped me feel more confident as a parent.

The terror surprised me. I'm a pretty laid-back parent, and I just don't tend to get heavily triggered by all the cultural fear about baby safety. But I found myself quite literally white knuckled with fear several times during our trip … and it's not like we were bungee jumping.

First terror: the road itself

The Vantasy, our vehicle
Because we live in-city, Tavi doesn't spend much time in a car. And I like it that way. Cars feel infinitely more dangerous to me than recalled baby products, and the idea of spending 11 days in a tin can hurdling down freeways populated by "crazy cherries" (our family phrase for bad drivers) just scared the shit out of me. Granted, we were in a solid, slow-moving VW van that felt like a tank at times. Granted, Andreas did much of the driving, and drives so slow that he makes your grandma look like a meth-addicted daredevil. But I still managed to be afraid. During my stretches of driving, I kept both hands locked on the wheel, and noticed at one point that my knuckles were literally white from clutching the wheel so hard.

How I dealt with it: Eventually I think I just wore down the terror. 6 hours a day of driving will do that too you. I also got better about funneling my anxiety toward staying razor sharp behind the wheel. I normally hate freeway driving — I feel drowsy and spaced out after a couple hours. But the terror kept my wits prickling with alertness, which was a nice side effect.

Second terror: dropping the baby

DON'T STAND SO CLOSE TO THE EDGE! Uh, but I'm three feet away from the railing. TOO CLOSE!!
We stopped at Shoshone Falls in Idaho on our way south, and Dre holding the baby near the railing gave me heart palpitations. Even three feet from the railing was too close.

Our first family hike on the trip was to Delicate Arch at Arches National Monument, a hike identified as "moderately strenuous." Dre secured Tavi in an external-frame hiking child carrier, but I couldn't stop thinking about what would happen if Dre fell.

Dre hiking to Delicate Arch with Tavi on his back.
"Let's just give it a shot," Dre soothed me. "If at any point during the hike the trail starts to feel like too much, we can turn back." I swallowed and nodded, blinking back freak-out tears. (WTF? I'm not weepy at all, but I was bugging out!)

The hike was fine, and I felt myself unclenching with every step. And then we got to Delicate Arch itself. It's surrounded by a natural stone amphitheater — not an especially steep surface, but one surrounded by steep drop-offs. My anxiety came flooding back and while Andreas went to go do hand-stands under the arch, I sat clutching the baby with both arms, AND pinning him between my legs. And yet still, I kept having visions of my son rolling down the stone and right off the edge of a cliff.

How I dealt with it: I walked and breathed my through it. And held on really tight, with my arms and my legs.

Floating Anxiety aka Something Could Go Wrong!

I also had just this generalized angst about Something Going Wrong. The internal dialog went like this:
"But what if SOMETHING goes really wrong?"
"Ok, what IF something goes really wrong? You'll deal with it."
"But, WHAT IF?!"
"Well, what do you propose doing instead — staying home for the rest of Tavi's life?"
"Ah, right. Better to have lived and had Something Go Wrong then never to have lived at all?"
"Exactly."

And so I just kept soldiering on. When images of the baby falling off a cliff or the van getting blind-sided by a semi truck popped into my mind, I just kept breathing and being brave. If Something Went Wrong, I would deal with it. In the meantime, I would enjoy the adventure of being on the road with my little family.

Half-way through our trip, we hiked down off the rim of the Grand Canyon, on the Kaibab Trail. Again, Tavi was strapped to Dre's back, and the route was steep, with the side of the trail dropping into sheer canyon walls. Like everything at the Grand Canyon, the trail was busy, and when we got to Ooh-Ahh Point a guy who was there started chatting with us about Tavi.

"How old is your son?" he asked.

"Six months," we said.

"Wow," he said. "Kudos to you guys. I don't think I left the house with my daughter until she was about two years old."

I took a deep breath and smiled at him.

Even for non-fretters like myself, the crush of parental anxiety is very real. It's up to each of us to find our way through it in a way that lets us feel safe and secure, but also keeps our lives filled with the flavors of new experiences and adventures.

Updated to add this great quote from Anne Lamott:

You are the parent of a new baby. Most of your worries will be unfounded, and most of your expectations will be thwarted. When you think dramatic, thinky thoughts about the baby's health or moral character, pat yourself gently on the shoulder, and say, "Uh-huh." You have to grind down the panic by pushing back your sleeves.

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  1. Good on you Ariel! I had to take our tots on a much shorter road trip from Alberta to BC last summer when Lucy was a mere 16 days old… I had very similar anxieties. (Though I veer towards anxiety prone anyways!) Parental anxieties are rough!

  2. I'm so proud of you for overcoming THE FEAR. I would probably be in the same boat–I hate driving with Jasper now, and I never, ever do it, but whenever we're out during rush hour or anything like that..ugh. The other night, I shot a wedding out of town, and kept worrying something would happen to ME and then Jazz and Sean would be without me. So, yeah. You rock for overcoming it 🙂

    AND, kudos to Dre for being kickass and keeping it real and mellow. And to Tavi, for being a great road tripper. Go, family!

    1 agrees
  3. I'm a pilot. I fly for a living. I love flying. I know that flying is a much safer means of travel than driving. I know exactly how much training and such that airline pilots have to go through before they can even think about being hired. I know all that.

    And yet, I still have the moment of irrational but paralyzing anxiety every time my daughter and I get on a plane. She's seven and a half years old and has probably flown across the country over a dozen times. She's got her own frequent flyer number.

    So the bad news, Ariel (and everyone else!), is that to a certain extent, that irrational parent-fear doesn't go away. The good news? One does develop ways of coping. Me? I like the breathe, pray, hug method in which I force myself to breathe slowly, have a quick conversation with my conception of deity, and then hug the aforementioned daughter. That usually works to bring me down and help me be calm enough to not freak said daughter right out. 😉

  4. I'm really not the worrying type either. I often find myself trying to get others to chill out about the "dangerous" situations my daughter finds herself in;
    "May's eating dirt? Good for the constitution!"
    "Moving dangerously close to a small precipice/step? Ah, she's pretty good at getting down by herself. She knows what steps are all about."
    That said, ever since my daughter was born I have been plagued by incredibly vivid visuals of awful things that could happen to her.
    For example, there's a pair of scissors balancing precariously on the arm of the sofa. I don't just think, "Oh that's dangerous, they should be put away." I actually SEE them sticking out of her head!
    I figure it's hormonal or some such (assisted along the way by a love of b-grade horror movies and gory video games). Protective instinct kicking in overtime to make sure we are super alert and would never ever let anything ever go wrong!
    It does wear off over time though. It's impossible to keep up such levels of alertness/anxiety over extended periods of time (for me anyway). May's one now and instead of horrific visuals about five times a day, I'm down to about one a week.
    I kinda don't think it will ever completely go away though. I can just see myself when she's 18 and home late from a night out. It won't just be, "I do hope she hasn't been in an accident!" but visions of decapitation that run through my mind!

    1 agrees
    • Yeah, it's the being able to SEE the bad things in my mind that bugs me out. I've never had generalized anxiety feel so much like premonitions. I guess that's parental biology in action … but it's fucking freaky.

    • Ugh, one of the first times I went on a long walk with my Bot in the stroller I had one of these visualizations. I was waiting at the crosswalk for the walk signal at a very busy street. Cars were whizzing by at too fast a speed for the area. A big black SUV zoomed past and I had this horrid vision of the stroller leaving my grasp and rolling out into the street right in front of a similar SUV. Now, I can't stop at a corner without flipping the brake on the stroller

  5. i am going to maine for 2 and half weeks in about a month and a half…. it's a mere 6 hour drive from us in NJ to where i go in maine (driving in the middle of the night + doing about 85 the whole way up) and i'm freaking out about taking my son who will be celebrating his first birthday a week after we get home.

    i am trying to prepare myself for all those what ifs and trying not to freak out too much…. considering this will be my 20 something time going to this place AND 24 summers ago my parents were taking the same trip i'm about to, but with a much smaller child…. i know nothing is going to go wrong but just in my head i have all these what ifs swirling around.

  6. I'm jealous. Our 9-month old hates the car. We tried a little road trip (Seattle to Port Townsend and Port Angeles), with camping, and cut it off half way, partly due to rain, partly due to the baby who would not sleep in the car. We had to get her to nap during our stops, and she missed the fun stuff. But she sure did scream in the car.

    • my monster is great in the car for the hour and a half trip by car to my partner's parents house and since we do live in NJ we go down the shore which is about a 2 hour drive, 3 hours when we're towing our boat + rest stops due to diaper issues……

      i figured our drive is 6 hours in a normal car…. but this year we're going in an SUV towing a boat so that tacks on 2 hours to our trip + rest stops for baby to move around and such i'm looking @ 10 hours or so…. i figured id split it up like drive from NYC to boston first day then boston to waterville maine

      BUT my fear is now that he is older he doesn't sleep in the car like he used to he loves looking around and since he is no longer rear facing he looks so uncomfortable sleeping in the car in his throne of a car seat so screaming baby is my biggest fear now

  7. You guys rock!! We did a trip from Vancouver, BC to Joshua Tree, CA (drove straight through the night with 3 people rotating the driving)when James was 4 months old, everyone thought we were nuts, but i agree that it goes a long way in setting your little guy up for a future of road trips! James is 19 months old now and has no problems with the long car rides, and we are grateful for that! Of course we took our Toyota Corolla–needless to say i'm super jealous of your Vantasy:) Keep up the Road Trips!!

  8. We just took a plane trip for the first time with our six-month-old. The plane didn't cause anxiety, but we stayed with relatives who lived on the 25th floor. Did I let my son out on the balcony? Nope. All I could see was him going over the side. Eventually I let his dad stand with him in the doorway, but that was as far as I could go.

  9. Ohmigosh! A friend sent me this link and the coicidences are incredible! My name is also Ariel, and my kids, husband and I are about to embark on a month long trip from STL to the west coast in our… can you guess it… VW Vanagon.

    Well it sounds like you all had an amazing time, and reading this has helped me release some of the anxiety I have about jumping on the road. Thank you!

    • Yay for internet twins! One of my dear friends is also named Ariel, and she found me online years ago while doing a vanity search. 🙂 We were both retired ravers from Seattle, who'd done work for the Seattle Weekly and lived in SF. It was eerie. 🙂

      Oh, and learn from my mistakes: do NOT try to pack that many miles into so few days. And if you're going through Boise, make sure you stop at the Co-op. It's better than all the PCCs and Madison Market combined!

      Ooh, and if you're coming up the coast, stop at Beachside State Park in central Oregon! Great spot.

      • Thanks for the suggestions! I am wondering though, do you use cloth diapers, and if so did you use them on your trip? I would like to use them on our trip but the fact that the vanagon has no "trunk" I am wondering where to put them between washes. Thanks for any advice on that.

        • Wool wet bags are fantastic — they're naturally anti-bacterial and absorb odor like crazy.

          Or, you could give yourself special dispensation to skip the cloth diapering while on a road trip and use a bio-degradable disposable like Natracare.

        • We do indeed use cloth diapers, but we opted to leave the cloth and wet sacks at home for the trip and just used disposables. As a result, our son got mild diaper rash … but it merely served as a good reminder of why we love using cloth at home!

  10. I take comfort in the fact that this seems to be a normal reaction by mothers who love their children. Thanks everyone. Dori is almost three and I still have these momnets once in a while. Great job Ariel! (I only wish I had your post two yesrs ago…see I'm not nuts…well about this anyway)

  11. hi ariel, thanks for this. I also recently went through what I can only describe as panic attacks leading up to our trip overseas (Europe to USA)!

    I don't know that I could say what exactly it was that was making me have such immense anxiety, but I just felt that the whole trip was just TOO MUCH. We were only going for 2 weeks, but we were packing so much into those 14 days that I just felt overwhelmed at coping with it all, and having to accommodate the wants and needs of a 14 month old. I just kept doing that "WHAT IF" thing, and stressing over details, like what if the airline won't let us bring our carseat on the plane because it is European and doesn't have a sticker that declares it "airline approved??" I actually emailed every person I knew in my town to try to beg/borrow an approved carseat! I even went to the store to buy a brand new one just in case (but the pricetags sent me home, thank goodness!)

    Anyway, the moral of the story is that the baby did fine, we did fine, nobody even LOOKED at the seat (*blush*) and it all turned out okay in the end.

    And even though I didn't have too much anxiety about flying with her, I did actually find that plane trips are in fact a little *easier* than road trips, since we can walk her up and down the aisles when she's restless, and put her to sleep in the baby carrier if she won't go to sleep in her seat. (Much harder in a car!!)

  12. This post came at the perfect time. I've been freaking about about much less than your awesome road trip so your story gave me a good kick in the ass. Many of my mom friends have found themselves having never left their 3 year old for a night and forgoing all vacations because they waited too long to start face their fears. As always, its all about balance!

  13. thank you ariel and everyone who commented to chime in that they also experience these intense fears, especially including experiencing graphic and extreme scenarios of horrible things playing out, for making me feel a little less abnormal, or at least like i have a lot more company than i imagined. i've been really worried since my child arrived 2 yrs ago that this was some sort of sign of something really broken, and now i'm thinking i'm not as crazy as i suspected. this makes it a bit easier to cope with these fears more objectively, and that's a big deal!

  14. Its nice to know other moms have those catastrophic visions, and its not just me.I thought I was being overly morbid. Now I know Im just mom.

  15. AAAHHH, I live in Twin Falls, and my house is just a few miles away from Shoshone Falls. I know the fear of peering over that edge. Yeesh. I hope you enjoyed the falls otherwise. They're gorgeous in the spring.

  16. I'm so grateful for this piece. Roadtrips have always been a huge part of my life. I was planning a wonderful, two week adventure involving camping and hostels and couch crashing, for my husband and I this summer, when I found out we had (finally) conceived our first child. I'm thrilled, but a small selfish part of me exists that wishes I was never going to be held back by pregnancy or a child.
    In reality, taking that road trip now, while pregnant, isn't the best option. But now I'm hopeful that I can still continue living my dreams after the baby arrives. I'm sure it will be different, but knowing that other people have taken long road trips without losing their sanity helps quite a bit! Thank you for writing this.

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