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
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
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.
“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?”
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.