Friday, August 24, 2012

1,720 Miles in Diapers

I just returned on my first road trip with little S. Together, just the two of us, we traveled a grand total of 1,720 miles. We were away from home for 14 days, passed through eight states, made seven stops, and spent over 30 hours actually driving in the car (not counting the frequent pauses required for soothing, nursing, and changing an upset baby.) The reason for the trip was a good one - we were going to help my sister welcome her 7th child into the world. When I told people about the trip, most used the term "brave" to describe my endeavor; others were more forthright and just said I was crazy. In truth, I wasn't so sure it was a good idea myself when we said goodbye to D and began our journey, but we somehow managed to survive the trip. I thought I'd share some helpful tips I found, in case anyone else is pondering a solo long distance trip with a two month old infant.

Plan ahead.
I spent several weeks planning the trip before we actually embarked. Driving from Williamsport, PA to Atlanta, GA takes about 13 hours. This is a trip that, in my pre-baby days, I would have made all at once, but fortunately I was smart enough to break it into two days. On the way down, we stopped halfway and spent a night at my alma mater in Roanoke, VA. Our first day's drive was about six and a half hours (a total of eight hours travel time with stops). This was S's first day in the car, and she did really well. On day two, I broke it up again - stopping after three hours to meet some friends for lunch in Charlotte. This gave little S a decent amount of time out of the car mid-trip, so the idea was that she would be cheerful when we reached our destination around dinner time. Unfortunately, even the best plans can fail - she screamed the entire way through South Carolina, and most of the way through Georgia. Yes, it's true - a baby really can cry for over 100 miles. But breaking up the trip both on the way down and on the way home helped eliminate any chances of even longer screaming sessions from my normally mild-mannered child.

Be prepared to stop... often.
Typically, S would sleep through the first two or three hours of driving in the morning. But then she'd wake up hungry and cranky, and we'd have to stop about every hour or so. (Somehow, she did not get the memo that she needed to fill her belly every time we stopped, so sometimes she wouldn't nurse well and then we'd have to stop again sooner.) I left plenty of time in my itinerary for these stops, especially on the longer days of driving. To maximize driving time, I filled my gas tank whenever we'd stop to nurse so I wouldn't have to stop at all when she was sound asleep. On average, I think we spent about an hour at rest stops or gas stations for every three hours of driving.

The bathroom question?
One of the biggest concerns that other people brought up when told about the trip was how I would be able to use the bathroom without someone to hold the baby. I obviously couldn't leave her in the car or ask a stranger to hold her. It seems silly now in hindsight, but I did spend some time thinking up strategies. Because of that, even though it seems a bit personal to discuss bathroom habits here, I am going to share what worked for me.
At first, I thought I would just keep her in the car seat and take it into the restroom with me. I quickly learned that she needed as much time out of the car seat as possible, so that plan never happened. I then thought I could utilize the baby changing stations commonly found in (most) fast food restaurant bathrooms. Some of these restaurants are awesome, and put the stations in the largest stall so you can strap your baby in, change her diaper, and then use the bathroom yourself with your child mostly secure and within reach. The majority of restaurants and gas stations, however, fall into one of the three categories: 1) no baby changing station at all; 2) a baby changing station that is not in the stall; or 3) a baby changing station with a broken restraint strap. On the entire two weeks of my journey, I encountered only three changing stations that were in the right location and had a working safety strap, allowing me to use the restroom without having to hold a baby. This became a bit of a crusade for me, and I now hold grudges against all of the places that didn't even have a changing station. (And just a shout out here to the McDonalds employee in Tennessee who climbed under the stall door to unlock the empty stall so I could have access to the baby changing station contained within - even though the station unfolded directly over the toilet.) Anyway, all that to say that the simple solution to using the bathroom with a baby can be found by wearing your baby. I put S in the sling and everything was great. Problem solved.

Stay in familiar places.
With all of the uncertainty that comes with traveling with a baby (and with babies in general), I found it comforting to stop or stay in places with which I had some familiarity. On the way down, I stayed at the Alumnae House at Hollins University. Having spent four years roaming the campus, I was easily able to occupy the evening with S by wandering around. I got to tell her all of the stories that I will never tell her when she's older, I got some exercise, and we both got some much-needed fresh air. Oh, and most importantly, I felt safe. In Georgia, where I spent most of the duration of the trip, I stayed at my sister's house. What it lacked in peace and quiet (with seven children running around), it made up for in great company and the warmth of home. In Tennessee, I spent one night at a random hotel before embarking on our long journey home, and this was the least relaxing night of travel. I couldn't go out and walk around outside, so I spent a few hours watching bad tv and feeling restless. The next night, passing back through Virginia, I stayed with friends who live on campus and again enjoyed a nice evening of good company and the comfort and security that comes with knowing ones surroundings. When S got fussy late in the evening, we walked out in the front yard to listen to the the crickets and gaze at the stars. She calmed down right away.
Find what makes you both happy.
Before our trip, I obtained a few items that were absolutely essential to the success of our endeavor. The first was a mirror that I could put in the car and see S in her rear-facing car seat. This eliminated the need for me to turn around and try to check on her during those long hours of driving - one quick glance in my rear view mirror and I could see that everything was okay. (Note: such mirrors have been labeled as dangerous for two reasons - they could become projectiles in an accident, and they could cause distractions to the driver. I solved these problems by purchasing a mirror that I could angle, and therefore would not have to hang directly in front of her, and by remembering that this was not "baby tv" - in other words, I kept my eyes on the road.)
Additionally, I stocked up on both audio books that I would enjoy, and children's CD's. I quickly learned that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society entertained us both, since it is a well-written epistolary novel (which I enjoyed) read by many different actors with different accents (with S enjoyed). Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything kept her entertained only for short periods at a time since it was only read by one author, but he had a British accent so that helped. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, while very entertaining for me, was read by the author in a dry humor sort of way. Since he had no foreign accent and did not speak excitedly, S was easily bored and it took a long time to get through this one.
As for music CD's, we brought our two Slugs & Bugs albums. These are great for when she's fussy. First, if she was fussy because she was bored, the music entertained her (at least for a time). And if she was fussy because she was really bored (as was the case by the time we hit South Carolina), the music helps drown out the sounds of a crying baby. The latter use is necessary for both sanity and safety in driving. We also received a CD called "Rain for Roots," which is a compilation of Bible story songs by four women. This was a lifesaver on the drive home, since the voices are beautiful and soothing (S slept more than ever when we were listening to this CD), and the songs blend well enough that I listened to it three times in a row in an attempt to keep S asleep and didn't grow tired of it.
The audio books and CD's were a great tool for us, not only because it kept me entertained, but also because S loves to listen to music and to different voices. Results may vary.

Have realistic expectations.
Every time I passed a sign that indicated the distance to upcoming towns, I set mini goals. "I am going to make it the 30 miles to Winchester without S crying," is basically how it went every time we passed such a sign. Even though I couldn't control if she was crying or not, I felt some sense of accomplishment if I made it. I felt like I was making progress, even if I was stopping often.
There also just came a point where I realized that I couldn't stop every time she started to cry. I refused to make two stops within an hour. At every stop, I made sure she was well fed, her diaper was clean, and she had some time outside of the car. When I put her in the seat, I made sure nothing was pinching her or making her physically uncomfortable. If she was still crying after all of this, I just had to ignore it or else I wasn't going to make it anywhere. Besides feeding and changing my baby, my next priority was getting her to our destination safely. If I was constantly distracted by her crying, I was not going to be able to focus on driving. So even though it was hard, I just turned up the music or audio book and drowned out the cries. They always stopped as soon as I got her out of the car seat, and she doesn't seem to be permanently scarred from the experience. She spent the next 24 hours after the trip being a little extra clingy, but other than that things have quickly returned to normal.

So those are the things that helped us survive our journey. It was an awesome two weeks. In addition to being present for the birth of my newest nephew, and getting to spend almost two full weeks with my sister and her wonderful brood, S and I got to share lots of adventures. She had a lot of new experiences: meeting all of her cousins, going to the Tennessee Aquarium (which she slept through), her first time in the Central time zone, her first time at Nature's Classroom (where her father and I met), her first walk around the Loop at Hollins, her first painting experience (in making a present for D's birthday), her first stomach bug and head cold (simultaneously), and so much more. We traveled from Pennsylvania to Virginia, stopped in North Carolina, then continued on to Georgia. We then left and went to Alabama, Tennessee, back to Virginia, and finally home to Pennsylvania. And after 1,720 miles and many, many hours on the road, I can now say that no, it is not crazy to go on a solo road trip with an infant. If anything, it helped me be more confident in all of the things that S and I can do together.