When my daughter Hannah was a baby, she cried in the car. Actually, cried doesn’t even begin to cover it. It would be more accurate to say that she screamed inconsolably as long as she was strapped into her car seat. Just screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
The first time that it happened was on a cloudy-ish June day, when she was four months old. She and I were at my La Leche League group’s Walk for Breastfeeding. It was a fundraising event, which involved a walk around a local park, and then a short drive to a local housing co-op for a pot luck lunch. I was excited to be out of the house with my baby, doing something with my friends. The drive to the park was uneventful, and when we got out of the car I strapped Hannah into my trusty sling. We paused for a group photo, and set off for the walk at a leisurely pace, accompanied as we were by toddlers. The walk was just one kilometer, not long at all, and I was having a good time talking to the other parents and meandering my way along the path beside the lake. But then, about halfway through the walk, Hannah started getting fussy.
When you’re with a La Leche League group and your baby gets fussy, lots of people jump in, trying to help. One of the group leaders tried to show me how to nurse Hannah while she was still in the sling, but Hannah was having none of it. I tried moving her around in the sling, but she only cried harder. I stuck my thumb in her mouth for her to suck on. She took a few half-hearted sucks, then spit it out and resumed her wailing. Other people tried to distract her, offered toys, and made suggestions. Nothing worked. I decided she was just tired, and hoped she would fall asleep on the 15 minute drive to the lunch, since that usually worked.Things went sideways in the car, though. Hannah’s cries escalated until they were full-fledged screams as I drove. I tried playing music, I tried singing, I tried talking to her. Nothing worked. As the crying got louder and more insistent, my driving deteriorated. I just wanted to get out of the car, nothing else mattered. I found myself going faster, pushing through yellow lights and moving around slower cars. Anything I could do to get to my destination sooner.
That was the first time that Hannah really screamed in the car, but it was far from the last. For over a year, my car trips were dictated by whether or not Hannah would cry. She cried less earlier in the day, and less on short trips. So, a 10 minute drive to the library for baby time at 9:30am was safe. A 45 minute drive downtown was not. Any car trip after 4:00pm or so was not. When I returned to work and read the suggestion that I find daycare near my office so I could visit over lunch I immediately ruled that out. If I had to pick her up at 5:00pm each night, I wanted a three minute drive, not a 30 minute one.
My husband and I tried lots of things to make the crying stop. She cried in his car as well as mine. She cried as I sat beside her while her father drove. She cried while I tried to contort myself to nurse her while her father drove. She cried when we played music, or when it was quiet. She cried when we dangled colourful toys in front of her, when we hung sunshades on the car’s windows, and when we held her little hand. When we stopped the car to let her calm down she stopped crying as long as she was out of the carseat, but she started again as we were strapping her back in. Avoiding long trips at times when we knew she was likely to cry became the only answer, lest we become so worn down by her screams that our driving began to suffer.
The sound of that crying, and the fear it created in me, has stayed with me through more than seven years since that first tear-laden car trip. To this day, I find that I avoid long car trips with my children. While my sister’s firstborn is only two years old and is better-traveled than I am, our family has stuck close to home. It’s been years since Hannah stopped crying in the car, but the sound echoes in my ears anytime I consider taking a long trip with my children. It still feels much easier – and much safer – to choose shorter trips that don’t require us to be strapped in for too long at a stretch.
I don’t think you can ever look at your children without seeing echoes of the past flickering across their faces. That time your son lost his footing on a play structure, and you watched helplessly as his little body fell limply to the ground. The way that your daughter used to insist on dressing herself in garishly mismatched patterns. The countless diapers you changed, sticky fingers you washed, and little hurts you soothed away. All of these memories are carried with you, years and years later, colouring your relationship.
I will always carry the memory of that June day when my baby transformed from a complacently sleepy traveller into an entity with her own mind who was extremely unhappy. It was yet another reminder in those early months of parenting that I was no longer in control. I had almost three decades on her, but I was very much at her mercy, and there was nothing for it but to surrender to the reality of parenting. And so, I surrendered.
Even today, I continue to surrender. It’s different, now that my children are seven and four years old. They no longer scream wordlessly, leaving me to guess at their desires. But I will still do almost anything to keep things on an even keel. I bring snacks so no one’s overly hungry. I don’t try to pack too much into a single day, or a single outing. Anything so that I don’t find myself back in a car with a screaming child, their cries ringing in my ears and filling me with panic. My children may be smaller and younger than me, but they are nonetheless mighty. Driving my crying baby around taught me that, and it’s a lesson I’ll never forget.