On Saturday mornings when I was a child, I spent hours watching cartoons before my parents came downstairs. It always startled me when one of our Siamese cats darted into my field of vision. After inhabiting a two-dimensional light-box world, seeing the muscular real-live animal removed my fantasy goggles.
A similarly surreal experience was enjoying the solitude of my first solo road trip with my 28-month-old son. It felt like a guilty pleasure to enjoy time to myself while he was in the back seat.
I don’t know what I expected exactly. I thought he’d nap on the way down to the beach to meet my sister and her kids, and that we’d spend the last hour or so listening to music. I planned to leave after dinner on the way home so that he might play a little while before falling asleep for the night, for the rest of the way. I got some details right.
What surprised me was how different it felt to be on a long voyage with him and just him. No couples therapy time with my husband while he slept, no keeping my husband hydrated and fed as he did (usually) most of the driving (his choice). It was just this mama behind the wheel and just my boy in the back.
When he didn’t nap in the first hour on the way down, we made a bathroom gas station stop. For the next 90 miles or so, he amused himself transferring ice from a paper cup into his Snack Trap. Without laundry or clutter or email to deal with, my mind enjoyed its unfettered unraveling as we headed south. After a while, I gave up on the Music Together CDs he’d seemed to tune out by that point and put in an Eckert Tolle audiobook about finding the stillness that resides within all of us. E continued to play, awake. “You’re listening to your CD, Mom?” he checked in. When the talk of stillness seemed to soporific to the one in the driver’s seat, I agreed to the boy’s request for Dreamland (the original from Putumayo). In stop-and-go rush-hour Tidewater traffic, he finally fell asleep at 5:30 p.m., three and half hours after we’d left (with another hour and half to go).
Soon I’d found All Things Considered and Marketplace, and I felt like an adult — a decent one who could handle being a single mom if she had to. I’d flown alone with my son, but driving solo was new territory, and I felt pretty spiffy that it was going so smoothly and I got to learn about things happening in the world (which I promptly forgot while at the beach and watching my nephews play Webkinz in the hotel room. Talk about splitting realities.).
On the way home a few days later, I almost lost my cool before we left. I wanted E to stay awake until we’d made it back to my sister’s hotel room after dinner so that I could change his diaper and clothes, nurse him, and finish packing up the car. It was only an 8-mile drive, and I even stopped halfway to buy a double Americano, but still, having skipped his nap, he fell asleep despite windows down and my blaring “How Ya Like Me Now” on the radio.
I worried about a wet bum and about a later mid-drive waking and demand to nurse, but when he didn’t budge as I packed up the car (ground-level, parking right outside the door), I decided to go for it and head home.
He slept the whole way, and I shaved almost an hour off the driving time. I checked in with the hubby for the first 20 minutes, then caught the end of Prairie Home Companion which was followed by a folk /bluegrass show. Then I scooted around the dial and sung out loud to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
After some retro rockin’ out, I was ready for fiction. It’s been months since I’ve read a novel. When my son was little, I’d read for hours while he nursed and slept (repeat, repeat). Like seeing the cat break the spell of the cartoons, it was always a little odd to feel his warm mouth start working again while I was immersed in some other world. Now I was driving in the dark, unable to see my son in back or ask a co-pilot to check on him, and I was suddenly thrust into a Haitian world of love, violence and political turmoil as described in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! On one hand, I felt independent and unmotherly, like I was back to being a grad student (when I should have read the novel in the first place) driving home to my folks’ house or, even in my early twenties, a semi-single woman driving to spend the weekend with my boyfriend years before he became my husband. On the other hand, the intense stories and their parent-child dynamics pulled at the string that ran from my heart into the middle of the backseat. I felt incredibly lucky to experience being a mother and also fearful of how I would face the future when he’ll be out of the confines of a carseat and I won’t be able to know where he is at all times.
Just as we pulled into our neighborhood a little before midnight, I noticed some blinking. Upon pulling up behind his father’s car, E shouted “Daddy’s home!” and then, as I unbuckled him, asked where our neighbor and his age-mate son were. Then he told me he was peeing in his diaper. It was nice to be able to hand the boy over to his dad, who changed him and got him back to sleep before I’d even put away the food from the cooler. Still highly caffeinated, I stayed up like a college student writing for myself while I uploaded photos of my son for his relatives to see on his blog. Maybe I can have it all.