A family trip is easier the second time around (I hope)

Everything’s quiet right now.  After an early morning bout of gas pains Wally is back asleep alongside Caroline and down the hall Jay has not yet begun to stir.  I’m sitting in the kitchen with the coolest air of the day easing in over my pajama’d legs.  The hallway is lined with suitcases and bags.  In just a few hours we’re heading north to visit my family in Maine.

Exactly two years ago we made this same trip when Jay was a newborn.  I remember the morning of our departure vividly.  It was our first trip anywhere with a child and Caroline and I were still figuring out the division of labor in our new household.  Getting out of the house before a big trip had always been one of the most stressful activities in our relationship (I blame myself entirely for that) and, as it turned out, it wasn’t any easier with a baby.

All morning we raced around throwing every conceivable article of baby clothing into a duffle bag, while handing Jay back and forth who at that point in his life was crying just about all the time.  When finally it appeared that we were packed I told Caroline I’d go get the car and install the carseat while she nursed Jay for the last time before we set off.

It was hot that morning and I’d never installed a car seat before.  I figured it couldn’t be that hard.  I pulled our little red hatchback into the bike lane outside our apartment, set the flashers and set to work.  When it took me ten minutes just to figure out how to wedge it into our narrow back seat I should have realized I was in trouble.  I grunted, cursed and strained to thread the seatbelt through the seat and pull it tight enough to be convinced that Jay would be safe.  Soon sweat was dripping from my face and my shirt was soaked.  After an hour I was satisfied I had it, and I went back upstairs to herald Caroline with the good news.

By that point it had been long enough from Jay’s last feeding that he needed to nurse again.  Getting Jay to latch when he was a month old was an even more trying experience than installing a carseat; it took him 15 minutes to get on the breast and another 30 minutes to eat. All the while I paced thinking wouldn’t it be nice to be on the road right now.

Finally Jay was finished and it seemed that the stars were aligned for our departure.  Caroline and I each made one last trip to the bathroom (because of course our first last trip had now been almost two hours ago) and then tromped downstairs to the car.  Caroline leaned in to put Jay in his car seat and then stopped.  Bad news, she said.  There’s a red line on the side of the carseat and a warning label that says the line should always be parallel to the ground when the carseat is in the rear facing position.  She told me that as I’d installed it, the line didn’t look very parallel to her.

I squatted down to eyeball it.  “Oh, it’s close enough,” I said. “I doubt you can ever get it perfect.”

Caroline wasn’t satisfied.  She offered to reinstall the carseat herself.  I said don’t bother.  I’ll take care of it.  She and Jay went upstairs to nurse again.  I contorted myself back into the car and filled with despair, tried to make that little red line run parallel to the ground.

When finally we set off it was close to noon, four hours later than we’d intended to leave.  This is where my memory begins to get hazy, but I think we were almost in Massachusetts before Caroline and I said a word to each other.

I thought about this fraught departure last night as Caroline and I were packing for our second trip to Maine with a newborn.  It was after dinner and we were all in the bedroom.  Jay was playing with his cars on the floor, Caroline was packing Wally’s bag, and I was holding Wally in one hand and counting out pairs of socks with the other.

What struck me is how much better Caroline and I are at running a family together than we were two years ago. For one, we’re more competent: We know exactly what to pack, I can install a carseat with my eyes closed, and breastfeeding has become second nature for Caroline. We’re also better at coordinating between the two of us.  Two years ago we had to talk through every decision—Should we pack thirty diapers or sixty? Who was going to hold Jay and who was going to take out the trash?  How long can a bottle of milk be out of the fridge before it goes bad?  Now we just go.

The family efficiency we’ve developed is not the kind of competence that makes you rich or famous but it is satisfying to be able to orchestrate our own little domestic world. Close my eyes and I can be MacArthur in khaki shorts.

And now, down the hall Jay has begun to call from his crib.  It’s 7am.  Last night Caroline and I decided we’d try to leave by nine.  Two car seats are waiting in the hallway to be installed.  We’ll see how we do.

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