Traveling with kids, Pt. 1

Many people think my husband and I are crazy. Or brave. I’ll tell you: its an intoxicating mix of both. We travel pretty regularly with our kids when we can, and at least one major trip every year. We took the big plunge in September of 2013 with a trip to Rome with our just-shy-of-one-year-old son. We’d taken a few domestic trips with him and thought, Why not? We can do this!

I’m not really sure what drugs we were taking at the time. I wish I could remember because I could really use some of that shit right now. ROME. A 9 hour flight with a wiggly kid who is just on the verge of walking. Brilliant! The time to travel is when they are INFANTS, people. Little slugs that lay around and sleep. Pack ’em up and go go go. Use your maternity leave to work on that bucket list. It’s infinitely easier. Sure, you’re lugging diapers and wipes and maybe a breast pump around, but trust me when I tell you that all of those are easier to carry than a one year old that wants to go places. On his own. Without you holding him down.

Some folks told us to give our kid Benadryl. And we were all, “Drug our child? No! Why would we do THAT??” Idiots. (Us. Not them.)

But really, no big deal. We were going to Rome! Land of cobblestone streets and stairs! So. Many. Stairs. Should I add that neither of us had been to Rome before? Nah. It doesn’t really matter. Because even if you have been places pre-kids, you are never looking around going, “Yeah, this would be a really easy/hard place to come with a baby.” And if you are, then you have some special kind of superpower and I would like to meet you and read a comic book about your life.

So, we packed up the diapers and the kid and our sense of adventure and we went to Rome. If memory serves (and it’s crap these days) he slept for 2.5 hours on the way over. And the other 6.5? ALL ACTION. Squirmy wormy action. It was an overnight flight and we arrived at 6am utterly exhausted.

But let exhaustion stop us? Never! If I could pinpoint our biggest mistake (No, it was not our decision to go), it was doing too much in the first few days. With jet lag those first days were a blurry mess, and we tried to hit the town and see the sights. Did you know Rome is just FULL of SIGHTS? We should have been finding nearby playgrounds and taking lots of naps. But no! We had paid good money to cross an ocean and we were going to go SEE ALL THE THINGS. Our poor childless-at-the-time friend from London came during those first few days and stayed with us. Let’s just say they were not our finest moments. We were seriously afraid for a while that we had scared him off having kids forever.

We stayed in a lovely AirBNB in a central location. Mom Tip: In many instances renting a house or apartment is the way to go. It gives you the space and amenities that make things feel a little more like home. (Now, if you are going to a resort-type place with a swim-up bar and kids camp, I’m willing to make exceptions)

We eventually settled into a routine. Elliott would wake up super early (like 5/530). I would get up and pop him in the stroller and we would walk the mostly empty streets of Rome. I’m so very NOT a morning person, but having the streets all to ourselves, without hordes of tourists, was pretty amazing. We would walk by the Pantheon and choose a small cafe. I would get a coffee and Elliott would destroy a pastry. We enjoyed our lovely breakfast together and then continued our walk. About an hour later, my husband and I would swap, and I would take a nap. We would reconvene as a family of 3 and hit one major Rome must-see. Then, and probably the best part, a big delicious lunch and a bottle of wine, and back to the apartment for epic naps. We would hit another attraction in the late afternoon or just walk around exploring a particular part of town, and then dinner.

One of the best discoveries of our trip is that Italians love kids. Maybe it helped that Elliott was impossibly blonde with blue eyes, but whatever the reason, I felt people went out of their way to be nice to us. Waiters in particular were the best. They would bring us child sized versions of menu items, offer to play with Elliott, and one waiter at a pizza joint took off his own belt to fashion a strap on a broken high chair for us.

Of course, just as we felt like we had confidently found our groove, it was time to go home. I wish I could say the flight back was easier, but…9+ hours with a wiggly kid and this time he slept all of 30 minutes. Josh and I worked in 20 minute shifts. One of us would read or watch a movie for 20 minutes and then we would switch. It was all we could manage. Back and forth trade-offs across the Atlantic ocean. Are we there yet?

It was crazy. It was fun. It was crazy fun and it made us some great memories. Ok, well, Elliott won’t remember it, but we will. Out of this trip grew our motto “We would rather be traveling than not traveling.” We say this to each other occasionally when we travel and things get tough. But really–being in a new place, eating new foods and seeing new things will always be awesome, even with littles in tow. Sometimes that means standing in the Roman Forum with a sweaty crying toddler, and sometimes that means watching your kid excitedly devouring Roman-style pizza from a rickety wooden highchair with a makeshift seatbelt fashioned from an old man’s belt. And both of those things are fantastic.

Be my (mom) friend

Today at the pool I asked a nice blond woman for her phone number. Wait, that sounds weird.  Let me start again with some context.  Today, while hanging out with my two year old son at the pool, I noticed that the woman sitting next to me also had what looked like a two year old son.  Never one to miss an opportunity to make new mom friends, I started a conversation with her, which ended with us exchanging numbers for a possible future playdate.

Trying to make friends as a mom feels a lot like dating, especially in the years before your kids are old enough to self-select their friends.  Despite being friendly, smart, interesting and having a job in a similar field to me, she’s not my perfect match because she’s pregnant.  Her two year old is her oldest child, whereas Luca is my younger.  I’m not saying we can’t strike up a successful friendship and set our kids up to be friends, but as any mom of two can tell you, the ultimate ultimate is when both kids line up relatively close in age.

That’s not to say that some of my best mom friends have the right line up either.  Because you can’t always choose who you love, and if at least one kid matches and the moms make a love connection, then you make it work.  Two of my favorite mom friends (and two of my newest) are relatively bad match in the kid line up department.  First is a woman who has two boys, and at five, while Julia is still willing to play with boys, she definitely prefers girls.  Her other son is older, so no match for Luca.  And her husband, while being probably one of the coolest guys in the suburbs (a jewelry designer with long hair and hip clothes) works every weekend, so making a love connection between the husbands seems unlikely due to limited opportunities for them to hang out.  But she’s worth it; a woman that I would have been friends if we met before we had kids. She gets my sense of humor, she has great style, she doesn’t shy away from my oversharing and she’s a really interesting person.  We ride the train together home from work whenever our schedules line up, so more of our mom friendship is actually separate from our kids, even though we talk about them a lot.

My other new friend has a son more than nine months younger than Luca and that’s her only child, so no match for Julia.  We knew each other before we had kids on a casual basis at an old job, but I ran into her when she was pregnant and become one of the mom gurus who ushered her into motherhood.  Literally hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of the kids’ old stuff went to her, along with advice on everything from finding affordable childcare to sleep training.  Again, she’s the kind of person I would be friends with even if we didn’t have kids, and even better, our husbands love each other and have shared interests.

I tend to make friends easily because I am extremely outgoing (reader, I doubt you are shocked by this based on my previous blogs). But even I had a lot of trouble making mom friends when Julia was little.  This is largely based on being a working mom, because I couldn’t go to all those activities you might use for “networking”.  I did try a mommy & me class  on the Fridays I worked from home and asked some of the women out on “dates” , but there was no real chemistry.  Weekends weren’t much better, because Julia was born at the end of fall and going to parks, playgrounds and the pool aren’t things you do in the winter. I did have a few early successes.  The babysitter I hired when Julia was six months old had a daughter three months younger, and we ended up becoming friends.  She pulled me through some tough times those early days with my postpartum depression.  But only six months after we met, she and her family moved upstate.  We’re still in touch on Facebook, but it’s not the same as when she lived here and we’d go to yard sales together, put the girls in the same shopping cart at stores, etc.

My most successful and longest running mom friendship to date can be attributed to my bull in a china shop approach to making new friends.  The aforementioned babysitter/friend and I were pushing our strollers over to mommy & me class when we saw a woman down the block from the play place taking a similarly aged girl out of her car.  I went right up and asked if she was on her way to class.  It turns out she actually lived on the block (still does) and I got her number and met her the next week at that mommy & me class.  We’re still friends today more than five years later, and she has a daughter who is just a few months younger than Luca (but she did sandwich one in between, who just turned four).  We’re zoned for the same school district and out of six kindergarten classes, our daughters ended up in the same class.  This summer, I convinced her to enroll her in the same camp as Julia and they are in the same group.  Our friendship is not without bumps – I went through a very unreliable period where I’d screw up plans with her a lot. I’ve peppered her with hundreds of anxious mom questions and cried in front of her more than once, all of which she handles with her calm, non-judgmental tone.  She is a keeper, but we still need to work on getting our husbands to spend more time together.

Long parenting friendships like the one mentioned above are in many ways aided by circumstances.  I find as a parent that keeping up with friendships is more difficult than when you are young and free, although there is considerably less drama within the relationships themselves. I have a friend group made up of the moms of girls from Julia’s old nursery school and for the last two years the girls have also taken dance classes together.  Our group, plus a few other moms, mostly others from that nursery school class have “moms out” nights every month or two at local restaurants.

I love these women, some of whom I consider my closest friends.  But our kids all go to different elementary schools now.  Most of the moms used to belong to the pool but this year many of them skipped it.  A bunch of them belong to the beach but Brian and I can’t join because our zip code isn’t zoned for permits for that beach.  Will our friendships survive our busy lives?

In my teens I had a few friend groups that soured because of jealousy, infighting and back-stabbing.  As an adult, I generally prefer to make individual relationships rather than groups, even though I realize adult women aren’t (most of the time) as catty as your average teenage girl.  This group seems relatively drama free but I am still prone to those old insecurities.  Are they hanging out with me? Yes, probably, as three of them have three year olds that all go to the same pre-school and several of them belong to that beach that we can’t join. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me (although there could be…).

What I dream of, what I hope for are the parent friends for life that my parents have.  They somehow managed to find multiple couples they liked who had kids in very close age ranges to us that we liked.  They had friends we went on vacations with, others that came to family holidays. Most are still close to my parents to this day.  I want that for our kids, and for us too.  The parent friends I’ve made to date have made me a better mom and a happier person, and I hope I’ll be the kind of friend for them that they want to keep for life.   In the meantime, I’ll continue to hit on the women I meet that might make a good match.  That’s the main difference between dating moms and dating for a husband –  you don’t have to commit to just one.

The truth in parenting

Two days before the birth of my first child, a little before 36 weeks of pregnancy, I was put on modified bed rest due to suspected preeclampsia. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might go into labor early (Mom Tip: If you’ve never done the whole having a baby thing, there are a lot of things you just can’t picture, so I’m telling you now – pack your hospital bag early). I even polled my friends and family to determine whether or not since the bed rest was “modified” that I could sneak out to my last movie before I was stuck at home with the baby.

For the record, everyone voted no, which was a good thing because I might have gone into labor on the spot while watching Twilight (don’t judge, at least I didn’t go!).  After two days of laying down at home, I was brushing my teeth at 10pm on an unseasonably warm November night when my water broke.  By 9am the next morning I was someone’s mom: Julia Ruth Cucinotta, all 4 lbs. 14 oz of her.

I had thought that when they put the baby on your chest your heart exploded with love and you were bonded for life.  Not me.  My blood pressure spiked during the delivery and they rushed the skin to skin experience so they could get her tiny little self to the NICU and get me on magnesium, literally the worst medication I have ever experienced, to avoid me getting eclampsia. Mom Tip 2: Did you know preeclampsia is not an actual medical condition but a set of symptoms that are a warning you could get actual eclampsia?  Again, the magical world of things you don’t know until you have kids!

For the next 24 hours Julia couldn’t come to me because she was in the NICU, and I couldn’t go to her because I was in hell.  On the magnesium, my body felt floppy and heavy, almost like I was paralyzed. I had to be catheterized because they can’t risk me  even getting up to go to the bathroom.  I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink in case I choked.  I begged the nurses in tears until finally I got a nice one to give me one or two ice chips in secret.  I was so hot my husband had to wear his winter coat to keep warm in the hospital room since we turned down the temperature so much, and still I needed cold compresses.  I was also practically delirious.

The next day,  after more than 36 hours with no food or drink, as the poison slowly subsided from my body, I was handed what looked less like a cute cuddly baby and more like a tiny chicken. I was cautioned that I couldn’t even breastfeed her yet because I might transfer the magnesium to her.  What was I supposed to do with this tiny mewling thing?

I’d like to tell you that after the drugs wore off and we brought her home that things were great, but they weren’t at first.  I was in a fog: afraid, sad, detached.  I am a lifelong anxiety sufferer and had a depressive episode in my early twenties, so postpartum depression was not out of the question. But I couldn’t articulate how I felt. I’m an over-sharer, but I couldn’t share this somehow. I mean, how do you tell people that you’re worried that you might have made a mistake?  That maybe you weren’t meant to be a mom because clearly you suck so bad at it and don’t really like it?  Even my well meaning family, friends and truly excellent therapist wrote off what they saw as the standard struggles of new motherhood.  But it was more than that.  I literally couldn’t believe it was going to be this hard.  And when would it get better?

It wasn’t until almost a year later that I realized I had suffered Postpartum depression.  And it wasn’t until long after that when I finally started opening up to people about the challenges I was (and sometimes still am) experiencing as a mother. I didn’t take to parenting easily and occasionally still don’t, even though I absolutely adore my kids (I have a son now, Luca, who is almost two.) My goodness what a difference it was to go through this stuff a second time, but we’ll get to that another day, don’t you worry!

A while back I started tagging Facebook posts where I shared my honest thoughts with the hashtag #truthinparenting .  The relief in posting my truth instead of trying to pretend I knew what I was doing as a mom was palpable. There was another upside – I started getting comments on my posts from people sharing their experiences, and then I started getting private messages, texts, phone calls and even in person chats with people who had read the posts.  It turns out a lot of people think it’s hard.  I get that not everyone’s experiences are the same, and that some people live for motherhood in a way I never will (and that’s awesome for them!).  But I am taking inspiration from what I’ve done on Facebook and bringing it to the longer form of a blog in the hopes that it will make some mom (new, expecting, or even an experienced one) feel better.  Because, Mom tip 3: we’re all in this together.

Life after birth

To be able to embrace motherhood, you need to mourn the loss of the person you were before you had kids. This is what I say to every pregnant woman and new mom I talk to, because it is the single most important piece of advice I’ve ever come across about parenting.  I stumbled upon this wisdom through a blog post by Renegade Mama when my daughter Julia was a little over a year old and it changed my world.

No matter how much you talk to friends and family, read books or consume media on the subject of parenting, there is literally no way to truly know what it is actually like day in and day out.  There certainly must be those who are better prepared.  I’d imagine the oldest sibling in a large enough family to have been deeply involved in the taking care of a newborn might have some idea.  Or perhaps labor and delivery nurses who see weepy new moms on the daily.

I  wonder, and hear me out on this for a second, if women who have been to prison might actually be the best equipped of all.  I’m not trying to literally compare being a new mom with the terrible experience of being incarcerated.  But I remember thinking to myself a lot in the early days of motherhood that I was in “baby jail”. From the moment you become a parent, your life is no longer your own, which is what I imagine life is like in prison.

Women are having children later in life than ever before which in theory brings a greater maturity to the table but also a much longer time to have lived a life that they defined. Taking care of a newborn strips you of that freedom.  Sleeping is not under your control.  Nor is the crying (the baby’s or yours – the hormones are intense). Even going to the bathroom requires making decisions – do you carry the baby while you go?  If they are crying, is it OK to leave them in the swing or crib to go pee?  Brand new babies sleep a lot (for small increments of time), so there are points where you can make little decisions – watch a TV show, read a magazine, maybe make something to eat.  But you’re so damn tired, all those small acts can feel like moving mountains.

For me, this was kind of shocking – not the tiredness, which I was somehow able to manage, but the lack of autonomy.  Sure, I had anticipated that my life would change.  But I didn’t truly get it, and I didn’t truly get “into it” enough to make it feel worth it for a long time.  I had postpartum depression after I had my daughter Julia (my firstborn)  which left me feeling a little detached from the good parts of having a baby, the ones that make the challenges more manageable.  From speaking to friends who didn’t have PPD and from the wonderful experiences I had with Luca, my second child, I get that this makes the experience more palatable.  You’re exhausted and frightened, but your heart is also swelling to explosion with love for the this tiny, cuddly being you made.  But that delicious little tyrant has turned your world upside down.

As you move through the first year and began to establish routines there is some relief in regaining at least a small sense of order.  But it’s all still revolving around your child.  The you before you had kids is gone or at least it feels that way. I fought this and fought it hard.  I think that’s what made my PPD linger and made me feel trapped in what I called “baby jail”.  I would sit in the playroom trying to think of something halfway interesting to play with Julia. After like 3 straight hours of shaking toys at her or reading her books she didn’t understand or doing tummy time that made her cranky, I’d be wishing I could just read a magazine for ten minutes.  What made me feel worse what that I wasn’t even a stay at home mom.  I still had my adult identity five days a work at week, so my life was split between the old me and the new me.

Then one day I came across the Renegade Mama article and instead of making me feel more depressed it felt like an epiphany. It just made sense:  If I kept feeling sorry for myself that I could no longer go to the movies every weekend or have a relaxing meal, I’d just be miserable.  First thing I had to do was work on accepting what my life was like now. If I adapted to it, it would no longer feel like such a burden and I’d hopefully be able to enjoy the good times a bit more. I’ve done that work every day for the last few years.  Julia is five now, and Luca is almost two. It’s not unusual for me to get up from the table anywhere from 3-10 times during a meal these days – whether it’s to pick up a thrown fork of Luca’s, refill Julia’s water glass or grab paper towels to sop up a spill.  The difference is I barely even notice.  What once created such resentment now feels just like routine.

The second and equally crucial piece was to remind myself that the reason my life is different is because I am someone’s mom, which is a privilege and not a punishment. I dreamed my whole life about being a mom, and I have been lucky enough to become one.  So what if I don’t love it every day?  I still love my kids every day, and that’s enough.