I was breast-feeding my 5-month-old daughter in a car on a rainy night in Rome when I was first seized with the fear that I might be a bad mother. Meeting my mom in Italy seemed easy enough when I'd planned it. I only had to survive the red-eye to Rome: me, my baby, a friend who actually thought it would be fun to come along, a portable crib, a giant suitcase, a Snugli, an umbrella stroller and a backpack full of diapers, burp cloths, baby clothes, a guidebook, a travel dictionary and a huge box of rice cereal. How hard could it be? Sitting in that car in the rain, though, things suddenly seemed much harder than I'd anticipated. Just what was I thinking when I decided to make this trip?
In truth, I was thinking that I needed to save myself--from complacency. Even though my sweet baby, Harper, was life's best thing, I still had lots of interests. My worry was that I wouldn't find the time or energy to pursue them ever again--ever. I wanted to push myself. Otherwise, I felt sure that the old, adventurous me would be quickly killed off by some dull woman who was lurking in my psyche. I couldn't let that happen. So I left, figuring that a family trek around a cushy, Western European country would be just challenging enough for a new mom-and-baby team. It sure was.
The first challenge was basic enough: how to get from Point A to Point B with the baby and all her baby gear. It may seem obvious that traveling involves motion, but nothing prepared me for the strain of traversing airports and historic sites with a baby strapped to my chest and a pack over my shoulders. Fun? Yes. But I got a worn out between hauling stuff, caring for Harper, nursing and touring. So worn out, in fact, that I let some of my usually meticulous travel planning slide along the way.
Such laxity led to what I fondly recall as the Night of the Unreturnable Rental Car. Had I been of sounder, more well-rested mind, I might have figured that driving to Rome at night, after all the rental car offices had closed, would lead to no good. But my Italian cousins insisted I could easily find an all-night garage, and who was I to argue? The Italians, after all, had shown themselves to be authorities on all manner of topics, and none more so than on my baby. A day didn't pass that someone failed to comment on how cold Harper was, why wasn't her hat covering her ears, where was her blanket and why did I talk so much when I could be eating and producing more milk? If there was a pasture nearby, I would have been sent out to graze. Their confidence was supreme, so why shouldn't I have faith in my ability to park a car?
In fact, it would have been simple enough, except that there are no all-night garages in Rome, at least none with signs. We did, however, discover an undeniable truth that, no matter where you are in Rome, if you ask directions to the Piazza Navona, someone will tell you to go straight and make a left. This will almost certainly lead to hours of driving, if not to the piazza.
Hours into our search, racked with guilt, I started wondering if I was too selfish to be a good mother. Harper seemed happy, but I couldn't deny the fact that most infants were tucked into cozy cribs somewhere, not stranded in strange cars in strange cities with no resolution in sight. Fortunately, I realized I didn't have time for self-indulgence. Fate intervened, and we found a free spot. The only catch was that I had to get up early enough the next day to nurse Harper, hop in a taxi and get to the car by 8, when the spot expired, so I could then drive through rush-hour traffic through unfamiliar neighborhoods to get to the car rental office. It seemed doable.
After our car trauma, I tried to make more careful plans, but a few things still managed to slip by me. We found out, for instance, that there's an easy express bus from Rome to Sorrento. Unfortunately, this knowledge came after we'd already taken the slow second-class train to Naples. There we were, just me, Harper, my friend Joannie (still with us), four other people and all of our stuff, all snug in our little compartment. The ride was fine, but boarding required some fast action. We concocted a delicately calibrated plan: One of us would stay with the baby, yelling and cheering, while the other ran back and forth, hurling luggage from the platform. Once we were aboard, fellow travelers stuffed our bags into the overhead, where there was only a faint chance they would fall and crush us to death.
Our only challenge during the ride came when Harper needed changing. In those cases, I can't emphasize enough the importance of having a friend who will act as a changing table in the bathroom of a moving, overcrowded train. We made quite a fun time out of it, but my nagging thoughts rose up again: Was my fun-loving nature turning me into a reckless mother?
I wanted to put those feelings to rest, so I decided to take my cue from Harper, the one person who really knew how she was doing. I took a good look at her in that dingy train bathroom, and I knew she was great: loved and well-fed and happy. From the streets of Rome to the Abruzzi provinces, where her grandmother's family came from, to the Amalfi Coast, Harper loved it all.
So what if I fed her cereal off a toy key when I lost the tiny spoons I'd swiped from the gelato shop? Was she any worse for having slept snuggled between me and my mother, when we stayed, unexpectedly, in a rural hotel that hadn't yet turned on the heat? I wasn't a bad mother because I took my baby abroad when others might have demurred. I was a good one for making the best out of unexpected difficulties. But beyond that, I realized I was the only mother I could be. I knew who I was, and I wanted Harper to experience life's joys with me. The old me would live on, but with a new dimension. And it felt great.
Melissa B. Robinson is a Washington writer.
Maureen Wheeler, Helen Gillman and Susan Forsyth, mothers and authors of several Lonely Planet international travel books, including "Travel With Children," offer the following general tips for baby-travel sanity, especially in cultures that don't have a word for "toilet paper," much less diapers.
And remember, you may not find toilet paper, tissues or hand wipes of any kind in most developing countries. (Non-western, disposable-friendly places: Hong Kong, major cities in Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, South and Central America, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya.) When possible, let your kids run naked like the locals. But always insist on shoes: The ground in certain countries is often covered with animal and human feces that carry parasites and other worms that can tunnel through the skin.
A. Travel light. Many international family travelers recommend one bag for the entire family, one bag for disposable diapers (you can fill it with purchases as the diaper supply dwindles) and one light backpack per child for small toys and books. Add one baby-carrying device (stroller vs. Snugli? See below).
B. Set up camp and stay put. An alternate to super-light trekking. Pick one or two cities, find comfortable hotels with kitchenettes and stay there the entire time, taking day trips to other cities and sites via rental car. Bring a portable crib or playpen, car seat, toys, anything the airline will tolerate, and make sure you can find a way to lug it from baggage claim to hotel. Many international family travelers swear by this technique. You might see fewer "sights," but you get to know the local lifestyle. Plus, you always know where the infant ibuprofen is located at 2 a.m.
For both kinds of travel, foldable, high-tech stoves, available at camp supply stores and catalogues, heat water in about two minutes.
-- Pamela Gerhardt
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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