I am writing from Kerala, my family’s home state in the southernmost tip of India.
My partner and I have been in India with our 7-month-old baby for a few weeks to care for my father after a health emergency. Even before the India journey we were on the road for over two months. Our paths took us to New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Asheville, Emerald Isle, Birmingham, Charlotte and Winston-Salem, and every day we learned something new about how to be present with our little one.
Since the first trip was to Brooklyn, we joke with each other that Azadi grumbles to herself whenever we arrive in a new place, “What? Another Brooklyn?” I am someone who treasures rootedness. When our life took wings a couple months after our baby was born, I didn’t feel confident about travel, so I’d like to share a few observations about what has worked for us in case you find them useful.
Laugh with every opportunity. Long car rides are the hardest because she loathes being bored in her car seat and longs to be held. On the drive to Brooklyn, Azadi required enraptured eye contact and serenades most of the way. At the point when my energy was nearly fully worn down, she pooped.
Never miss a local story.
Of course there was no stop anywhere for miles, the sun was pelting heat, and she was sobbing. We pulled over on a service road and I changed her diaper in my lap, still singing, and held her until she felt better.
We carried the wrapped diaper with us for ages until we could find a trash can, and laughed the whole way. I love laughter’s power to transform an experience from overwhelming to wonderfully absurd. We discover a rhythm of eating and resting with the little one, and then we let it go when it unravels. Our own laughter reminds us to be flexible.
Befriend even the advisers. At first I felt defensive about the constant offerings of unrequested advice from well-intentioned random people. Then I realized that the baby didn’t care.
She liked watching new people talk with me in public places. I tried listening more deeply as strangers spoke, smiling and asking questions, treating them as the educators they wished to be. Even when I totally disagreed with their ideas, I tried to embrace the kindness behind their words. I have noticed our baby’s openness to engaging with new people is blooming rapidly and I wonder if this practice has played a role.
Make baby the effortless center. A small colorful quilt stitched by a dear friend has been the most helpful traveling tool. We unroll it on the floor wherever we land and Azadi plays freely in any setting – community meeting, political demonstration, workshop, airport. It becomes a magnet for other baby playmates.
It sounds oversimple but to the greatest extent possible, I just respond to Azadi’s needs as she states them. If she is tired, we hold her and help her rest. Steady availability of a good hug helps her stay grounded even while the setting changes daily.
If she is hungry, I breastfeed her pretty much anywhere. I have received some flack for it, especially from older folks, but I’m afraid we don’t have the time to be embarrassed by meeting our child’s needs. Keeping her in the midst gives opportunities to hear different languages and dialects and taste a variety of flavors.
Carry only the shirt on your back. At the start we carried mountains and now we bring only the basics on the road – it frees up our arms to be available for the baby and keeps us energized.
Before Azadi was born we asked our midwife, Nancy Harman, what things we would need to obtain in preparation. She thought for a moment and said, “A shirt will help. The baby likes to be warm, so if you tuck the baby against your chest inside your shirt and feed her your milk, she’ll have what she needs.”
What a lovely truth that’s turned out to be.
We are learning as we go. Any safe and relatively clean object can become a toy. Any stranger can become a friend. And some days, the road can feel like home.