Sunday, November 27, 2016

First Thanksgiving Road Trip

My transition to fatherhood has mostly been a gradual evolution. But sometimes change strikes like lightning. Traveling to New Jersey for Thanksgiving, our car overflowing with Michael's stuff, was one of those moments.

In previous years, I used to pack light. A few shirts, toiletries, and a book. I was lucky if I remembered underwear and socks. Now the packing regimen starts days in advance.

“Things to bring to NJ” is a Microsoft Word document on Jenna's laptop. Authored well in advance of our departure date, it contains over 20 different items including “Portable tub with spray attachment”, “Bottle washer”, and “Yoga Ball”. Cut to me in the hotel room, surrounded by bags, boxes, and toys, frantically pumping up said yoga ball so I can bounce Michael to sleep before his body begins convulsing in tears. It’s a race against time and all I've got is this tiny hand pump.

I recently read a journal entry I wrote a few months before Michael was born. I was nervous, unsure what to expect, and trying desperately to process all the conflicting information I had gathered about parenthood. Could I care for a baby? Would we bond? Would I enjoy being a parent?

After returning from my first Thanksgiving road trip, I can confidently say the answer to all of the above is "yes". Becoming a Dad has been the best experience of my life.

Our trip started at 5AM on Tuesday morning. This was not due to an early flight. It was the minimum runway needed to finish packing and prepare our tiny person to leave the house. In addition to the packing list, Jenna had a specific way to load the car. Each piece of luggage, each toy, fit exactly into place as if solving some oversized puzzle. “No”, she gently coached me, “the Pack N’ Play goes in first, then the Floor Piano”. Holding the precarious mountain of stuff in one hand, I reached up with the other to close the trunk, slamming my head on the inside of the door. “Oh, watch out!” Jenna chuckled. It was a fitting cap to a frantic morning. But finally, mercifully, we were off.

Earlier in the week, I shared my travel plans with co-workers. Battle-worn parents themselves, they gave their condolences upon discovering our trip included a 7 hour car ride with the baby. One recounted horror stories of car sickness, plastic buckets, and rush hour traffic in New York City. I held my breath. Luckily, Michael has always slept peacefully in the car.

During the ride down he was mostly quiet and stuck to his napping schedule. Jenna and I split duties. I played the role of bus driver while Jenna covered school nurse, lunch lady, and custodian. Focused on the road, white-knuckling it over the George Washington Bridge, I was mostly oblivious to the baby care happening in the back seat. At one point Jenna politely asked if I could speed up slightly. I glanced in the rear view mirror to see her on all fours, bent over Michael’s carseat for a mobile feeding, with her backside pressed firmly against the rear passenger window in perfect view of a passing trucker. I stepped on it.

We arrived at the Courtyard Marriott in record time. After wrestling with the awkward luggage cart, and flashing back to my days as documentary film production assistant, we were finally in our hotel room. I took a moment to gaze in awe at the mountain of things we had lugged for Michael. I tried to comprehend how such a small person required so much. The ratio of body weight to luggage was off the charts. Michael smirked from his tiny carseat.

After getting settled, it was time to make the rounds. Jenna had a list of family and friends who had penciled in a visit. Our first stop was to visit Jenna’s mom, Eileen, at work. The experience was one of those unexpected joys that really makes me savor fatherhood. No sooner had we arrived, than Michael was swept from his car seat and proudly paraded around the office. I could hear Eileen showing him off to all of her co-workers. She was a proud Grandma with her handsome Grandson. I was just fine with my relegation to the role of royal butler. It has been incredibly rewarding to experience the joy that Michael brings to her life.

After a long lunch with Jenna’s dad, during which she playfully scolded him for making faces while the baby tried to sleep, we arrived back at the hotel. We had been anticipating this moment for weeks. This would make or break the trip. It was go time.

It was the bedtime routine.

We quickly realized that the travel tub was more like a travel placemat. It was a small piece of white foam that folded in the middle. Like all baby gear, it was covered in dire warnings of death and destruction should we fail to heed the recommended usage instructions. It was much too bulky for the hotel sink. Instead, we filled the adult-sized tub, submerged the foam mat, and used it to hold Michael in the water like a baseball player cradling a pop fly. As the water gushed into the tub, we entertained Michael with his favorite songs, pumping his tiny legs and arms to the beat.

Unlike our home routine, where bath time is purely my domain, this was a two person job. Jenna stood in the calf-deep water, holding the baby in his tub-mat, while I went to work with the washcloth and soap. Eileen stood over our shoulders, no doubt amused be these frantic, first-time parents. I lathered up the washcloth, applied it to Michael, and made my first mistake. I started sudsing downstairs, and then began working my way up. “You’re not going to use that on his face now, are you?” asked Jenna. I hesitated. Michael waited patiently. We swapped in a new washcloth to finish off his face and neck.

Unfortunately, the night was not as smooth as we had hoped. At home, Michael sleeps in a crib in his own room. At the hotel, aware that Mom was just feet away, he demanded to be fed every 2 hours. In the morning Jenna was frustrated and baggy-eyed. While I’m hoping it was just the change of environment, Jenna believes we may be experiencing the dreaded sleep regression. However, that morning brought an exciting preview of our lives to come.

The difference between Michael, at 3 months old, and Sarah Belle, at 1 year old, is astounding. We soaked this in during brunch with Jenna’s friend Tristen, her husband Ryan, and their toddling, red-headed daughter. While Michael sat passively, drool dripping slowly from his mouth like a leaky faucet, Sarah Belle was a tornado of activity. She held court in her highchair, grabbing for her bottle, devouring her fruit cup, and reaching for anything nearby. It took all 4 of her parent’s arms and hands to keep her from slithering away and into our neighbor’s booth. She flopped, she stomped, she giggled and laughed. She counted to three and screamed “Boo!” at Ryan, who dutifully acted surprised each and every time.

Personally, I can't wait for the next chapter. Meanwhile, Jenna got misty-eyed when Michael outgrew his size 1 diapers. If it were up to her, he’d live at home until his mid-fifties. But I’m looking forward to the next step in our relationship as he begins to crawl, toddle, and walk. I can’t wait until he can give me a hug. This anticipation, this looking forward to the next phase, is one of the best things about being a Dad. This year I’m wiping his drool but next year I’ll be chasing him around the house. Will he be interested in firetrucks, dinosaurs, and bugs? Will he gravitate towards soul, pop, or rock? Will he cry on his first day of school? Our journey has only just begun.

After breakfast, and a short nap, it was time for the main event. Dressed to the nines in his turkey-footed pants, Michael departed the hotel for Thanksgiving dinner with Jenna’s Aunt and Uncle. Also present was her cousin Michael and his wife Allison. They have a 1 year old daughter, Kylie, and a second daughter due in May. Normally, we’d stay well after dinner, sipping red wine and devouring pumpkin pie. But it was Michael’s witching hour, when he grows grumpy and tired, and at half past six Jenna had enough. We said our goodbyes and toted our tired son back to the hotel where we gave him a quick washcloth sponge-down on the bed and then rocked him to sleep.

We left early on Saturday morning. Once again, I wrestled with the luggage cart, and the trunk puzzle. Finally, locked and loaded with coffee and baby, we were on our way. The drive home was mostly uneventful until we decided to stop for a quick bite in the parking lot of Panera Bread.

While eating sandwiches, I heard a loud splat. Jenna gasped. I thought Michael had just spit up. In fact, his diaper had exploded like a Cold War nuclear test. It looked like someone had spilled a hotdog on Jenna's shirt. Worried about any further leakage, she decided to change his diaper in the car. I sat silently, as if in a horror movie, while Jenna slowly removed the diaper. Except, instead of a crazed killer in the closet, it’s 8 ounces of Banana Sundae. I’m not sure which is worse.

Jenna handed me what was left of Michael’s diaper. I gingerly pinched it between my fingers and eyed the lone trashcan across the parking lot. Looking around, and seeing no one, I shamefully skulked across the pavement and hurriedly disposed of my grotesque gift. The deed done, I raced back to the car and rolled down the windows.

Now home, our time has mostly been spent doing laundry. Just when I think I have folded every last onesie, I find another hidden in the back of the drier. Stepping back, and taking in the mountain of tiny clothes, change hit me like another bolt of lightning.

I smiled. I love being a Dad.