It's amazing the places you realize and learn some of life's most important lessons. And this weekend, mine just happened to be in a McDonald's parking lot, sandwiched between two semi trucks, a nursing Mila propped in one hand and a McChicken in the other, listening to Ray Charles and placing bets on how long we would be stuck in the car.
One of the feelings I had forgotten about having a baby at home is the constant battle with pace. There are many times I relish in the slowness of it all - the desire to be tucked away at home and the peaceful hours spent rocking and holding that little bundle while the rest of the world seems to go on without you. In many ways, there is nothing more peaceful then those first weeks with a baby. But there are other times when it seems I'm constantly fighting the clock and one inevitable meltdown. I often relate to a quote Glennon Melton wrote in her book, Carry on Warrior: "I'm home on maternity leave and spend my days alternating between the ectasy and despair that accompany caring for an infant." It seems there are no mediocre days and that I am on a seesaw that only operates in highs and lows.
Babies are unpredictable and for someone who usually thrives on a well-developed plan, it's sometimes hard to work under the pressure of the ten minute increments you're often allowed with babies. Mila hasn't exactly settled into a consistent nap routine, and it seems the minute I do decide to lay her down in her swing, I'm racing the clock at warp speed to see how much I can accomplish. I throw some leftovers in the microwave and take rushed bites in between unloading the dishwasher, cleaning up the remains of breakfast, planning for lunch, and running downstairs to switch out a load of laundry. I hold back from starting projects for fear I won't complete them before someone needs me and I feel my anxiety levels increase and stress creep in in fear that the baby will wake up before I have enough done to avoid a meltdown. There are some days it works and I float in a state of new mom euphoria and other days, well, I wallow in my soaked breast pads and self-pity tears.
I saw myself fall into this same trap as Beau and I prepared for a quick trip to Des Moines on Saturday morning. Beau was in need of some new jeans and I was in need of a Trader Joe's run and we both decided it sounded fun to get away for the day with our family. It would be our first long car ride and our first day away with both Cruz and Mila. My same plan-for-the-worst-hope-for-the-best instincts immediately took over as I visualized our day ahead. I immediately crafted a plan - when to feed Mila to ensure she could make the two-hour car ride content, what to pack for Cruz to keep him busy and happy, what time to get up and what time to leave, etc. to the point where the same feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety began to overshadow the fun and anticipation of the day ahead.
I often wonder why I'm like this, what it is I am so afraid of if plans do go awry. I think it's a mixture of expectations and control. We live in a world so riddled with expectations of what successful parenting looks like. This, coupled with a social media infested world that constantly exposes us to these expectations leaves us feeling the pressure to do it all, be it all, and make it look easy. And so I plan. Meal plans and grocery lists of well-balanced dinners. Pinterest boards of age-appropriate crafts for Cruz. Summer bucket lists to keep us busy and inspired. This kind of planning motivates and inspires me, but sometimes, leaves little margin for error when things don't go accordingly. (Insert meltdown).
In many ways, my careful planning led to a fairly smooth day. Cruz played with some games on the iPad and snuck in a good morning nap in the car. Mila slept the entire two hours and stayed asleep through a nice lunch when we arrived in Des Moines. We let Cruz stretch his legs at the indoor playground in the mall and I put my baby wrap to good use as we browsed stores and tried on clothes. I walked around in that state of ectasy and felt proud of how easy we made it look.
By the time we were getting ready to leave, I could see that things may not go as smoothly on the ride home. Cruz was overtired and wound up, and because Mila had been sleeping most of the day, I had a feeling she may not be as tired for the car ride home. I tried to suppress my feelings of anxiety and fear with excitement in the unknown, but by the time we left Trader Joes, both kids were crying, our gas light was on empty, and I could Cruz (or a busy mall) were testing the waters of my husband's patience level.
We had hardly made it to Story City before we decided to pull into a McDonalds and attempt to feed Mila. She had started crying by Ankeny and we knew our stops were limited as soon as we turned on to 20. We ordered some chicken nuggets, pulled into the semi truck lot, and had a little car picnic. Although Mila sure acted hungry strapped into her car seat, her smiles told us otherwise as she seemed pretty pleased with herself sitting shotgun in the car. We laughed at her spiteful grin, contemplated being really spontaneous and getting a hotel room for the night, and placed bets over how long it would take us to get home.
After about five minutes of getting Mila back in her seat and making a run for it, I managed to do the impossible. Between shopping bags and leftover sweet and sour sauce, I slid my behind in the very small space between Cruz and Mila's car seats and entertained our girl with church songs for the next HOUR AND A HALF! Her teary eyes turned to twinkles the minute she saw her mom squeeze in the backseat and Cruz loved the singalong. Soon, we had a lively rendition of "We Will Rock You" taking place in our car, Cruz clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, Beau jamming on the steering wheel, and me using a rain stick as a very convincing shaker against the side of Mila's seat. We laughed hysterically, our children were having the time of their lives, and I was impressed that my backside actually could fit in that space between the seats. Most of all, it was a memory I won't ever forget, a perfect snapshot of exactly why this time in our life is so very important. This will be a story Beau and I will someday laugh about, when we're driving in a quiet, empty car, missing those car seats with the three-week old french fries and fruit loops stuck to the side. These are the moments we'll never get back.
In many ways, a good plan and routine is important and necessary in order for families to thrive, but it can be dangerous if taken too seriously. And when nature, or fate, or in our case, children, take over and you soon find your plans completely upside down, find the silver lining. Make the best of it. And in those moments, well, that's when life is most exciting. That's when life surprises you.