For the last few years I’ve scratched a meager living as a travel writer. If that conjures images of five-star luxury and all expenses paid cruises around the Baltic, then I apologize. The reality was more like a cut-price buffet at a roach-infested diner, squatting in the ass-end of nowhere. While there have been perks – lots of travel, a few unexpected adventures, some truly global friendships – there were plenty of bad times too. It turns out that travel writers dress like bums for a reason. Those guys you see scrawling on scraps of card at the side of the road aren’t begging for small change – they’re on assignment for National Geographic.
Then, in February 2012, our son was born. And with his arrival the travel stopped. Gone were the long trips to places unknown, the hopeful meanderings through unfamiliar streets. Overnight I had swapped them for a lounge-ridden existence, for days spent changing and re-changing and re-re-changing diapers, washing infinite bundles of rancid laundry, scouring the internet for that priceless gem of advice on teething gels. If I’d had a spare couple of days to catch a flight anywhere, I’d have spent both of them asleep on a bench at the airport. As it was, I had no time for anything. Many days I didn’t get around to showering, or brushing my teeth. Occasionally I barely even made it into bed.
As the two-month hangover of Jacob’s arrival slowly recedes into the past, however, I’ve had to develop strategies for coping with my new lifestyle. Prior to this year I’d never changed a diaper, or been drenched in a putrid milkshake of mashed banana and regurgitated formula. I’m suddenly Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, my body contorting into something grotesquely new. I’m finally becoming a responsible adult.
Fortunately for me, my years spent wandering life’s highways (and more than a few of its airport lounges) weren’t entirely wasted. To my surprise it turned out that the lessons I’d learned on the road could also be applied to my new career as a stay-at-home dad. So as I embark on my journey into parenthood – a trip from which I might never return – I’d like to offer you my five cardinal rules for surviving a town called Babyville. Maybe I’ll run into you one day, drowning your sorrows at the local bar.
1. Do your research.
When traveling, it always paid to research my trips in advance. Sure, we all love the idea of a Kerouacian adventure, freewheeling’ our way from watering hole to watering hole, meandering wherever the road wants to take us. In reality that’s usually a one-way ticket to homelessness and misery. Modern society just isn’t that generous to the beatnik. It prefers to hold him at gunpoint and sell his shoes for crystal meth.
It quickly became clear that my skills with a notepad and a pile of reference books would be put to good use in my new life. Sure, trying to plan how a baby will behave is like explaining ironic distance to a WWF wrestler. But I found that the more I researched, and the better I planned, the less my diminutive new house guest had the power to surprise me. Problems getting him to sleep at night? I knew how to deal with that. First tooth pushing through? We already had some teething gel on standby. Knowing what to expect may not have made the sleepless nights any easier, but at least we knew they would end. And it left us plenty of time to stock up on coffee.
2. Be wary of advice given in bars.
When it comes to kids, everyone has their own nugget of advice to offer – and some are more useful than others. Just as you’d be wary of following that one-eyed Armenian who claims his brother can sell you some ‘really good shit’ down a nearby alley, so you should remain skeptical about the many wannabe baby whisperers. Trust your family first, and perhaps your more sober friends. But that moldy-smelling old guy propping up one end of your local bar, who swears that a drop of whiskey in their milk is the solution to all your ills? Just nod confidently then run the other way. When you’re exhausted, and drained, and running on your last milligram of caffeine, any advice may seem like a gift from the gods. It isn’t. If nothing else, parenthood makes your nose finely attuned to the stink of bullshit.
3. Buy a bag you can rely on.
Every frequent traveler has a bag they depend upon. One that has been round the world with them several times over, yet still somehow survives the rabid affections of the baggage handlers with barely a scratch. The same holds true for diaper bags. The merest mention of them used to seem like obsessive parenting at its worst, but once you’re in the back alleys of Babyville you’ll come to realize just how important they are. When the tiny love of your life is screaming his or her lungs out, and everyone around you is staring at you as if you’ve just bared your own genitals in public, and the shit is actually about to hit the actual fan – then it pays to know where you can lay your hand on a wipe, or a diaper, or a tube of Butt Paste. Some bags will try to dupe you with their trendy designs, camouflaging themselves as desirable fashion items. Don’t be fooled. I’ll settle for functionality and keeping shit off my fingers every time.
4. Make the most of the good times.
So your plane’s delayed, the hotel has kicked you out, and you’re stuck hauling a suitcase around a strange town at 9pm with no idea of where to go. You stumble into a ramshackle bar, keeping your eyes to the floor while you order a beer… And then someone talks to you. Before you know it you’re laughing and drinking like a local, making new friendships that will only last as long as the bartender keeps filling your glasses – but right now that feels like forever. You know you should be worrying about that flight, or camping out at the airline desk in preparation for the morning, but against all odds you’re suddenly having fun. For once life has dealt you a full house, and you’re going to ride your luck as long as you can.
When you’re a parent, most of your days will feel like a traveler’s worst nightmare. Nothing goes according to plan, you’re still sitting in your pajamas in the middle of the afternoon, milk-slimed bottles are piling up in the sink. All you wanted from your day was a chance to watch the latest episode of Mad Men, but it soon becomes clear that even that will have to wait until tomorrow. As your eyelids start to droop you hear your little babykins stir in the nursery, and you begin to fortify your soul for the next round of screaming, pooping and eye-gouging.
Face facts: not every day will be a bundle of joy. But there are plenty of good times too, and the secret is to dwell on them as long as you can. Don’t fret over the snowballing bundle of laundry in your bedroom, or the fetid diaper pail that needs emptying. When your baby is smiling, take the time to smile too. Push everything else from your mind for a few minutes and remind yourself of why you did this, as he burbles and gurgles and melts your heart every time he looks into your eyes. Yes, it’s as schmaltzy as a Hallmark card. But on the worst of days it can nourish your soul like an overflowing glass of bourbon.
5. Don’t panic.
Okay, I stole this one from Douglas Adams. But it deserves to be the motto of every traveler – and every parent – on the planet. That moment when life feels as if it’s about to crash over your head and drown you in a tsunami of failure, self-doubt and baby sick – that’s the point where you should step back and relax. As long as your little one is happy, healthy and belching like a twenty-pound toad, everything else will work itself out. No one will judge you for letting things slide for a while as you acclimate to life in Babyville. It’s practically a requirement of citizenship. Relax your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Check your diaper bag one last time.
Then get ready to hit the road again.