The Cries that Still Echo

When my daughter Hannah was a baby, she cried in the car. Actually, cried doesn’t even begin to cover it. It would be more accurate to say that she screamed inconsolably as long as she was strapped into her car seat. Just screamed, and screamed, and screamed.

The first time that it happened was on a cloudy-ish June day, when she was four months old. She and I were at my La Leche League group’s Walk for Breastfeeding. It was a fundraising event, which involved a walk around a local park, and then a short drive to a local housing co-op for a pot luck lunch. I was excited to be out of the house with my baby, doing something with my friends. The drive to the park was uneventful, and when we got out of the car I strapped Hannah into my trusty sling. We paused for a group photo, and set off for the walk at a leisurely pace, accompanied as we were by toddlers. The walk was just one kilometer, not long at all, and I was having a good time talking to the other parents and meandering my way along the path beside the lake. But then, about halfway through the walk, Hannah started getting fussy.

When you’re with a La Leche League group and your baby gets fussy, lots of people jump in, trying to help. One of the group leaders tried to show me how to nurse Hannah while she was still in the sling, but Hannah was having none of it. I tried moving her around in the sling, but she only cried harder. I stuck my thumb in her mouth for her to suck on. She took a few half-hearted sucks, then spit it out and resumed her wailing. Other people tried to distract her, offered toys, and made suggestions. Nothing worked. I decided she was just tired, and hoped she would fall asleep on the 15 minute drive to the lunch, since that usually worked.

Amber and Hannah, 4 months old, Vancouver, Planetarium

Me holding 4-month-old Hannah on a family outing, hoping she won’t cry on the drive home

Things went sideways in the car, though. Hannah’s cries escalated until they were full-fledged screams as I drove. I tried playing music, I tried singing, I tried talking to her. Nothing worked. As the crying got louder and more insistent, my driving deteriorated. I just wanted to get out of the car, nothing else mattered. I found myself going faster, pushing through yellow lights and moving around slower cars. Anything I could do to get to my destination sooner.

That was the first time that Hannah really screamed in the car, but it was far from the last. For over a year, my car trips were dictated by whether or not Hannah would cry. She cried less earlier in the day, and less on short trips. So, a 10 minute drive to the library for baby time at 9:30am was safe. A 45 minute drive downtown was not. Any car trip after 4:00pm or so was not. When I returned to work and read the suggestion that I find daycare near my office so I could visit over lunch I immediately ruled that out. If I had to pick her up at 5:00pm each night, I wanted a three minute drive, not a 30 minute one.

My husband and I tried lots of things to make the crying stop. She cried in his car as well as mine. She cried as I sat beside her while her father drove. She cried while I tried to contort myself to nurse her while her father drove. She cried when we played music, or when it was quiet. She cried when we dangled colourful toys in front of her, when we hung sunshades on the car’s windows, and when we held her little hand. When we stopped the car to let her calm down she stopped crying as long as she was out of the carseat, but she started again as we were strapping her back in. Avoiding long trips at times when we knew she was likely to cry became the only answer, lest we become so worn down by her screams that our driving began to suffer.

The sound of that crying, and the fear it created in me, has stayed with me through more than seven years since that first tear-laden car trip. To this day, I find that I avoid long car trips with my children. While my sister’s firstborn is only two years old and is better-traveled than I am, our family has stuck close to home. It’s been years since Hannah stopped crying in the car, but the sound echoes in my ears anytime I consider taking a long trip with my children. It still feels much easier – and much safer – to choose shorter trips that don’t require us to be strapped in for too long at a stretch.

I don’t think you can ever look at your children without seeing echoes of the past flickering across their faces. That time your son lost his footing on a play structure, and you watched helplessly as his little body fell limply to the ground. The way that your daughter used to insist on dressing herself in garishly mismatched patterns. The countless diapers you changed, sticky fingers you washed, and little hurts you soothed away. All of these memories are carried with you, years and years later, colouring your relationship.

I will always carry the memory of that June day when my baby transformed from a complacently sleepy traveller into an entity with her own mind who was extremely unhappy. It was yet another reminder in those early months of parenting that I was no longer in control. I had almost three decades on her, but I was very much at her mercy, and there was nothing for it but to surrender to the reality of parenting. And so, I surrendered.

Even today, I continue to surrender. It’s different, now that my children are seven and four years old. They no longer scream wordlessly, leaving me to guess at their desires. But I will still do almost anything to keep things on an even keel. I bring snacks so no one’s overly hungry. I don’t try to pack too much into a single day, or a single outing. Anything so that I don’t find myself back in a car with a screaming child, their cries ringing in my ears and filling me with panic. My children may be smaller and younger than me, but they are nonetheless mighty. Driving my crying baby around taught me that, and it’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

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  1. It was one afternoon while driving a 2 month old, screaming Emma to visit my aunty in the nursing home that I had flashes of driving head on into the cement truck coming at me. Just to end the screaming. It was then that I realised I probably needed some help. Emma was a screamer. It didn’t last long. It started again when we moved out to the country. Everywhere we drove once we moved was at least a 25 minute drive thru the country. My children did not like that at all. But that passed too. Now, they are easy travelers. All day in the car is no problem. And we don’t have videos or games in the car. Just an etchisketch for each of the girls and their books.
    Heather’s last post … Working MomMy Profile

  2. Wow. I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been. I was pretty tentative about traveling with my kids even without the car-screaming. I completely agree about looking at them and seeing all the stages at once. It’s freaky, and nice, and heartbreaking all at once.
    allison’s last post … Four Days MoreMy Profile

  3. When our son was 4 months old we drove from Maine to PA to visit my folks. We made it through most of the day OK, but he screamed the last 2 hours and it felt like forever. We were all exhausted and we tried everything, and nothing worked, so we had to sit with it, and try to remain calm while driving. By the end he wasn’t the only one crying.

    The sound of that crying, oh god, it does still echo. I know exactly what you mean. He’s 2 now, and when we have to drive anywhere longer than 20 minutes I get this deep-seated anxiety. I bring books, food, anything I can think of to try to prevent the anguish. We haven’t made that drive in awhile but the next time I’m sure I’ll be nervous.

  4. While I am so sorry that you went through this, I am glad to read about another mother who went through the hell that was car trips with a wild, screaming baby. My oldest, who is now 8 1/2, was very much like this, and continues to be the one who cannot handle long car trips (as in any trip longer than 30 minutes). Thank goodness for iPods because that is the only thing that will help her a bit.

    As a first time mom I felt like a total and complete failure that I was the mom who couldn’t do certain things because I couldn’t take her hysterical screaming. When she was 4 or 5 months old I remember having to pull over on a side street to nurse her (which didn’t work) because I was trapped in rush hour coming home from the aquarium. You’d think I would have learned my lesson but oh no! I continued to try to visit friends 45 minutes away and do outings that required car trips. She wasn’t even good in the stroller and only liked to be worn or carried, which pretty much killed my back. I loved it when I was pushing an empty stroller carrying her and the little old ladies would tsk tsk me for “spoiling her”, which was what pretty much everyone I knew thought I was doing to her. I now know she was a high needs baby, but at the time I felt like I sucked at parenting an infant in some ways.

    Now I can laugh it off, but we even tried a major car trip to Calgary for a friend’s wedding when she was 3 years old. We took people’s best advice and bought a DVD player (before iPhones and iPads existed) and a huge bag of dollar store toys to give to her at regular intervals. Nothing worked and we ended up not giving her the toys because she was throwing them up into the front seat. I was unable to attend the wedding after all because of the fuss she kicked up after the long drive (and she was supposed to be a flower girl). When we got home I literally, and I mean literally, kissed the ground in our driveway. I vowed never again.

    I finally learned my lesson.
    Christy’s last post … Fall Garden UpdateMy Profile

    • It really sucks, doesn’t it? You can’t forget it.

      The nice thing about having another child is now I really know for sure that it wasn’t me, it was her. It’s sort of cold comfort, though. A way to stop the crying would have been better.

  5. I know the screaming car baby well… When my daughter was probably two months old I got into a car accident (minor thankfully!) because I was speeding and weaving through intersections because my baby was screaming so loudly and horrifically! It was a hard time for a while. I totally feel like I had (have?) a version of PTSD from months and months of crying (and not just in the car). But she was a high needs baby and frankly is a high needs preschooler! Though thankfully she sleeps on long car trip now. But I prefer not going too far! We also didn’t take a plane trip with her until she was nearly 4 years old! Her br
    Dana’s last post … Who knew? I’m a “Beautiful Blogger” NomineeMy Profile

  6. Oops, her brother was 4 months and fine!
    Dana’s last post … Who knew? I’m a “Beautiful Blogger” NomineeMy Profile

  7. I’m living this story for the second time. With my oldest, I had no schedule, really, so I planned things around her sleep schedule and would pull over frequently, nurse, and try to get her to sleep if the screaming was too intense. I still remember the night it took me two or three hours to make a 20 minute drive home from a friend’s house. I paced two different locations of the same chain grocery store nursing her in the sling and bouncing to get her to sleep. And both times, she woke up as soon as I put her exhausted body back in the car seat.

    She’s fine in the car now, but her brother is even worse, refusing even to sleep in the car. Tomorrow he has an appointment that’s a 20 minute drive from us, and I’ve opted to spend over an hour on the subway instead. I don’t suspect I’ll forget the screams from either child, and I’m so grateful for public transport!
    Melissa’s last post … What’s New: Reacquainted with the SunriseMy Profile

    • It’s great that you have an alternative to driving. I’d take a calm hour-long trip over a screaming 20 minute trip ANY day.

      I hope your son gets over the screaming phase soon. It’s no fun, for sure.

  8. We had the same issue with my second. And we also now are reluctant to drive long distances, although she’s totally fine by now. As a baby she would cry until she got sick, and once a 40 min drive took us 5 hours in sub zero temperatures, I even considered walking home the remaining 25 km. Anything to stop the wailing. when I tried nursing her she would just resurgitate it all the more…

    I hated those days when I had 4 car trips that needed done, and hoped that we get through them ok. Interestingly, it was also car trips after 4pm that were the issue, before 4pm, she was fine.
    fortunately our family and friends were understanding and visited us, or accepted that we visited less until things got better.

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  1. […] cried almost every time we strapped her into her carseat, but if I close my eyes and think about it I can still hear those piercing screams. They echo forward in time, impacting many of the parenting decisions my husband and I have made […]

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